Calvin Graham – The Youngest Recruit

April 05, 2018
by Jason Alghussein

The shock and trauma of Pearl Harbor wasn't only felt by adults. As news of the December 7, 1941 surprise Japanese attack spread across the United States, kids and adults alike all waited with racing hearts to hear what had happened, what the cause was, and if they should prepare themselves for additional attacks. Among the thousands of people tuning into the news coverage of the attack was Calvin Graham of Canton, TX.

Like thousands of other Americans angered by the events of that fateful Sunday morning, Calvin Graham was determined to join in the fight and seek revenge for the devastating attack. What separated him from the other men who were inspired to enlist in response to the aggression was that, at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, he was only 11 years old. Born on April 3, 1930, Calvin Graham hadn’t even hit his teen years yet when he was inspired to join the United States Navy. His home life was not ideal, as he and his six siblings lived with an abusive stepfather and a mother that couldn’t stand up for them.

Calvin Graham: 11-Year-Old Patriot

Calvin Graham in 1942

Calvin Graham in 1942

His plan wasn’t foolproof, but it was his only chance to join the US military and fight alongside other brave men. Sixteen was the minimum age to be able to enlist, and even that required parental consent. Graham knew he’d never get his mother’s consent, so he started to contemplate how he could get in on his own. At 11 years old, Graham started to shave, hoping it would make him look older and give him a leg up on others with a similar idea. When it was time to depart, he told his mother he was going to visit relatives.

Calvin Graham wasn’t alone in his desire to serve his nation. On the day he enlisted, August 15, 1942, he traveled with friends who helped forge his mother’s signature and even procure a notary stamp from a hotel. The now-12-year-old Graham still had the disadvantage of looking like a young boy, so he dressed in his older brother's clothing and fedora, hoping to draw attention away from his 5’ 2” stature. He even practiced lowering his voice to be deeper, but there was one thing he couldn’t fake: his teeth.

Graham worried that the dentist at the recruitment office would be able to spot his baby teeth, and as expected, he did. All his planning almost came to nothing, but young Calvin Graham still had a secret weapon: his persistence. He argued with the dentist, insisting that he was 17 despite the obvious evidence to the contrary. When the dentist insisted he couldn’t enlist, Graham brought up his friends who had been let in, pointing out that they weren’t 17 but still were allowed to enlist. Somehow, he was able to persuade that dentist to look the other way, and he successfully enlisted in the US Navy.

A Child in the Navy

Calvin Graham was far from the only underage recruit to join the Navy during World War II, but he did have the distinction of being the youngest. Just because he was noticeably young, though, didn’t mean that he would receive special treatment. It was impossible not to know that Graham was far from 17 years old, and according to the young recruit in an interview with the Smithsonian magazine in 2012, drill instructors did not take pity on him and other underage servicemen. In fact, they were forced to run extra miles with heavier packs. It didn’t deter him, however, and in September 1942, he was assigned to the newly-commissioned battleship USS South Dakota (BB-57).

USS South Dakota (BB-57) firing on a Japanese bomber during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, 26 October 1942

USS South Dakota (BB-57) firing on a Japanese bomber during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, 26 October 1942

Calvin Graham’s first taste of combat was the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, where South Dakota was tasked with protecting the USS Enterprise (CV-6) from Japanese attack. It’s speculated that sailors like Graham were responsible for South Dakota’s erratic firing, earning the battleship a reputation for being “wild-eyed and quick to shoot.” It was so bad that American pilots were advised not to fly near South Dakota in fear of being shot down accidentally.

South Dakota suffered damage during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, but the she was able to return to battle in time for the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. This conflict would be Graham’s last. On the evening of November 14, 1942, Graham sustained a minor injury when he was hit by shrapnel. Despite his injury, he was present to help pull wounded sailors out of the water and onto the South Dakota. For his service at Guadalcanal, he received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, though neither would be permanent.

The Discovery and Life After the War

When Graham’s grandmother passed away, he returned to Texas to attend her funeral. Unfortunately, he did so without permission from the Navy and was determined to have been AWOL. At the same time, Graham’s mother realized where her son had been and wrote a letter to the Navy revealing his true age. The young sailor was sent to the brig in Corpus Christi and spent three months there. He was released when one of his sisters threatened to go to the papers with news of underage recruitment.

Purple Heart

Purple Heart

When Calvin Graham was released from military jail, he was no longer a member of the US Navy. Stripped of his Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and disability benefits, he returned home to Texas after attempting to rejoin to his ship. On April 1, 1943, he was dishonorably discharged from the Navy. Although his service was cut short, he was still viewed as a hero to those in his hometown.

A few years after his discharge from the Navy, Graham legally joined the United States Marine Corps at 17-years-old. His service was cut short in 1951 when he broke his back after falling from a pier. Despite his legitimate service in the Marines, it wasn’t until 1978 that he was finally given an honorable discharge and all of his medals except the Purple Heart.

Calvin Graham passed away on November 6, 1992. Two years later, his widow was presented with his Purple Heart, which was finally reinstated.

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