“Then were there brought unto him little children; that he should put his hands on them and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus, said, ‘Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’”
— St. Matthew 19: 13&14
Young men with dreams of glory have lied, cheated, and altered birth certificates to serve their country in time of war. Most are discovered and sent home; many are not, and some paid the ultimate sacrifice.
During the Civil War, an 8-year-old kid named Edward Black joined the 21st Indiana volunteers as a drummer boy on July 24, 1861. Captured during the Battle of Baton Rouge in August of 1862, he was released after Union forces won the battle. Sent home and discharged, Black reenlisted with the 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery in early 1863 and fought until the end of the war. Edward Black is most likely the youngest kid to ever serve in the U.S. military.
The youngest Confederate soldier was a boy named Charles C. Hay. He joined an Alabama regiment when he was 11 years old. Another soldier named William Black was the youngest warrior injured during the Civil War when an exploding shell shattered his left hand and arm. He was 12 years old.
Historians estimate that at least 100,000 Union soldiers were under the age of 15, while 20% of all Civil War soldiers were under the age of 18. Most boys lied about their age, but as casualties mounted disreputable recruiters avoided any proof of age. Ironically, the boyish-looking men in the military encouraged young women disguised as men to also sign up as soldiers.
Johnny Clem, an 11- year-old drummer boy, picked up a rifle and shot a Confederate officer during the Battle of Chickamauga. He was awarded a silver medal and later promoted to sergeant. Commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant by President Grant in 1871, Johnny served until he retired in 1915 as a Brigadier General.
During the Battle of Antietam, bugler John Cook put down his bugle and manned an artillery piece. Cook was awarded the Medal of Honor for his fearlessness. He was 15 years old. Another youngster, 14-year-old drummer Orion Howe, was severely wounded retrieving much-needed ammo during the Battle of Vicksburg. Howe also received the Medal of Honor and President Lincoln appointed him to the US Naval Academy in July of 1865. About 48 boys under the age of 18 received the Medal of Honor.
During WWI a plethora of underage soldiers from multiple countries hit the battlefields, but I’ll limit my comments to British and American boys in arms. The youngest British soldier was 12-year-old Sidney Lewis. He enlisted in 1915, fought in the Battle of the Somme, and by age 13 was manning a machine gun in the 106th Machine Gun Company. He fought in the Battle of Deville Wood before Lewis’ irate mother sent his birth certificate to the War Office demanding her son be returned home. At age 13, Sidney Lewis was sent home, a hardcore combat veteran. Later in WWII, Lewis served in bomb disposal.
In a corner of Poelcapelle Cemetery, Row F, Plot 56, is the most visited grave on the Western Front. Too young to shave, John Condon joined the British Army at age 12. Sent to the trenches in France, Cordon was killed in the Second Battle of Ypres on May 24, 1915. He was 14 years of age, the youngest British soldier killed in action during WWI.
In the colonies, a 14 year old kid named Michael Joseph Mansfield lied about his age and enlisted in the Navy during WWI. As a crewmember aboard the USS Minneapolis, he convoyed across the ocean many times before the Navy discovered his real age. Discharged from the Navy, he joined the Army and later served with the US Marines. He would later serve 34 years in the Congress and Senate. Mike Mansfield also served as US Ambassador to Japan.
The town of Crockett, Texas has a bone to pick with Tennessee over which state had the most decorated veteran of WWI. Sergeant Alvin York of Pall Mall, Tennessee, portrayed by actor Gary Cooper in the movie “Sergeant York”, was indeed a national hero. Albeit, George Lawson Keene has been recognized as the most decorated American soldier of WWI and his heroics match or exceed that of Sergeant York. Keene, however, did not resist serving as York did on religious grounds. Keene joined at the age of 14 and was in heavy action by age 16 with the 28th Infantry. He served for 26 months, was in five major engagements; wounded seven times, plus survived poison gassing in the Battle of Argonne Forest. One of his several awards and accommodations include the Medal of Honor.
America’s first major offensive in the Pacific during WWII was an insect, snake-infested island called Guadalcanal. The naval battle off the island raged for months. On the night of Nov. 14-15, 1942, the battleship USS South Dakota absorbed 42 hits from at least 3 enemy ships. A sailor on the South Dakota, Calvin Leon Graham, was wounded while serving as a loader for a 40mm anti-aircraft gun. Ignoring fragmentation wounds, Graham assisted in rescue efforts by aiding and pulling other wounded sailors to safety. He received a Bronze Star Medal for bravery and the Purple Heart for his wounds.
