How Calvin Graham Became World War II’s Youngest Decorated Veteran

Published October 22, 2021
Updated November 11, 2021

Through some cunning lies, Calvin Graham is the youngest confirmed soldier to serve in World War II.

When Calvin Graham was 11 years old, he began shaving, convinced it would make him look older than he was. He also practiced speaking in a deep voice, pretending to talk like a man.

Though his behavior wasn’t completely out of the ordinary for a young child wanting to be a grown-up, his motives were decidedly unique. Rather than pretending to be an adult for fun, Graham intended to pretend to be an adult for real — and enlist in the United States Military.

During the enlistment for the war, young boys had to be at least 17 to be allowed to join. At 16, one could join with a parent’s consent, but 17 was still preferred. However, Graham was undeterred. Along with two of his friends, he forged his mother’s signature on his enlistment papers, stole a notary stamp from a local hotel, told his mother he was going to visit relatives, and lined up.

Calvin Graham

YouTubeCalvin Graham upon his enlistment.

However, though one might think that forging his mother’s signature would be the hardest part of his scheme, they’d be wrong. Graham was most worried that the dentist, who was employed specifically to check the teeth of the recruits to confirm their ages, would call his bluff. However, he had a plan in place should the issue arrive.

When he arrived at the enlistment office, he lined up behind two boys who he knew were only 14 and 15. When the dentist attempted to call his bluff, he told him that he knew for a fact that the boys ahead of him were underage, and had been let through anyway. Unwilling to engage in a fight with the young man, the dentist let Calvin Graham pass.

Calvin Graham On A Navy Vessel

YoutubeCalvin Graham onboard a Navy vessel.

However, though Calvin Graham was driven and determined to fight as many of his relatives had before him, he was unprepared for the trials of war. According to Graham, the drill instructors knew that many of the recruits were underage and punished them for it, often making them run extra miles and carry heavier packs.

Despite the stress, however, Calvin Graham persevered and made it onto the USS South Dakota, a warship working alongside the USS Enterprise in the Pacific.

Just months after arriving on board, the ship encountered eight Japanese destroyers, receiving 42 enemy hits. At one point, shrapnel hit Graham square in the face, tearing through his jaw and mouth. Despite his injuries and the fact that he’d been knocked through three stories of the ship, he continued to pull fellow soldiers to safety and sit with them during the night.

Due to the blows it received, the Japanese navy believed they had sunk the USS South Dakota and retreated, leaving the American ship to quietly return to port in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Upon the ship’s arrival, the crew was awarded for their bravery.

Calvin Graham received a Bronze Star for distinguishing himself in combat, as well as a Purple Heart for his injuries. However, while his fellow crewmen were off celebrating, his mother called the Navy and reported him. She had seen him on a news special and quickly informed them that their newest decorated veteran was in fact barely a teenager.

USS South Dakota

Wikimedia CommonsThe USS South Dakota.

The Navy quickly jumped into action, stripping Graham of his medals and holding him in a military prison in Corpus Christi, Texas, for three months. During his incarceration, he was able to send a message to his sister, who wrote to the newspapers about how the Navy was imprisoning her brother, a “baby vet.” Due to the bad press, he was eventually released, though denied his honorable discharge.

For years after his release, Calvin Graham suffered. He attempted to go back to school, get married, and start a life — though by age 17 he was a divorced high school dropout and a father of one, reduced to a life of selling magazine subscriptions.

However, when Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, something changed. Graham wrote to the White House about his experience, hoping the fellow Navy man would be sympathetic to his plight. He had heard about a discharge program for deserters and felt that he deserved honorable discharge more than they did.

Finally, in 1978, Graham got his wish. Carter announced that the bill to grant the discharge had been approved and that he would be re-awarded his medals. The Purple Heart, however, was the exception, and it wasn’t until 1994 that it was officially re-awarded to his family as Calvin Graham died in 1992.

After learning about Calvin Graham, check out these amazing World War II facts. Finally, read up Desmond Doss and the real-life story of Hacksaw Ridge.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.