When Calvin Graham and his older brother left their abusive stepfather and Texas family farm behind, he made money by selling newspapers and telegrams. However, he was very interested in life in the Navy.
Joining The Navy
Graham was eleven years old when he decided to fake his age and join WWII. He started shaving to look older. He also had friends forge his mom’s signature and took a notaries stamp.
He told his mother that he was going to a relative’s house and left for the Navy. He said when he showed up to enlist, “I stood 5’2 and weighed 125 pounds, but I wore one of my older brothers’ clothes, and we all practiced talking deep.”
His only hang-up was the dental screening since the dentist knew he was 12. Finally, he insisted he was 17, and the dentist gave up.
Calvin Graham became an official member of the Navy on August 15, 1942. He was the youngest person to join the military since the Civil War.
The South Dakota
He completed training in San Diego and boarded the USS South Dakota, working as a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun loader. Captain Thomas Leigh Gatch ran the South Dakota, and its destination was Guadalcanal.
The Japanese hit the ship 47 times during the Battle of Guadalcanal. One hit knocking Graham down three decks of stairs, injuring him with shrapnel, and knocking out teeth.
Though he was injured, he tried to help other sailors. He was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his actions.
His mom then told the Navy his real age, and Graham was put in the brig. He was only released when his sister said she would go to the press.
When he was dishonorably discharged, he lost all of his medals and disability benefits. He joined the Marines at 17 but broke his back, and his career was over. President Jimmy Carter approved his honorable discharge in 1978 and reinstated his medals, except for the Purple Heart.
However, after the TV movie, Too Yung The Hero came out, President Reagan gave him full benefits plus money to cover bills related to his injuries. November 1994, two years after he died, his Purple Heart was reinstated and given to his widow.
He also was awarded the National Defense Service Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the WWII Victory Medal.