[Vision2020] Linthicum vet was one of youngest to serve in World War II

Tom Hansen thansen at moscow.com
Mon Nov 11 03:17:32 PST 2013

Courtesy of The Stars and Stripes at:



Linthicum vet was one of youngest to serve in World War II
Otis Long grabbed his gun and ran down the deck of the USS Block Island. It had already been hit by two torpedoes, and he could see another one coming toward him.

The captain ordered the more than 900 men on board to abandon the escort carrier, and a frightened Long jumped about 80 feet into the water. He stayed in the Atlantic Ocean off the Canary Islands for about three hours until rescuers arrived.

It was May 29, 1944, and Long was 16 years old.

“Once in a while, I think back and it’s just like it was yesterday,” the 86-year-old Linthicum man said. “Fortunately, I was a good swimmer. Otherwise I might not be here.”

Long was one of many young Americans under age 18 who served in World War II. Some were as young as 12.

And while hundreds of thousands of underage men and women served valiantly in various wars, surviving members of this group say they haven’t been collectively honored.

“We get recognition in newspapers, but no, there has been nothing special ever done by any government office to officially recognize us,” said John Henson, national commander for the Veterans of Underage Military Service organization.

“And I frankly doubt that there will. We’re dying off. There are only 1,200 of us living — how many votes is that? We’re not important enough to get any type of recognition.”

Since the Revolutionary War, Henson said, children between the ages of 12 and 16 have enlisted in the U.S. military. Most underage servicemen came from broken homes, lived in poverty and lacked education, he said.

Of the 16 million who served in America’s wars, an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 were under 18.

The Veterans of Underage Military Service was officially formed in 1991 by Allan Stover of Ellicott City. There are now 1,168 members. In the past few years, Henson said, potential members have had his phone ringing off the hook.

“Many of us carried that secret around and did nothing about it,” he said. “My kids didn’t know how old I was (when I served) until I was well into my 70s.”

Henson said he has good friends who have fascinating stories about their years in the war. Unfortunately, his organization won’t be around much longer, he said.

“We’re dying off, there’s no doubt about it,” Henson said. “If we’re lucky, we’ll have 10 more years.”

Long was 14 when Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941. The following day, he and two of his friends went straight to the recruiting office. Long failed his physical, but tried again six months later and was sworn in at 15.

His father was killed when he was hit by a bus, and his mother had to take care of the family on her own. It was a struggle financially.

Long said his mother didn’t want him to go to war, but that when he told her he would send her money, she agreed.

He told the recruiting office his birth certificate had been destroyed in a fire and got his mother to sign for him.

“The patriotism was so great,” said Long, a retired Maryland state trooper. “Everyone wanted to go.”

In World War II, he served four years as a Navy tail gunner on planes that went after the German submarines hunting Allied ships in the Atlantic. Long said he was the youngest man in his crew.

But some were much younger. Calvin Graham of Texas, a former member of the Veterans of Underage Military Service, was 12 when he served in World War II. He was injured twice and received two Purple Hearts.

When the service discovered Graham’s age, he was given a dishonorable discharge and his Purple Hearts were taken away. It took him 30 years to get his medals back. Graham has since died.

The young men found creative ways to hide their ages. Henson said one member of his organization got a family Bible and wrote a family tree, giving a fake year for his birth.

Henson said it was easier for him. He wrote a false age on his recruiting papers and got his mother to sign it. “What’s a recruiter going to say? ‘Your mother’s a liar?’”

Long said he doesn’t regret enlisting so young — in fact, he would do it all again.

“I’m 86, and I’ve had a good life,” he said. “I served my country and I’m proud of it.”


The USS Block Load underway with a deckload of aircraft.


Seeya 'round town, Moscow, because . . .

"Moscow Cares"
Tom Hansen
Moscow, Idaho
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