“Youngest Serviceman in World War II”
Calvin Leon Graham was born in Canton, Texas on April 3, 1930. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the United States Navy from Houston, Texas on August 15, 1942, at the age of 12. He was attending elementary school in Houston before he decided to join the Navy, after his father had died and his mother remarried.
He was sent to boot camp in San Diego, California, for six weeks, and afterwards was sent to Pearl Harbor at Oahu, Hawaii, where he was assigned to the USS South Dakota.
Some speculate that 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 his 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.
The USS South Dakota left Pearl Harbor on October 26, 1942 and participated in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Island. Graham was assigned as a loader for a 40mm anti-aircraft gun. He was hit by shrapnel while taking a hand message to an officer. Though he received fragmentation wounds, he helped in rescue duty by aiding and pulling the wounded aboard ship to safety. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart Medal, and he and his crewmates were awarded another Navy Unit Commendation.
The USS South Dakota returned to the East Coast on December 18, 1942, for an overhaul and battle damage repairs in New York City. The ship had taken 42 hits from at least three enemy ships, and since then, was named “Battleship X” in order to make the Japanese think that the ship had been sunk.
Battleship X USS South Dakota (BB57), with its combination of Navy Unit Citation and 13 battle stars, was the most decorated battleship of World War II.
Graham’s mother revealed his age after he traveled to his grandmother’s funeral in Texas. He arrived a day late without permission from the Navy, for which he spent three months in a Texas brig. He was released after his sister threatened to contact the newspapers. Although he tried to return to his ship, he was discharged from the Navy on April 1, 1943, and his awards were subsequently revoked.
The South Dakota’s gunnery officer, who was involved in handling his case, was Robert Sargent Shriver, future brother in law of President Kennedy and the first Director of the Peace Corps.
He then worked in a defense plant as a welder instead of going back to school.
Graham finally joined the United States Marine Corps in 1948 at the age of 17. His enlistment in the Marines also ended early 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 record.
In 1978, he was finally given an honorable discharge for his service in the Navy, and after writing to Congress and with the approval of President Jimmy Carter, all medals except his Purple Heart were reinstated. His story came to public attention in 1988, when his story was told in the TV movie, Too Young the Hero. He was played by Rick Schroder.
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, nearly two years after his death from heart failure and 52 years after the Battle of the Santa Cruz Island.
He was buried at Laurel Land Memorial Park in Fort Worth, Texas