The boy who became a World War II veteran at 13 years old
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With powerful engines, extensive firepower and heavy armor, the newly christened battleship USS South Dakota steamed out of Philadelphia in August of 1942 spoiling for a fight. The crew was made up of "green boys." These were recruits who enlisted after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The young men had no qualms about either their destination or the action they were likely to see. Brash and confident, the crew couldn't get through the Panama Canal fast enough. Their captain, Thomas Gatch, made no secret of the grudge he bore against the Japanese. "No ship more eager to fight ever entered the Pacific," one naval historian wrote.
In less than four months, the South Dakota would limp back to port in New York for repairs to extensive damage suffered in some of World War II's most ferocious battles at sea. The ship would become one of the most decorated warships in U.S. Navy history. The Japanese, it turned out, were convinced the vessel had been destroyed at sea. The Navy was only too happy to keep the mystery alive. When newspapers later reported on the ship's remarkable accomplishments, they referred to it simply as "Battleship X."
That the vessel was not resting at the bottom of the Pacific was just one of the secrets Battleship X carried. Aboard was a gunner from Texas who would soon become the nation's youngest decorated war hero. Calvin Graham, who had set off for battle from the Philadelphia Navy Yard in the summer of 1942, was only 12.
Graham was in the sixth grade in Crockett, Texas, when he hatched his plan. He would lie about his age and join the Navy. One of seven children living at home with an abusive stepfather, he and an older brother moved into a cheap rooming house. Calvin supported himself by selling newspapers and delivering telegrams. Being around newspapers afforded the boy the opportunity to keep up on events overseas.
When he learned that some of his cousins had died in battles, he knew he wanted to fight. But he had no intention of waiting five more years. One day, he lined up with some buddies and waited to enlist.
He was about to be examined by a dentist. "I knew he'd know how young I was by my teeth," recalled Graham. The boy lined up behind a couple of guys he knew who were already 14 or 15. "When the dentist kept saying I was 12, I said I was 17. Finally, he said he didn't have time to mess with me. And he let me go."
By the time the South Dakota made it to the Pacific with Graham on board, the big ship had become part of a task force alongside the legendary carrier USS Enterprise. By early October 1942, the two ships raced to the South Pacific. After the U.S. ships reached the Santa Cruz Islands on October 26, the Japanese launched an air attack. The South Dakota managed to protect the Enterprise.
Then, a bomb hit the South Dakota. The explosion injured 50 men.
The South Dakota was repaired at Pearl Harbor, and Seaman Graham quietly became a teenager. He turned 13 on November 6. This was just as Japanese naval forces began shelling an American airfield on Guadalcanal Island. Steaming south with the Enterprise, the South Dakota and another battleship, the USS Washington, took four American destroyers on a night search for the enemy. On November 14, Japanese ships sank or heavily damaged the American destroyers. The encounter became known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
Graham was manning his gun when shrapnel tore through his jaw and mouth. Still, the 13-year-old helped pull other crew members to safety.
The shrapnel had knocked out his front teeth. He had flash burns from the hot guns.
Meanwhile, the South Dakota had disappeared in the smoke. The Japanese Navy was under the impression that it had sunk the South Dakota. The legend of Battleship X was born.
In mid-December, the ship returned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for more repairs. Calvin Graham received a Bronze Star for distinguishing himself in combat, as well as a Purple Heart for his injuries. Then Graham's mother wrote to the Navy, revealing the gunner's true age.
Graham was thrown in a brig at Corpus Christi, Texas.
The Navy eventually ordered Graham's release. But not before stripping him of his medals for lying about his age and revoking his disability benefits. He was released without an honorable discharge.
Back in Houston, though, reporters were eager to write his story but the attention quickly faded. At age 13, Graham returned to school, and he quickly dropped out. He married at age 14, became a father the following year, and found work as a welder in a Houston shipyard. Neither his job nor his marriage lasted long. At 17 years old and divorced, and with no service record, Graham was about to be drafted when he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He soon broke his back in a fall. The only work he could find after that was selling magazine subscriptions.
When President Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, Graham hoped that Carter, "an old Navy man," might be sympathetic. All Graham had wanted was an honorable discharge so he could get help with his medical and dental expenses.
In 1978, Carter announced that Graham's medals were restored, with the exception of the Purple Heart. Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan approved disability benefits for Graham.
It wasn't until 1994, two years after he died, that the military returned Graham's last medal - his Purple Heart. It was given to his family.