Here’s The True Story Of A 13-Year-Old Who Earned A Bronze Star Fighting In WWII (And How It Was Taken Away)

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WWII was going on and every red blooded young man felt the urge to join the military and to fight, but this young man put a whole new meaning into the word “young.”

According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Calvin Graham was, unbelievably, 12 years old when he entered the United States Navy. Of course, the reasonable questions would be, “How could he have gotten away with that?” But, he did, and before his 13th year was over he would be awarded a Bronze Star while serving on the USS South Dakota, a battleship serving in the Pacific.

First, we need to look at how Graham was able to get into the Navy at such a young age. According to the
Smithsonian, Graham was from Crockett, Texas. He was eleven years old and in the sixth grade when he hatched his plan to join the Navy. He was one of seven children, but his stepfather was abusive, so he and an older brother moved out and moved into a cheap rooming house.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Graham sold newspapers and delivered telegrams after school and on weekends to support himself. His mother would occasionally visit him and to sign report cards at the end of the semester. As a result of his situation, he already had to do things that would usually be the province of an adult. And because he was around newspapers everyday, he was fully aware of the news about the war.

He heard that some of his cousins had already died fighting in Europe. At that young age, he felt he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to join the Navy and serve like his cousins had.

During WWII the minimum age for enlistment was 17, but you could enter at 16 with your parents consent. Graham, with his pre-adolescent thinking, started shaving at age 11, hoping that that would somehow make him look older when he met with recruiters.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

He and a couple of his friends forged his mother’s name on the enlistment papers, and stole a notary stamp from a local hotel to make it look official. Then they went to enlist.

Graham was 5’2” and weighed 125 pounds. He had been practicing talking in a lower, deeper voice and when he went to take the physical he dressed in his older brother’s clothes. What he worried about the most was not that the forged signature of his mother would be discovered, but that the dentist who would be checking the recruits’ teeth may also be noting signs of their age. He lined up behind a couple of guys that he knew were already 14 and 15 years old. When the dentist identified him as a 12 year old, he just kept saying “17.”

This kid was savvy. He told the dentist that the two guys he just let go through in front of him weren’t 17, yet he had let them through. The dentist, probably more concerned for himself, relented and let him go through. It was not uncommon that boys would lie about their age to get into the service at this or any other time, but Graham was one of the successful ones who would actually get in.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Graham went to boot camp in San Diego. The drill instructors were aware that they probably had underage recruits and worked them harder in an effort to weed them out. They made them run further and carry heavier packs. But Graham stuck it out.

He was eventually assigned to the battleship USS South Dakota as a gunner. The South Dakota was part of the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier Task Force 64 and she would be one of the most highly decorated ships in WWII. On October 26, 1942 the South Dakota and the carrier task force were on their way to help at the battle of Guadalcanal. When they were just off of the Santa Cruz Islands the task force came under attack by Japanese fighter planes intent on sinking the Enterprise. The USS South Dakota was responsible for helping to protect the Enterprise and during the battle it shot down 26 Japanese attack planes with her anti-aircraft batteries.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Seaman Calvin Graham, who had been in that battle on the South Dakota, turned 13 on November 6, 1942. On that day the Japanese attacked the airfield at Guadalcanal. On the 14th of November, Task Force 64, including the South Dakota and one other battleship, the USS Washington, were engaged by a large force of Japanese warships. This battle would go on for four days and would go down in history as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

Click the button below to read the rest of Graham’s story.

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.