Calvin Graham Enlisted In The U.S. Navy At Age 12

As Calvin Graham stood in line for the Navy dentist to check his teeth, he knew this was the hole in his plan. With the forged signature from his mother and the stolen notarized stamp, nobody would know he was only 12; nobody but the dentist.

The story of Graham’s enlistment is only made more interesting by the tale the USS South Dakota, the ship where Graham was first assigned to duty.

USS South Dakota

The USS South Dakota first set out in August of 1942. This was after Pearl Harbor, a time when many boys enlisted, bloodthirsty for revenge.

The South Dakota was to cross the Panama Canal, then head to Japan to fight, which it did. Four months later the ship floated home. It had suffered heavy damage from battles that destroyed many other ships.

In time, that ship would become on of the U.S. Navy’s most decorated ships.

Many of the boys aboard were too young to fight, even the ones who were above the legal age. They were all boys by any account, even when they were young men.

Included in that lot was a gunner named Calvin Graham, the youngest seaman in Navy History.

Calvin Graham

Since age 11, Graham had planned his enlistment. He was already shaving to look older.

That was around the same time he and his brother moved out of their parent’s home in Crocket, Texas. Their home had been an abusive environment, one with five other siblings.

Graham made money selling papers and delivering telegrams. It was this business that kept him current on the affairs of the war.

He would still see his mother from time to time, like when he needed her signature on his report cards. These signatures would prove helpful later when Graham needed to demonstrate he was at 16 years old. He wasn’t, but that was the minimum age with parental consent.

To get through the Navy inspection, Graham dressed in his older brother’s clothes, wore a fedora, and hid amongst other young hopefuls. He wasn’t the only underage boy trying to sneak in.

When the dentist started remarking that Graham was only 12, he argued that the man had allowed other underaged boys through, just ahead of Graham. The dentist, in lieu of arguing, chose to let Graham pass.

Everyone knew Graham and the other boys were underage, but they needed soldiers and the boys were willing to fight.

The Boys Of War

After World War I, the League of Nations adopted the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which didn’t specifically prohibited enlisting children.

It did say, “The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.” One could interpret that to exclude enlisting those children as soldiers.

Unfortunately, the devastation of war and the desire to overcome a fascist superseded the value for normal development. Officials turned a blind eye because it was convenient.

The United States wasn’t the only country enlisting underage boy soldiers. Sidney Lewis enlisted at age 13 from the U.K. in the first world war.

It took the 1916 conscription for that practice to end on the large scale, but we know it didn’t stop altogether. The U.S. either didn’t care or wasn’t paying attention when WWII started.

They didn’t care when they filled Battleship X.

Birth of Battleship X

After an initial tangle with some uncharted coral, which damaged the hull, the Navy repaired and relaunched USS South Dakota from Pearl Harbor. They were to work the USS Enterprise, a carrier ship, in the South Pacific.

The South Dakota did its job protecting Enterprise from a Japanese attack in the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands, all while taking out 26 Japanese planes. The South Dakota was so tough, it even took a strike from a 500-pound bomb.

The crew was so fired up shooting down planes, air controllers advised allied pilots to steer clear of the vessel. They were even shooting at allied planes attempting to land on the Enterprise.

The crew of the South Dakota also battled alongside the USS Washington in a four-day battle known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Later that same day, they engaged eight Japanese ships, sinking three of them.

During that one, Graham took a shrapnel hit to the face, knocking him down three stories. He lost his front teeth but survived the hit.

From that battle, the Japanese believed they sunk the USS South Dakota. The Navy repaired the ship. The ship formerly known as the USS South Dakota would now operate only as Battleship X.

Graham eventually ceded the point about his age. The Navy stripped him of his medals for lying, then discharged him without honor.

Back home they received him like a celebrity, but in time Graham found the larger world unsympathetic. He was too far behind in school to catch up.

When he enlisted in the Marines at age 17, he fell and broke his back, collecting disability while selling magazines to make a living.

It would take years of appeals before the U.S. would reclassify Graham’s discharge as honorable.

Two years after he died, in 1994, they reinstated his purple heart.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine