Jan 31

World War II's 13-Year-Old "Baby Veteran"

Friday, January 31, 2020 1:31 PM

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On the night of 14-15 November 1942, sailors aboard the USS South Dakota (BB-57) found themselves in the midst of one of World War II’s most legendary naval battles: The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. The South Dakota was no stranger to enemy action. Her gun crews had already earned themselves a reputation of being “wild-eyed and quick to shoot” (Smithsonian), and her captain, Captain Thomas L. Gatch, already had his jugular severed and arms permanently damaged in a prior attack less than a month before. (Yes, he did in fact return to his ship that quickly). By the time the South Dakota faced eight Japanese destroyers on the night of 14-15 November, all aboard were ready to defend their country until their very last breaths, without so much as a second thought.

40 mm Bofors gun crew of the USS South Dakota (BB-57) during the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands, 26 October 1942. Graham served on the South Dakota during this time.
U.S. Naval Institute Archives

One of these men, Seaman Calvin Graham, a gunner aboard the mighty South Dakota, narrowly avoided taking his last breath on that fateful night. While manning his antiaircraft gun, shrapnel from one of the 42 enemy hits sustained by his ship that night ripped through his face, knocking out many of his teeth and burning his skin. Despite his injuries, the bloodied and battered Graham managed to stay conscious, and joined the struggle on board to tend to his ship’s casualties. In a later interview, Graham recounted his efforts stating, “I took belts off the dead and made tourniquets for the living and gave them cigarettes and encouraged them all night. It was a long night. It aged me.” When all was said and done, 38 men aboard the South Dakota lost their lives, and an additional 60 were wounded.

Shell hole through the South Dakota’s starboard side, taken after the naval battle off Guadalcanal, 15 November 1942.
Naval History and Heritage Command

Having sustained heavy structural damage at Guadalcanal, the South Dakota embarked on a journey back to New York for repairs, reaching the Brooklyn Navy Yard area on 18 December 1942. Gatch and his crew received a variety of honors for their actions at Guadalcanal, with Seaman Calvin Graham obtaining a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Newsreel was made to feature these brave men for their heroic actions, and the South Dakota’s sailors enjoyed their hero’s treatment with celebrations and glee. However, one Texas woman did not feel so gleeful upon reportedly watching this newsreel, as she recognized her 13-year-old son, Sea“man” Calvin Graham, among the celebrating sailors.

Seaman First Class Calving Graham in 1942
U.S. Navy Photograph

Calvin Leon Graham was born in Canton, Texas on 3 April 1930. He was one of seven children, and by the time he was 11 years old, he made the decision to move out with an older brother to escape abuse at the hands of his stepfather. The two decided to rent a cheap room together, and Graham supported their independence by selling newspapers and delivering telegrams in whatever time was not spent on his schooling. Being that he was around newspapers so often, Graham had the opportunity to keep up with the latest news about the war from overseas. When he learned that several of his cousins had lost their lives in the fighting abroad, he knew exactly what he needed to do.

With his new goal of joining the Navy in mind, the 5-foot-2, 125 pound 11-year-old Graham faced the seemingly insurmountable task of convincing recruiters that he was 17 years of age, the preferred minimum age (without parental consent) of the U.S. military at the time. He started to shave his face, dressed in clothing belonging to his older brother, and practiced talking in a deeper voice. By the time he was 12, and in seventh grade, he was ready to take the plunge. He, along with a handful of his 14 and 15-year-old acquaintances, lined up at their local recruitment center with their forged papers in hand. Graham’s acquaintances were waved through without a problem, but an issue arose when the resident dentist peered into Graham’s mouth and recognized the dental make-up of a child. According to his later account of his enlistment process, Graham insisted that he was indeed a 17-year-old young man, but the dentist was having none of it. After a few moments of back and forth, Graham pointed out to the dentist that the boys in front of him were also too young to serve, yet they had been let through. Frustrated with the sheer nerve of this little boy, the dentist “said he didn’t have time to mess with me and he let me go”. Having finally received the green light, Graham packed up his belongings, dropped out of middle school, informed his mother that he was off to visit relatives, and made his way to San Diego for basic training.

A World War II Navy recruitment poster.
National Archives and Records Administration

And so, we return to 1942, where we now find the young Graham in the midst of a three-month stay in a brig at Corpus Christi, Texas as punishment for his deceit. Upon recognizing her young son on the newsreel, Graham’s mother wrote to the Navy to inform them of his presence in the ranks, putting a hard stop to Graham’s newfound Naval career. During his time in the brig, Graham was able to send a message out to one of his siblings, Pearl, who in turn threatened to inform local newspapers of her brother’s situation, referring to him as the “Baby Vet”. Thanks to the looming threat of media exposure, the Navy decided to release Graham from his imprisonment, but not before stripping him of every last medal and veteran’s benefit he would have earned, in addition declining the boy an honorable discharge.

Following his release, Graham went on to resume his normal life. He attempted to re-enroll in school, but quickly realized he was vastly outpaced by his peers, leading him to drop out once again. He began work as a welder at a Houston shipyard, and at the age of 17 decided to enlist in the Marine Corps in 1948. However, his career in the military was once again not meant to be, as Graham fell off a pier and broke his back in 1951.

Following his medical discharge from the Marine Corps, Graham spent a good deal of his life fighting to get an honorable discharge from the Navy so that he could receive financial assistance for medical and dental expenses. After a bill had been introduced by two Texas senators to obtain this goal, Graham was finally awarded his honorable discharge, in addition to the restoration of every medal but his Purple Heart, in 1978. In 1988, President Ronald Regan announced that Graham would be given his disability benefits,

Finally, in 1994, two years after Graham’s death, his widow and other family members were presented with the last piece of the famed Baby Vet’s naval career still being withheld by the military: his Purple Heart.

 

For more information on Seaman Calvin Graham, see the Smithsonian’s 2012 article:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-boy-who-became-a-world-war-ii-veteran-at-13-years-old-168104583/