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The 11-Year-Old World War 2 Soldier

How young is too young to fight for your country? Check out today's insane story to find out how a kid managed to find himself in the thick of World War 2! Don't miss this epic true story of the youngest WW2 soldier!

By Jayveer ValaPublished about a year ago 19 min read
Calvin Graham

A young boy runs home from school so fast he almost trips over himself. It’s a mild December day in Texas, but sweat streams down the boy’s face as he grips his tongue between his teeth and sprints toward his house. When he gets there, his mother, stepfather, and six older siblings huddle around a radio in their shabby living room. The boy hates his stepfather, but right now, his anger is directed elsewhere. “Shush,” says his mother as the boy's fight for a better position around the family’s prized radio. “It’s starting.” All the family is poised as the radio presenter fills them in on what’s happening. “Hello, NBC. Hello, NBC. This is KTU in Honolulu, Hawaii. I am speaking from the roof of the Advertiser Publishing Company Building. This morning we witnessed the assault of Pearl Harbor by enemy planes, undoubtedly Japanese.” The USA is under attack! This is war.

It has been a European war so far, for this family at least, but now it’s an American war. The presenter says, “The city of Honolulu has also been attacked and considerable damage has been done. This battle has been going on for nearly three hours. One of the bombs dropped within fifty feet of KTU tower.” The father, drunk as usual, throws his liquor bottle at the wall. The children flinch and watch with collective disdain. This useless piece of human garbage couldn’t care less about war. He will take any excuse to shout and throw his weight around. The youngest boy, the one we are featuring today, is already partly living with his older brothers in another house. Together they have made big plans for the future. But now things have changed. This attack will change their plans forever. The boy asks himself how he can stay in Texas when people are dying abroad. How can he just sit back when that beast Adolf Hitler is trying to lay claim to half the world? And the Japs, are just as bad. Give them an inch, and the next thing you know, they’ll be telling you how to live. He has to fight. He must fight. But how, when he’s only 11 years old?

Today we’ll tell you how this young chap was thrust into the war and how he should have become a hero but ended up being treated with the utmost disdain by the people he was trying to protect. You’ll hear how he suffered terrible injuries and fought on through the pain, yet when the dust clouds settled and his face was sewn up, he ended up spending his days behind the bars of a prison cell. His name was Calvin Graham. He was born on April 3, 1930, and grew up in poverty in a farmhouse in Canton, Texas. In the 1920s, this town had seen some expansion. New sawmills, new factories and the local oil fields brought jobs to its population. But then, when the Great Depression hit, Canton, like many other parts of the south, became a place of widespread despair. It was during this era that Calvin grew up. His birth father died when he was young, and his mother, not able to look after seven kids on her own, soon married again. But the man she tied the knot with was a perpetual drunkard with a fiery temper.

Two of his older brothers moved out because of the father’s turbulent moods and heavy drinking. Calvin also moved in with them, but would also sometimes stay with his mom. He was already pretty independent at this point, selling newspapers and delivering people’s telegrams on the weekends to make a bit of money. But no sooner than the war started, he wanted to be a part of it. He hated Hitler. He hated him with passion. Since he delivered newspapers, he had many opportunities to follow the war in Europe. He’d often get his load in the morning and then hide between some trees to read what was going on. Hitler was a monster, and Calvin wanted to stop him. But how? Most Americans didn’t want to join another war. It was a European problem. Enough Americans had died in the First World War. Right from the start of the war, Calvin didn’t see it that way. He believed it was his duty to fight what he believed was the personification of evil. This is why Calvin made plans to somehow lie about his age so he could enlist. He even started shaving the fluff on his cheeks, hoping it might grow back rougher so he could look older. When the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor, Calvin told his buddies he couldn’t wait any longer. At the time, he was 12 years old, not even close to the minimum enlistment age. Even if you were 16, you still needed your parents' consent to join the war effort. When the US announced it was at war with Japan, Calvin watched as young boys from the town said farewell to their families. It wasn’t long until Calvin was informed that this cousin or that cousin had died on the battlefield. “God,” he said to himself, “Why did you make me this young!? I need to be there. It’s my duty!” God answered his prayers. One day he was out with a friend shooting rats with catapults, and the friend said, “You know what, Calv, it ain't that hard to change your date of birth.” He explained to Calvin that all they had to do was forge his mother’s signature and then sneak into one of the hotels in town and steal a notary stamp. Forging the signature was easy.

