Calvin Graham – the youngest serviceman in World War II – was only 12 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He did not wait a year or two before joining the service; no by May of 1942, he had enlisted in the US Navy. Some speculate the deaths of his cousins inspired him to join. He began shaving at the age of 11 to assist with passing himself off as older and had some friends of his parents forge his parent’s signature.
Due to the need for enlisted men, the petty officers at boot camp were not concerned with anyone’s age. Graham was therefore able to successfully complete the course. A fellow seaman later told the Chicago Tribune that the Navy had already suffered a high number of casualties and were desperate to build up its crew.
Graham first served on the USS South Dakota (BB-57) where he experienced the intense fighting first hand. He assisted in fire control during the Battle of Guadalcanal. During that time, he suffered a number of wounds, including burns and having his front teeth were knocked out. However, Graham didn’t let his injuries stop him. The New York Times later reported that despite his injuries, he continued to assist the wounded. The Smithsonian Magazine wrote that according to Graham, he would remove belts from the dead and use them as tourniquets for the wounded. He is also reported to have given the wounded cigarettes and stayed up all night encouraging them. As a result of his actions during this time, he received both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
However, within the year, Graham’s mother would reveal his age. He was sent to the brig for three months and all his medals were revoked. He would have served remained in the brig longer, but was released when his sister threatened to contact the newspapers. In May of 1943, one year after he enlisted, he received a dishonorable discharge. This caused him to also lose his disability benefits.
At age 17, Graham enlisted with the US Marine Corps. Three years later though he broke his back when he fell from a pier, thus ending his service career. Even though his service as a Marine would qualify him as a veteran, Calvin Graham still spent the balance of his life fighting for both medical benefits and a clean service record. It wasn’t until 1978 that he finally received his honorable discharge. At this time, all his medals – with the exception of the Purple Heart – were reinstated.
In 1988, his story was brought to the public via the television movie, Too Young the Hero. This prompted President Reagan to grant Graham full disability benefits. As a result, he received $4,917 increase in his back pay, $18,000 to cover past medical bills (though he was required to provide medical receipts). Unfortunately so much time had passed that many of the doctors he had seen had already passed away and many of the bills had been lost. As a result, he only received $2,100 of the original $18,000.
Despite his rights to the movie amounting to $50,000, after ½ the money went to two agents and another 20% went to a writer of an unpublished book about him, his total – before taxes – only amounted to $15,000.
Graham died of heart failure in November of 1992. Two years later, his Purple Heart was reinstated and presented to his widow. And with the intervention of both President Carter and then President Clinton, Calvin Leon Graham, the youngest serviceman in World War II, was recognized as receiving not only the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, but also the National Defense Service Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with bronze Battle Star device and the WWII Victory Medal.