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This Day in History: The 12-year-old who served in World War II

On this day in 1942, a 12-year-old distinguishes himself in combat. Yes, you read that correctly: A 12-year-old fought in World War II. Calvin Leon Graham was the youngest person to serve.

Calvin had long been accustomed to taking care of himself. He lost his father at a young age. When his mother remarried, her new husband was abusive. “Seemed like every time our stepdad came home, he’d get on Calvin,” his sister later said. “My brother pretty much had to raise himself.”

Calvin moved out, selling newspapers and shining shoes to make money. Yet even as an 11-year-old, he knew that he wanted to help the war effort. He practiced speaking in a deep voice. He began shaving, hoping it would make his face look older. After he turned 12, he hatched a plan with another boy: They stole a notary public’s seal, forged parental signatures, and enlisted.

Calvin’s biggest worry? The dentist. The Navy had one checking new recruits.

“[H]e’d know how young I was by my teeth,” Calvin later said. “When the dentist kept saying I was 12, I said I was 17.” The dentist finally let him go when Calvin noted that several underage boys had already gotten through. “[H]e said he didn’t have time to mess with me, and he let me go.”

Calvin was assigned to USS South Dakota. That battleship left Pearl Harbor during October 1942. A few weeks later, it was at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. By November 14 and 15, it was engaged in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. South Dakota took 42 hits.

Seaman Calvin Graham was injured. But he also became a hero.

Calvin was manning his anti-aircraft gun when shrapnel tore through his mouth and jaw. At another point, an explosion blew him three stories down into the ship. Nevertheless, the wounded 12-year-old began pulling others to safety. “I took belts off the dead and made tourniquets for the living and gave them cigarettes and encouraged them all night,” Calvin later described. “It was a long night. It aged me.”

Calvin received the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart, but his story would not get to end on that happy note. South Dakota soon returned to the United States for repairs. Calvin left, without the Navy’s permission, to attend his grandmother’s funeral. At about the same time, his mother reportedly saw Calvin in news footage from the war. She notified the Navy that Calvin was underage. Calvin was thrown into the brig.

His sister’s loud complaints about the “Baby Vet” in a military prison got him released after three months, but Calvin was kicked out of the Navy without an honorable discharge. He was stripped of his medals.

Calvin faced more difficulties from there. He became a parent at age 15, and he was divorced by 17. He never finished school. He later signed up for the Marines (legally), only to be hurt in a freak accident. Calvin struggled through the years. His old injuries plagued him, and he began to worry about leaving his wife with the mounting health care bills. When Jimmy Carter was elected, he wondered if “an old Navy man” would help.

It took an act of Congress (literally), but most of Calvin’s medals were restored and he finally got his honorable discharge. Later, Ronald Reagan signed legislation restoring Calvin’s disability benefits, too.

Shortly before he died, Calvin told his nephew that he couldn’t understand why everything had been restored except the Purple Heart. “Maybe they’ll give me my Purple Heart after I’m gone,” he sighed.

He surely would have loved knowing that his widow received it in 1994, two years after he passed away.

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