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Archive for Sunday, November 2, 2003

Veterans lied to join military ranks

Youngsters fudged age to enlist

November 2, 2003

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— At a time when the nation desperately needed a few good men, they stood silently among thousands of military volunteers driven by patriotism, financial security and 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 the wars they were enlisting to fight: All were children -- boys and girls who fooled the U.S. government.

"Somebody described us as a group of government-certified liars," said 71-year-old Chet Fleming. "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 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 as underage children 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," Fleming said.

'A way out'

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, of Tempe, Ariz., the group's 74-year-old 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 existence in all branches of the military.

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

Jackson's mother and two of his brothers died when he was young, and he stayed with an older sister and two other brothers while his father moved around in order to make a living.

Times were tough financially and Jackson yearned for more than just working on a farm and being a hired hand for other farmers.

"I was working in the fields a lot and lifting heavy bales of hay, and I thought, "There's got to be a better way," he said.

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."

But that wasn't the only reason.

"Some of these guys came from large families and there wasn't enough food to go around, and this was a way out," Jackson said. "Others just had family problems and wanted to get away."

Taking chances

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 Green, who's 68.

Being a younger soldier didn't bother Green, who was in "top physical condition" from the strenuous farmwork. But he admits to taking some dangerous chances that he may not have taken if he'd been more mature, such as traveling between units at night in Korea -- where he turned 16.

"I got shot at a lot of times," he said. "I was scared all the time."

Still, Green loved military life. He spent a total 38 years of service in the Marines, Army, Air Force and Air National Guard -- with 17 1/2 of those years on active duty.

Green, who also earned his general equivalency diploma and became a real estate appraiser, said that had he not chosen military life, he likely would have earned a college degree.

But he is sure he made the right decision.

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

Compelled to serve

While underage enlistments were fairly common during the era of both World Wars, 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, Va.

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."

The attack on Pearl Harbor helped compel Orvil Schoonover, of Cocoa, Fla., to forge his birth certificate and enlist in the Navy just days shy of his 15th birthday.

"I just thought I needed to do it," said Schoonover.

Schoonover, 74, recalls being scared only once: when an enemy plane crashed near his ship during the Invasion of Okinawa in 1945. The plane was so close, "the water splashed on us."

"I unbuckled my gun ... but I buckled it right back," he said. "I was just too young, too crazy to get scared."

'Badge of honor'

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 1942 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," Jackson said.

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

He was released from the brig after his sister threatened to contact the newspapers. He was released 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 Graham wrote to congressmen and presidents.

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.

Most veterans did not talk about their underage service for years, until they began retiring, long after they had raised families and fulfilled their careers.

"Our enlistments were fraudulent. And with a fraudulent enlistment we could be court-martialed," Jackson said. "There's still people today that will not join our association because they're afraid they will get caught on the fraudulent enlistment and get punished."

Even today, Jackson doesn't consider what these men and women did to gain admission to the military a typical case of lying.

"We broke the law to serve," he said. "It's a badge of honor for us."

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