For Calvin Graham, the summer of ’42 marked a terrifying rite of passage. The young seaman first class was aboard the U.S.S. South Dakota when the battleship was attacked by the Japanese during the battle of Guadalcanal. In the bloody fight that followed, the muzzle blast from the ship’s own 16-inch guns set sailors afire and hurled them into the sea while the enemy riddled the South Dakota with shells. Graham was blown off an upper deck while trying to rescue a wounded shipmate and tumbled 30 feet, shattering his upper jawbone. Half the ship’s crew of 3,300 were killed or wounded, and Graham emerged with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He was, at the time, 12 years old.
Several months earlier Graham, one of seven children, had left home in Houston, Texas after telling his widowed mother that he was going to visit relatives. “I enlisted with some of my friends from junior high school,” he remembers. “I stood 5’2″ and weighed 125 pounds, but I wore one of my older brothers’ clothes and we all practiced talking deep. The Navy knew we were underage, but we were losing the war then, so they took six of us.”
Incredibly, when the Navy discovered Graham’s real age, it tossed him in the brig in January 1943. “They took my uniforms and all my medals,” he says. “But after a few months I guess somebody got mad about a kid being in jail. They let me out on my 13th birthday.”
Back in Houston, Graham got a hero’s welcome as the “baby vet,” including a parade down Main Street with movie star Pat O’Brien. Since then neither time nor the government has treated Graham kindly. Despite recurring headaches and chronic problems with his war-damaged teeth, he was refused Navy medical treatment and has never received the honorable discharge that would entitle him to the full range of veterans’ benefits. He remembers vividly a 1944 telephone conversation with President Franklin Roosevelt arranged by a congressman. “He had a real warm, friendly voice,” Graham recalls. “He said I was a hero, and he was going to see to it that I not only got my medals back, but that I also got the Navy Cross and an honorable discharge.” Unfortunately, FDR died before keeping his word.
Now 47 and unable to work, Graham has spent some $5,000 on dental repairs, and suffers also from diabetes and heart trouble. As a result of a fall from a pier while serving briefly in the Marines at 19, he can walk only with a cane. He and his wife exist on $600 a month—part of which comes from limited Marine disability payments—and must spend $100 a month on his doctor bills.
Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas has introduced a bill to give Graham his long-sought discharge, but it is languishing in the Armed Services Committee. “I wouldn’t ask for it if I didn’t need it,” says Graham plaintively. “It’s not like I did anything wrong.”