The South Dakota returned stateside for repairs. Graham attended his grandmother’s funeral in Texas (without permission from the Navy) and ended up in the brig for three months. Graham’s mother then revealed his true age and his sister threatened to contact the newspapers. To avoid negative publicity, 12-year-old Seaman First Class Calvin Leon Graham was released from jail. Graham tried to rejoin his ship, but the US Navy had had enough. Graham was released from the Navy on April 1, 1943 with a dishonorable discharge and stripped of all his medals.
Thirty five years later in 1978, President Jimmy Carter reversed Calvin’s discharge to honorable plus reinstated all of Graham’s medals, except for the Purple Heart. Ten years later in 1988, President Ronald Reagan granted Graham full disability benefits, increased his back pay to $4,917 and allowed $18,000 for medical bills contingent on medical receipts, of which most were lost and the physicians that treated Graham had died. Graham received a total of $2,100. His story was made into a movie, “Too Young The Hero,” with $50,000 awarded for the rights. His two agents took 50%, the writer of an unpublished book received 20%, and Graham and his wife ended up with $15,000….before taxes.
Graham’s Purple Heart was finally reinstated and presented to his wife, Mary, on June 21, 1994 by the Secretary of the Navy. Graham had died of heart failure 2 years before his country returned all his honors.
Gilbert Zamora stood at 6’2”, weighed 195 lbs., had celebrated his 13th birthday and was in the eighth grade. At that size, the California National Guard believed his lie and allowed him to enlist during the Korean War, making Zamora the youngest soldier in the US Army since the Civil War. The unit was activated and Zamora, now 14, was going to be sent to the battlefront. His parents pitched a fit and wrote the Army to reveal their son’s age. After 13 months in the Guard, Zamora received an honorary discharge.
At the age of 17, Zamora re-enlisted. He ended up in Korea and fought in some of the most costly battles of the war: Pork Chop Hill, Old Baldy, and Alligator Jaws. He earned his first Purple Heart in Korea. His next Purple Heart was awarded in Vietnam after being shot and wounded in the A Shau Valley. Zamora served 35 years on active duty and retired as a Master Sergeant in 1988. After the retirement ceremony, Zamora told the gathering, “Meet me at the NCO Club at 1700 – I’m buying.”
June, 1969: The newspaper article circulating among the US Marines in Vietnam stunned the Leathernecks. It was front page news in The New York Times on June 13, 1969: “Marine, 15, Killed in Vietnam; Enlisted at 14, Lying About Age.” Not just another Leatherneck, but a 15-year-old kid, ‘in-country’ for only one month.
Private First Class Dan Bullock did indeed ‘modify’ his birth certificate to indicate he was born in 1949 instead of 1953. Native to North Carolina, at age 13 Bullock and his sister moved to Brooklyn, NY to live with their father and his wife. Bullock was not real fond of New York. Desiring an education and the opportunity to better himself, he chose the Marines.
Reporting for duty on Sept. 18, 1968, Dan Bullock was 14 years old. On May 8, 1969, now 15 years old, Bullock arrived in Vietnam. One month later, on June 7, 1969 he was cut down by small arms fire while running ammo to his fellow Marines during a firefight at An Hoa Combat Base.
The night before his death, Bullock and another Marine named Piscitelli had been sparring in a friendly match. Piscitelli broke his thumb while sparring and could not handle his front-line post that evening. Bullock took his place. At around 2 a.m. the base came under rocket, mortar, and small arms fire. Dan Bullock and two other Marines lost their lives.
Just one more casualty among many others in Vietnam, maybe nothing more than a footnote in the long history of war, but the name on Panel 23W, Row 96 of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. records the youngest American soldier to perish in Southeast Asia.
The United Nations considers the use of children under the age of 15 in war as a ‘war crime.’ For some mysterious reason ‘volunteers’ between 15 and 18 are acceptable for the meat grinder.
Africa accounts for 50 percent of the world’s children in combat, somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 on that so- called Dark Continent alone. In Burma/Myanmar over 70,000 boys were hijacked from city streets for the National Army. Bolivia recruits kids as young as 14. Children as young as 7 tote AK-47s in religious wars worldwide and countries like Yemen are cesspools for children warriors.
The Bible has it right: SUFFER NOT THE LITTLE CHILDREN.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.