October 05, 2003
Badge of honor

America’s child soldiers reflect on service, seek fellow veterans

By The Associated Press

Chet Fleming is part of an army of children — a group of boys and girls who fooled the U.S. government and joined the military before they were of legal age.

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

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

More than 50 years later, Fleming — commander of the West Virginia Veterans of Underage Military Service — wants to find others in the state like him.

There likely were more than 200,000 underage veterans who joined the military during the World War II and Korean War eras. Most joined out of patriotism or to seek adventure. Others did so for financial reasons, said Ray Jackson, national commander of the Veterans of Underage Military Service, which was founded in 1991 in Maryland.

“Some of these guys came from large families and there wasn’t enough food to go around, and this was a way out,” said Jackson, 74, who joined the Marines when he was 16. “Others just had family problems and wanted to get away.”

Retired Army Maj. Bill Boggs began his military career at age 15 with the West Virginia National Guard. Boggs and his 14-year-old brother, John, who also enlisted, saw the military as a way to earn money and escape the “hardscrabble” Lewis County farm where they lived with four brothers.

“We decided that the food was quite acceptable, they paid us regularly, they provided us clothing,” said the 69-year-old Boggs, who served in Korea and Vietnam.

Don Green looked to the military as a way of making a living after his father died, leaving 11 children on a Boone County farm.

“I just wasn’t old enough to do a mining job or do any other work,” said Green, 68.

So at 14, he forged a birth certificate and enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve, and then the Army a few months later. He turned 16 while in Korea during the war.

Green, Fleming and Boggs are among nine West Virginia members of the Veterans of Underage Military Service.

Nationally, the group has more than 1,200 active members, including more than 20 women, said Jackson, who, along with his wife, Susan, wrote two volumes of stories about underage veterans titled, “America’s Youngest Warriors.”

“If you got in legally, you can’t belong to our association,” said Jackson, who lives in Tempe, Ariz.

The minimum age limit for military service is still 17 with parental permission — and 18 without — in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

While underage enlistments were fairly common during the era of both world wars, such occurrences would be unlikely today, said Chief Petty Officer Will Borrall, public affairs officer with the Navy Recruiting District in Richmond, Va.

“The information age has made it much simpler to find out if the information given by the candidate is accurate,” Borrall said.

Also, he said, “there’s not such 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 and other events compelled Orvil Schoonover, 74, 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, who grew up in Elkhurst.

One of the youngest enlistees 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, Jackson said.

Graham 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 age 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 — except for the Purple Heart — in 1978, after Graham had written to congressmen and presidents. He died in 1992. His Purple Heart was presented to his widow, Mary, nearly two years later.

Graham’s story was the subject of the 1988 movie, “Too Young the Hero.”

Most veterans did not talk about their underage service for years, until they began retiring.

“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.”

But many veterans — after raising their families and fulfilling their careers — thought, “What the heck, they can’t do anything to me,” Jackson said.

“We’re just reaching out to them,” Fleming said of other underage veterans. “We want them to understand there’s nothing to be ashamed of. There’s nothing to hide.”

Although Jackson and thousands of other veterans “fudged” their ages to get into the military, he doesn’t consider that to be a typical case of lying.

“We broke the law to serve,” Jackson said. “It’s a badge of honor for us.”

On the Net:

Veterans of Underage Military Service: www.oldvums.com