- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2003

ELKVIEW, W.Va. - At a time when the nation desperately needed a few good men, they stood silently among thousands of military volunteers driven by patriotism, financial need and desire for adventure.

All had come prepared to face conflict, but theirs was an exclusive club whose members shared a secret they would guard for decades as fiercely as they fought: All were just boys (and a few girls) who fooled the U.S. government.

“Somebody described us as a group of government-certified liars,” said Chet Fleming, 71. “That’s the only way we could get in.”

He was only 16 when, playing hooky from school with some buddies, he told an Army recruiting sergeant in Ohio that he was 18. He enlisted and later served in Korea.

More than 50 years later Mr. Fleming, state commander of the West Virginia Veterans of Underage Military Service, wants to find others like him who began their military careers as frauds. More than 200,000 veterans are believed to have joined the military underage during the World War II and Korean War eras.

“We want them to understand there’s nothing to be ashamed of. There’s nothing to hide,” Mr. Fleming said.

The Maryland-based national organization Veterans of Underage Military Service, founded in 1991, lists more than 1,200 active members, 26 of them women.

Ray Jackson, 74, of Tempe, Ariz., the group’s national commander, joined the Marines when he was 16, a year before he could legally join with his parents’ permission, two years before he could sign up on his own — a rule still in place in all branches of the military.

“I always felt that it was time to get out on my own,” said Mr. Jackson, who lived on a farm in Idaho.

Mr. Fleming said those who grew up during World War II were eager to enlist. “Some kids want to be firemen; some want to be cowboys. We wanted to be military.”

At age 14, Don Green forged a birth certificate and enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve and then the Army a few months later. For him, the military was the only way out of a hardscrabble existence. His father had died, leaving 11 children on the family farm in West Virginia.

“I just wasn’t old enough to do a mining job or do any other work,” said Mr. Green, who is 68. He served in the Korean War and spent a total of 38 years in the military.

“The military really enriched my life,” he said. “You make a lot of lasting friends.”

While underage enlistments were once common, they would be unlikely today.

“The information age has made it much simpler to find out if the information given by the candidate is accurate,” said Chief Petty Officer Will Borrall, public affairs officer with the Navy Recruiting District in Richmond.

Also, he said, “There’s not an immense pressure to join the military service as there was in 1941 following Pearl Harbor, or there was in previous wars.”

One of the youngest veterans on record was Calvin Graham of Texas, who joined the Navy at age 12 and served on the USS South Dakota during the Battle of Guadalcanal.

“He was wounded, but he helped save a number of his shipmates and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart,” Mr. Jackson said.

But when his true age was discovered, Mr. Graham was thrown in the brig and stripped of his medals for fraudulent enlistment.

He was released after his sister threatened to contact the newspapers. He was discharged from the Navy just after his 13th birthday. He joined the Marines at 17, but his military career ended about three years later when he fell from a pier and broke his back.

The Navy reinstated his medals, all but the Purple Heart, in 1978 after Mr. Graham wrote to congressmen and presidents.

Mr. Graham, whose story was the subject of the 1988 movie “Too Young the Hero,” died in 1992. His Purple Heart was presented to his widow, Mary, nearly two years later.

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