But stealing the stamp was proving to be a challenge. Meanwhile, Calvin, who stood at just five feet two inches and weighed only about 125 pounds, practised trying to speak in a deep voice. He’d walk around his brother’s house wearing the older boy’s clothes. He’d stick a fedora on his head and say in a gruff tone, “I want to enlist, to serve my country, to give it to those Japs and Hitler.” His brother found it comical, but if the signature was there and the stamp was there, what could they say? They finally got hold of the stamp. But now Calvin was worried about something else. His teeth. You had to get your teeth checked by a dentist before being given the green light to join the war. His teeth certainly didn’t look like they belonged to someone over 16. When the day came to enlist, he made sure to stand in the line next to some other kids he knew from the town. They weren’t 12, but they were still too young at 14 and 15. Calvin knew that if the enlistment officer was used to seeing young faces, his chances of succeeding would be greatly improved. As he’d feared, the dentist told him he was not old enough to enlist. All Calvin said was, “I am. I’m 17.” It didn’t work, so young Calvin whispered something in the dentist’s ear. He said, “I know for a fact that you’ve just let some 14 and 15-year-olds through, so why not let me through?” In the end, the dentist let him through. He had a long line of boys he had to check and he wasn’t about to waste his time arguing. Calvin was pretty sure that most of the officials knew they were allowing children to enlist. But it was all for a good cause. Not all of the kids were enlisting because they hated Hitler. Instead, they were pushed to fight in the war because their parents didn’t have enough cash to feed themselves or their children.

These were hard times for many Americans. As the rich lived in veritable castles and smoked fine cigars, much of America was out of work and starving. War was an opportunity for many boys to feed their starving families, even if it meant risking their lives. Once Calvin had been accepted, he told his mother he was going to stay with some cousins for a while. He said he wouldn’t stay too long, and she that she didn’t need to worry. If she could have seen his fate, she would have had a heart attack. But if Calvin could have also seen his fate, he likely would have stayed in Texas. After bidding farewell to his mom, he took his last class in the seventh grade. In the evening, he started his journey to San Diego to begin his military training. He didn’t expect any kindness from the drill instructors. It was obvious to them that he was just a kid, but they didn’t say anything. Everyone turned a blind eye, from the highest to the lowest ranks in the military. The drill instructors were more hostile to the children they trained. They’d make all the youngest guys run an extra mile with heavier backpacks. They seemed to enjoy harassing these young recruits, but Calvin didn’t mind. He was tough for a 12-year-old. Training only lasted six weeks. After that, he was sent to Pearl Harbor and told he’d be joining the USS South Dakota, a class-leading battleship that would see a lot of action, and Calvin would be in the thick of it. On October 16, 1942, Calvin’s dream finally came to fruition when his ship left Pearl Harbor and headed toward the fight. It was time to get revenge on the people who killed his fellow Americans.

He was about to become a war hero. From October 25 to October 27, this young lad was involved in what became known as the “Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands”, the fourth naval dust-up between the US and the Japanese. Both sides wanted control of the islands in the area so they could use them as bases. Many ships were involved in the battle. The US took the most damage, though, in terms of hardware. The Japanese sank one of its fleet carriers, one battleship, and one destroyer, as well as causing significant damage to other US ships. The Japanese lost close to 100 planes and the US around 80. Regarding human casualties, 266 Americans were killed compared to more than 400 Japanese. It's hard to imagine what such a bloody fight would have been like for a skinny 12-year-old boy who not long ago was being reprimanded by his teachers for not doing his homework. The Americans lost the carrier named Hornet, as well as a destroyer named Porter, while the USS Enterprise, as well as the light cruiser San Juan, the destroyer Smith, and Calvin’s battleship, the South Dakota, were all significantly damaged. This was when Calvin got his first taste of what it was like to bury men at sea. In November, he came very close to joining his compatriots at the bottom of the ocean. While working as a loader for a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun during the Battle of Guadalcanal, he was hit by shrapnel. Loading one of those massive guns was a challenging job, but Calvin carried on working even though he was now bleeding heavily from his wounds. While trying to protect itself and other US ships, the antiaircraft guns on the South Dakota took out 26 Japanese planes. But there was nothing South Dakota could do to avoid being hit by a 500-pound Japanese bomb. Thankfully the ship had some pretty thick armour, but the initial explosion killed one man and knocked captain Thomas Leigh Gatch off his feet... Men were then lying around the ship, perhaps 50 in all, with various injuries. Blood was spouting from Captain Gatch’s neck, his jugular vein cut through, but he still managed to get up and shout orders. This kind of bravery and fortitude made him a war hero. With his limbs injured and neck sliced, he may have said something close to, “’ Tis but a scratch.” Ok, we doubt he said that, but after the war, he did say, “I consider it beneath the dignity of a captain of an American battleship to flop for a Japanese bomb.”

