Can you guess the age of the youngest person to enlisted during World War II? Hint. He wasn’t even a teenager.
Calvin Leon Graham (born 1930) was the youngest U.S. serviceman to serve and fight during World War II. He was 12 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In a fascinating People Magazine article from 1977, Calvin describes how he enlisted. One of seven children, Calvin, had left home in Houston, Texas after telling his widowed mother that he was going to visit relatives.
“I enlisted with some of my friends from junior high school,” he remembers. “I stood 5’2″ and weighed 125 pounds, but I wore one of my older brothers’ clothes, and we all practiced talking deep. The Navy knew we were underage, but we were losing the war then, so they took six of us.”
Only three months after enlisting, in November of that year, Calvin would be involved in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
The young seaman first class was aboard the U.S.S. South Dakota, when the Japanese attacked the battleship during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Graham was blown off an upper deck while trying to rescue a wounded shipmate and tumbled 30 feet, shattering his upper jawbone. Half the ship’s crew of 3,300 were killed or wounded, and Graham emerged with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He was, at the time, 12 years old, still half a year from turning 13.
The Navy eventually discovered Graham’s real age and tossed him in the brig in January 1943. “They took my uniforms and all my medals,” he says. “But after a few months, I guess somebody got mad about a kid being in jail. They let me out on my 13th birthday.”
After being booted from the Navy, he worked in a defense plant as a welder instead of going back to school.
He finally rejoined the military after the war, when in 1948, he joined the Marines at the age of 17. Unfortunately, his enlistment in the Marines ended prematurely when he fell from a pier and broke his back in 1951.
Although serving in the Marine Corps qualified him as a veteran, he would spend the rest of his life fighting for full medical benefits and clearing his military service record.
In 1988, President Reagan restored his full medical benefits, including back pay, and reinstated all his service medals except the Purple Heart.
Graham passed away in 1992 of heart failure. Graham’s Purple Heart was finally reinstated, and presented to his widow, Mary, on June 21, 1994, by Secretary of the Navy John Dalton in Arlington, Texas.
According to physicians, a 12-year-old’s brain has stopped growing in size, but it’s nowhere near done developing. Abstract thinking, problem-solving, and logic are all becoming easier, but the prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in impulse control and organizational skills, is still immature.
That might explain Graham’s decision to enlist. The problem-solving and the logic side of his brain probably told him his country was under attack following the events of Pearl Harbor and needed his help defending it. The immature impulse control side of his brain likely led him to lie to his mom and the military to get into the Navy.
Fast forward to today, and we have to wonder if the current crop of America’s youth would be able to rise to the challenge of saving the world again.
According to an article in teachamerica.org the top 10 issues facing America’s youth today are:
10. Single-parent households
9. Drug/alcohol abuse
8. Growing up too fast
7. Violence in schools
4. Education disparity
3. Shifting economy
1. Erosion of national pride/identity
Wow! The #1 issue facing America’s youth today is the erosion of national pride/identity?
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since patriotism has been painted as a hiss and byword and in today’s media with a love of country synonymous with extreme views.
For me, Memorial Day is not only a day of reflection on the sacrifices of those who came before us to preserve the freedoms we enjoy today but also an opportunity to remind our youth of what makes America exceptional and of that special grit dating back to the Revolutionary War that sets the men and women of this country apart.
They need to know it’s ok to love their country and to be a respected member of the world community at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive.
It all starts with us, the parents, and the leaders of the current generation.
Let’s remind them of the youth like Calving Graham, who came before them – a 12-year-old who put his life on the line so 12-year-olds today can pursue their dreams.
We, too, can raise an exceptional generation – even the next Greatest Generation.
Kyle Jones is a co-founder and Key Principal of TruePoint Capital, LLC. Kyle is responsible for the company’s strategic planning, investment decisions, asset management, and overseeing all aspects of the company’s financial activities, operations, and investor relations.
Kyle obtained a Bachelor of Science degree from Texas State University – San Marcos, where he also played Division 1 Baseball.