Calvin Graham, 12 Year Old Sailor in WWII:

Calvin Graham started shaving when he was eleven years old. He didn’t have much to cut, but he hoped the act itself would grow hair. Most boys try to look older to impress girls or show off to their friends. But in 1941, Calvin Graham wanted to go to war.

Calvin Leon Graham was born on April 3, 1930, in the town of Canton in East Texas. Calvin’s father died when he was a child, leaving him and his six siblings to live with their mother and an abusive stepfather. Calvin and an older brother escaped the domestic violence by renting a room in boarding house. To make ends meet, he sold newspapers and delivered telegrams after school and on weekends.

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Calvin Graham in uniform

In 1942, with two cousins already killed in battle and America losing the war on all fronts, Calvin Graham decided he needed to do his bit. Most boys his age sold bonds or helped in scrap drives, but at 5 foot 2 inches tall and 125 pounds, Calvin wanted to join the fight.

Calvin knew he could join up at 16 with his parent’s permission but he didn’t want to wait 4 years. He had a friend forge his mother’s signature then he stole a notary stamp, wore his older brother’s clothes and lined up at the recruiting station with other underage boys hoping to join the Navy. He practiced speaking in a deep voice and even added a fedora to camouflage his appearance. Calvin was confident in his ability to look and act like a 17 year old. The only thing that worried him was that his children’s teeth might give him away.

At his physical inspection, a Navy dental officer realized Calvin was underage and told him to leave. After Calvin’s denials failed, he resorted to threats. He told the officer he knew the boys in front of him, who the officer already passed, were underage and threatened to expose him. The officer thought about it. He had a lot of people to inspect, and didn’t need a problem. America needed fighting men and if Calvin wanted to go, why not let him? The dentist shrugged and let Calvin and five other underage boys into the Navy.

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The USS South Dakota in 1943

After his induction, Calvin told his mother he was going to visit relatives and shipped off to San Diego for boot camp. In San Diego, Calvin and other boys didn’t fool their instructors who knew they were underage and made them carry heavier packs and run extra miles.

Calvin Graham became a loader for a 40mm anti-aircraft gun on the Battleship USS South Dakota. In August 1942, he shipped out for the Pacific.

The South Dakota saw action at the Battle of Santa Cruz in October 1942 where it was attacked by Japanese planes who a dropped a 500 pound bomb on its main gun turret. During the fight, the men of the South Dakota earned such a bad reputation for shooting at anything that moved, friend or foe, the US Navy warned its pilots not to fly near it.

On the evening of November 14, the South Dakota encountered Japanese warships near Guadalcanal. Although she managed to score several hits on the enemy ships, South Dakota took considerable damage after temporarily losing power.

During the battle, Calvin’s front teeth were knocked out by shrapnel.  With shells landing all around him and fires burning throughout the damaged ship, he helped pull wounded shipmates to safety. He took belts off the dead and made tourniquets for the wounded, giving them cigarettes to keep their spirits up. For his heroism and wounds, Calvin Graham was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

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The South Dakota fires on a Japanese torpedo plane during the Battle of Santa Cruz

In December, the South Dakota returned to the US to receive major repairs at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. After watching a newsreel about the ship, Calvin’s mother recognized him and contacted the Navy telling them her son’s true age. Calvin Graham was sent to Corpus Christi, Texas where he was thrown in a Navy prison. He stayed there for three months until he managed to get a letter to his sister who wrote the newspapers about his imprisonment.

The Navy gave Calvin Graham a dishonorable discharge and stripped him of his medals and veteran’s benefits. For a while, he received a lot of positive attention from the press, but that soon faded.

Calvin returned to school but couldn’t keep up. He dropped out, got married at 14 and had a baby a year later. For a while, he worked at a ship yard in Houston, but by 17 he was divorced and out of work. In 1948, he joined the US Marine Corps, but his enlistment was cut short when he broke his back.

Without veteran’s benefits and only twenty percent disability pay from the Marines, Calvin struggled. He spent most of his life fighting to get his medals and veteran’s benefits restored. In 1976, he wrote to Congress and in 1978, with the approval of President Jimmy Carter, he had all his medals except for the Purple Heart reinstated.

In 1988, a TV movie entitled, Too Young the Hero was made about him which prompted President Ronald Reagan to restore Calvin’s disability benefits and allowed him up to $18,000 to cover past medical bills.

However, even with these benefits, Calvin received little money.  Most of the doctors who treated him had already died and records of their bills could not be found. Calvin received only $2,100 of the possible $18,000 allotted to him. For the movie rights to his story, Calvin was paid $50,000, but half the money went to two TV agents and another 20% went to an author who wrote his unpublished biography. Calvin Graham received only $15,000 before taxes.

In 1992, Calvin Leon Graham died of heart failure. Two years later, the Navy reinstated his Purple Heart and presented it to his family.

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One thought on “Calvin Graham, 12 Year Old Sailor in WWII

  • I know he was underaged, but in my opinion he got a raw deal. Being tossed in the brig because he was a patriotic kid who wanted to serve his country in time of war is reprehensible. The U.S. government should be ashamed.

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