It was this kind of valour that inspired Calvin as he was dealing with his injuries. Gatch lost so much blood that he had to hand over command of the ship. He was later awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in that battle, but the men around him showed just as much valour. One of them was Calvin, now bleeding profusely. The shrapnel had knocked him to the floor. Some of it had ripped right through his lower jaw. When he scrambled back to his feet, he was hit by more shrapnel. This didn’t just knock him down but sent him flying to a deck three stories below. With his mouth full of blood and his mind disoriented, he got back up and tried to help the injured men. Some guys had just been blasted overboard and had hit the ocean in flames. Once the war was over, Calvin explained in detail what he’d done in that moment of bloody chaos. He said: “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.” At this point, he was missing a good bit of his mouth and had fewer teeth than he’d been accustomed to for most of his life. He talked about that later, too, saying he was soon “fixed up with salve and a couple of stitches.” He added, “I didn’t do any complaining because half the ship was dead. It was a while before they worked on my mouth.” 60 of his comrades were injured in that attack, and another 38 men lost their lives. Captain Gatch later said he knew he had a ship full of youngsters, guys, he called “green”, but he said not one of them left their posts, and all showed the utmost bravery in the face of possible death. It wasn’t until around Christmas that the badly damaged ship made it back to the US for repairs. It was then that Captain Gatch relayed to the US military the story of the battle and how dedicated soldiers acted bravely under heavy fire. Calvin was awarded the Bronze Star for distinguishing himself in combat. He was also given a Purple Heart for his injuries. The great feats of these men then entered the public sphere as part of the USA’s propaganda program. One day Calvin’s mother was watching a newsreel about the events in the Pacific when she saw one of the injured men. She was sure that what she saw was not a man but her young son! It seemed that Calvin, now 13 years old, was not hanging out with relatives in the peaceful countryside. The mother then tried to find someone who could help drag her underage son out of the war. She put pen to paper and tried to contact the US Navy.

Meanwhile, the navy named the South Dakota “Battleship X.” The Japanese had left that ship in flames, thinking it had been destroyed. The Americans were only happy to let them think that South Dakota was at the bottom of the sea, so when it was fixed up, it went out again under this mysterious new name. Calvin eventually returned home, but that was only because he wanted to attend his grandmother’s funeral. He didn’t have permission for this and ended up serving three months in a military prison for it. While serving time in that jail, his sister told the military that if they didn’t release him immediately, she’d go to the newspapers and tell them that the Navy not only had allowed a kid to fight but now had also locked him up. She told them that all of the USA would read that some “Baby Vet” had been bashed up in the war and was now doing a hard time. This wouldn’t be a good look for the military, even though most people knew that children were fighting in the war. They released Calvin from jail, stripped him of all his medals, and told him he’d be getting no disability benefits. He lost his Purple Heart, Bronze Star, American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and service stars. So, there he was, kicked out in the street without a penny to his name. And despite his bravery and the fact he no doubt had helped save lives, the Navy wouldn’t give him an honourable discharge. Still, he certainly was a hero when he got back home. Parties were thrown for him. The local newspapers wrote thrilling stories about the deeds of this young kid. At one point, during the premiere of a movie, the star actor asked Calvin to get up on stage. But soon, he was just an ordinary kid again. The stories of his bravery faded from people’s minds. They got on with their lives, but Calvin was a changed boy.

