World War II veteran signed up at 13
The News Tribune
James Clark looked big for his age as a teenager and ran with an older crowd. So when his friends reported to the draft board, he followed.
It was 1943, and the country needed troops. Young men were supposed to report when they turned 18.
About a month later, Clark received his orders for basic training.
The U.S. Army had just drafted a 13-year-old.
“They didn’t ask for any proof of age,” said Clark, a Fort Lewis retiree who’s now 78 and living in Shelton, Mason County. “I figured out what year I needed to say to make me 18, and I just told them. They didn’t ask anything more about that.”
Clark said it was expected that anyone who was of fighting age join the war effort. His parents supported his decision.
“My mother said ‘Hallelujah,’ and my father said, ‘Amen,’ when I told them,” he said. “People were just patriotic back then.”
Today, 17 is the minimum age individuals can enlist in the armed forces, if they show proof of age and parental consent; 18 is the minimum age they can deploy to combat zones. The Department of Defense clarified the policy last year, in part responding to isolated reports of underage service members in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Clark’s story is not unusual.
At least 200,000 men and women under the legal age served during World War II, according to an estimate from the Veterans of Underage Military Service organization.
The group has 1,279 active members, national commander Bernie Doyle said, and the median age is 78.
Clark is likely the youngest surviving World War II veteran. The youngest service member during the war, Calvin Graham, died in 1992. Graham enlisted in the Navy in 1942 at age 12 and was wounded at Guadalcanal that year. His commanders discovered his age and discharged him.
A discharge also awaited Clark a year after he enlisted, but not before he completed basic and paratrooper training.
TOO YOUNG TO FIGHT
After finishing airborne school at Fort Benning, Ga., Clark returned to his hometown of McKeesport, Pa., for a 15-day leave.
He visited his grade school and saw his name added to a marble monument listing all of the school’s alumni who had gone to fight in the war.
He also discovered his decision to join the Army inspired his father, a World War I veteran, to appear before the draft board, shave a few years off his own age and re-enlist.
“At one point, we were at home on leave at the same time,” Clark said. “He was too old, and I was too young.”
The younger Clark’s next duty station was Cumberland, Md. One night, several soldiers sat in the barracks and bragged about lying to the draft board. All were 18 by that point but had enlisted years earlier.
Clark tried to one-up them by sharing his true age.
Today he smiles with the knowledge that this moment of candor ended his enlistment. He soon received orders to report to Fort Dix, N.J., where the post commander wanted to see him. He asked Clark how old he was; the 13-year-old realized the officer knew, so he confessed.
The Army court-martialed him for falsifying documents, but the charges didn’t stick because the draft board never asked to see a birth certificate. Clark received an honorable discharge, separation pay and a year’s worth of unemployment pay.
His discharge likely turned out to be a blessing. Without it, his subsequent story may never have included his wife, Dorothy, a son, two daughters and one grandchild.
“Most of the guys I went to training with jumped right into Normandy,” he said. “And most of them died. The Germans just picked them off like flies.”
BACK TO THE ARMY
The American Legion learned of Clark’s story shortly after he returned to Pennsylvania. At 14, he became the organization’s youngest member.
A newspaper clipping from the time shows Clark raising his right hand during the induction ceremony. He looks years older than his age.
For a time, he worked as a Pipefitter on dredging ships. He hitchhiked from New York to Miami and found work at each stop. No employer asked for proof of age, he said, because he could just show his discharge papers.
He turned 17 in Florida and visited an Army recruiter. Because of his previous discharge, the service was more careful: The recruiter demanded to see a notarized permission letter signed by Clark’s mother, a copy of his birth certificate and affidavits from three people who had known him all his life.
In 1948, Clark rejoined the Army. He spent the next 22 years in the service.
“The Army really felt like I was returning home.”
A BRUSH WITH DEATH
Clark was assigned to Germany, where his company helped offload supplies during the Berlin Airlift and guarded Nazi prisoners at Spandau Prison. He later served in an honor guard.
When war broke out in Korea, he left Germany for combat duty.
His unit fought in the trenches along the front line, including the historic day when the military began desegregating units divided along racial lines.
After his combat tour, he was stationed at several Army installations, including Fort Lewis.
In 1964, he was assigned to a transportation boat company in Vietnam. He worked as a chief engineer aboard the barges that ferried troops, cargo and tanks down the rivers there.
He returned to Fort Lewis in 1969 and retired.
His first civilian job brought him back to Vietnam, where he had his closest brush with death in a war zone. He worked aboard a surveying ship, using sonar to map riverbeds so the Navy could dredge the bottoms and open them to barges.
One night, an enemy frogman placed a bomb on the hull of the ship while it was anchored. The blast threw Clark from the bunk where he slept below deck. He escaped the sinking ship, reached an aid station and was flown to Guam for treatment.
Only two of the nine people on the ship survived.
In 2005, Clark self-published a book about his military experiences. “American Soldier at 13 Years Old” has sold about 300 copies.
His is a story that he said he enjoys sharing with others.
“I have no regrets about my military service,” he wrote. “My exposure to war will forever be in my memories.”
About Veterans Day, he said it’s “absolutely a big deal. But veterans should be remembered more often.”
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