Calvin Graham was only 12 when he became a seaman in the United States Navy. He had already left home to escape an abusive stepfather, and the military was desperate for manpower right after the Pearl Harbor attack that drew the US into World War II. Graham was assigned to the USS South Dakota, which was full of new recruits when it set off for the Pacific theater. In November, Graham turned 13 and the ship was involved in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
Later that evening the South Dakota encountered eight Japanese destroyers; with deadly accurate 16-inch guns, the South Dakota set fire to three of them. “They never knew what sank ‘em,” Gatch would recall. One Japanese ship set its searchlights on the South Dakota, and the ship took 42 enemy hits, temporarily losing power. Graham was manning his gun when shrapnel tore through his jaw and mouth; another hit knocked him down, and he fell through three stories of superstructure. Still, the 13 year-old made it to his feet, dazed and bleeding, and helped pull other crew members to safety while others were thrown by the force of the explosions, their bodies aflame, into the Pacific.
“I took belts off the dead and made tourniquets for the living and gave them cigarettes and encouraged them all night,” Graham later said. ”It was a long night. It aged me.” The shrapnel had knocked out his front teeth, and he had flash burns from the hot guns, but he was “fixed up with salve and a coupla stitches,” he recalled. “I didn’t do any complaining because half the ship was dead. It was a while before they worked on my mouth.” In fact, the ship had casualties of 38 men killed and 60 wounded.
Graham first received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Then he was jailed for lying about his age. When he was released, his was stripped of his medals, his military benefits, and even any record of serving. When he turned 17, he joined the Marines to avoid being drafted by the Army, since he had no military record. It took many years, but Graham finally received an honorable discharge from the Navy in 1978, and the last of his medals were restored in 1994. Read Graham's story at Smithsonian's Past Imperfect blog. Link