How could his teachers tell him off for not sitting up straight in class when he’d pulled burning men from the ocean not long ago? How could he concentrate on any of his subjects when he still heard the screams of those men in his head? The war had thrust him into adulthood. So, he left school and married at the age of 14. The year after, he became a father. He worked to support his family just as any other responsible father would. But working as a welder at a shipyard in Houston still felt pretty lame compared to what he’d done during the war. He never felt settled. Something deep inside him had changed forever. Soon he was hitting the bottle and returning home each evening with a depressed look on his face. He wanted to fight. He was born to fight. Domestic life wasn’t for him. By the time he was 17, he was out of a job and without a wife. He got his wish that year, though, when he was accepted into the US Marine Corps. His facial wounds and some wounds to his arms still gave him some trouble. They would for the rest of his life. But in 1948, he managed to pass his training and became a US marine. In 1951, his world turned black once again. He was serving in the Korean War when he had what was described as a “freak accident.” We’re not sure exactly how it happened, but he somehow fell from a pier and sustained serious enough back injuries to end his career in the military. Back home he did his best to get by on the 20 per cent disability benefits he received. This felt like an insult to someone who’d given his life to the military. Now he was an injured man with hardly any formal education behind him. He couldn’t do hard labour and didn’t have any skills that might help him get a job in an office. For years he topped his disability checks up with cash he earned from selling magazine subscriptions. In the back of his mind, he always felt like the US government had let him down, especially because he still had that dishonourable discharge to his name. At least he had his family and friends. At least he now had a wife. In 1976, after Jimmy Carter was elected as President, Calvin told his family that he would seek justice. He said that Carter was “an old Navy man” and would understand how valiant he had been decades earlier.

Not only did he want an honourable discharge, but he also wanted the funds to pay for the dental work and hospital visits related to his war injuries. Calvin later explained what was going through his mind. He said, “I had already given up fighting, but then they came along with this discharge program for deserters. I know they had their reasons for doing what they did, but I figure I damn sure deserved more than they did.” It’s not as if Calvin had deserted or committed any other crime worthy of a dishonourable discharge. All he’d done was lie about his age in an era when the military was only too happy to turn a blind eye to youngsters who wished to enlist. Calvin deserved more, much more. In 1977, President Carter announced that Calvin was finally getting his honourable discharge. He was given his medals back. His Purple Heart wasn’t reinstated for some reason, even though Calvin was injured in battle. But even after this, he was not receiving his full veteran and disability benefits. That all changed in 1988 when under President Ronald Reagan, new legislation was signed that gave Calvin his full benefits. He also got an $18,000 rebate to cover his war-related medical expenses. Still, in the end, he only received $2,000 of the $18,000. Calvin didn’t get much time to enjoy his newfound wealth. He didn’t even get the time to enjoy the small amount of money he made by selling the rights to his story. He did at least get to see the movie about him, “Too Young The Hero”, which was released in 1988. Calvin ended up dying from heart failure on November 6, 1992, aged 62. Two years later, his widow was given his Purple Heart. It’s worth noting Calvin's pledge when he signed up for the Navy. This was the “sailor’s pledge”, in which enlisted men agree to “represent the fighting spirit of the Navy and those who have gone before me to defend freedom and democracy around the world.” The last part of the pledge goes, “I am committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all.” You’d be within your rights to ask if the military and the US government had been as committed as Calvin in embracing fair treatment to all. they knew people like Calvin were too young to fight, but as long as the kid enlisting could come up with the weakest of lies, they could become soldiers. Many youngsters enlisted during World War II. There were about 200,000 in the US, mostly boys but some girls.

They served throughout the war, while around 50,000 were found out and sent home. All countries had young folks fighting for them, not just the US. The youngest soldier who fought in the war was only 6 years old. You heard that right. His name was Seryozha Aleshkov. He fought for the Red Army during the Battle of Stalingrad. His father had died before the war, and during the war, the Germans killed his mother and brother right in front of his eyes. They hanged his brother, and his mother was shot while trying to intervene. He went out walking in the woods after that. During this long walk, a reconnaissance group found the young boy in tears, pretty much starved and in need of a warm coat. That’s when Seryozha joined this group of men, the 142nd Guards Rifle Regiment. The commander, Mikhail Vorobyov, adopted him. Later he fought at Stalingrad and earned a Combat Merit medal for bravery. He survived the war, but all that smoking he did with the guys during his adolescent years had quite an impact on his health, and he died in 1990, aged 54. He collapsed and died while standing at a bus stop, although he’d had health issues his whole life. He left behind a wife and two kids, who he’d supported over the years while practising law.  


About the Creator

Jayveer Vala

I write.

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