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Veterans fibbed about their age to join the military
Click here to see more photos from Smith and Aldrich
Part-time Yuma resident Fred Smith, 87, is part of a rare breed: a three-war infantryman. He fought in the front lines of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
He's also part of another dying breed: veterans who lied about their age so they could serve in the military.
Albeit Smith did it unknowingly. He was drafted into the Army at 16. With no birth certificate, he thought he was 19.
He's not alone when it comes to veterans who were underage when they enlisted.
“You didn't intentionally lie. The rest of us were liars,” Carl Bailey quipped to Smith.
Elmer Bowling, 74, would not be 17 for another seven months when he joined the National Guard.
Jack Aldrich, 83, joined that state militia at 15 after changing his birth certificate and persuading his mother to sign the paperwork.
With “lots of lying,” Darwin Johnston, 74, got himself drafted at 15. A runaway, he saw it as a way to get off the streets.
Orval “Bud “ Leach, 85, was also a runaway on the verge of going to prison when he decided to join the Coast Guard.
Carl Bailey, 73, knew he wanted to be a Marine after watching the movie “Sands of Iwo Jima” at the age of 10. At 16, he got his mother to sign enlistment papers stating he was 17.
Until a few years ago, these men kept their real enlistment age a secret.
“We could have been prosecuted. We enlisted falsely and served falsely,” Bailey explained. “They could have taken away our benefits and pensions.”
These veterans were eventually granted amnesty. Today, many are part of a national organization called Veterans of Underage Military Service (VUMS). But membership is dwindling.
“We're slowly dying off. You can't get in the service by lying anymore,” Bailey said, pointing out that today's computerized records make it nearly impossible.
It was a different world, when birth certificates could easily be altered. However, in the case of Smith, he had no birth certificate when he was drafted into the Army in 1942.
But he already had a lot of work experience, having worked for several years with the Civilian Conservation Corps. He joined at 13, thinking he was 16.
Smith served until the end of the World War II and re-enlisted in September 1946. In 1950 he headed to Korea, where he was wounded by an exploding grenade.
He found out his true age after returning to the U.S., when he was finally able to get a birth certificate.
He was shocked to learn he was three years younger than he thought.
“I was puzzled. I thought the Army would throw me out,” Smith said.
But officials let him continue his service. He retired in September 1963 and re-enlisted in 1968 so he could serve in Vietnam.
Bowling, a Yuma resident featured in the book, “America's Youngest Warriors Vol. III,” decided to join the National Guard at 16. He pleaded with his father to sign the paperwork and then did some “erasing” on his birth certificate. On April 2, 1955, he was sworn in as a member of the Indiana National Guard.
In September, Bowling went to see the Navy recruiter, who promptly told him, “Aw, boy, you're not old enough to join the Navy.” The following week he decided to try the Air Force recruiter, but he bumped into the Navy recruiter who saw his determination and signed him.
His dad said, “I'll see you in six months with a dishonorable discharge.” Smith replied, “Don't bet on it!”
He re-enlisted in 1959 and served aboard the aircraft carriers whose primary duties were air and sea rescue. He spent time off the coast of Vietnam on the USS Midway. He was honorably discharged in 1966.
“Over the years, I have often been asked, ‘Would you do it again?' My answer is, ‘Yes, in a heartbeat.' The Navy gave me a good education in aviation and taught me leadership skills that have not only helped me through my life, but have given me my life,” Bowling said.
Aldrich joined the Michigan state militia in 1945 at the age of 15 after changing his birth certificate with a typewriter and finding a notary public willing to sign it. He had already persuaded his mother to sign the paperwork.
Why was he so desperate to serve? “A war was on and everyone was pumped up. You would have had to live during World War II to get the sense. We felt patriotic and wanted to play soldier,” Aldrich explained.
In September 1946, he enlisted in the Army at 16. He was honorably discharged after three years.
Johnston was drafted in 1955. A 15-year-old runaway from Washington, he was standing in line at a soup kitchen in San Francisco when someone suggested he join the Navy. He thought is was a great idea. He headed to the Navy recruiting office and was told to register for the draft.
The FBI certified he was of age. How? “Just lots of lying,” Johnston said.
The same day he registered, Johnston was drafted into the Army and put on a bus to basic training. He spent his whole hitch in Europe, with two years in Germany and the last half in Berlin.
“I loved it. The best thing I ever did. Got me off the streets,” Johnston said. “I was getting fed and they were giving me $49 a month. They were paying me all that money.”
Today he divides his time between Yuma and Port Gamble, Wash.
Leach, who winters in Yuma, says he grew up a “delinquent” during the Depression. He ran away from home at 9 years old and hitchhiked and rode trains, sleeping in empty cars.
“I was on verge of going to prison. I was running with gangs,” Leach recalled.
So when the U.S. entered the war in 1941, Leach joined the Coast Guard at 16. It wasn't hard.
“I said, ‘I'd like to join.' They said, ‘Sign here.'”
He served in three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam — and several military branches.
He was in the Merchant Service until 1949, then he joined the Air Force in July 1950.
The Korean War had just started, and he was sent to an Army outfit, until that conflict ended in '54. He served in Vietnam 1968-69. He retired in 1979 as a chief master sergeant, the highest enlisted rank.
Growing up in San Diego, Bailey knew the value of hard work. As a young kid, he sold newspapers or picked fruit. When his family moved to Nevada, he learned he couldn't work until 14. So when his mother registered him for eighth grade, he convinced her to change his age to 14, although he was 13. Right away he got a job washing dishes.
“I had no idea that falsifying my age then would provide me the avenue to join the U.S. Marines later,” Bailey said.
At 16, his mother signed his paperwork stating he was 17, with school records backing it up.
However, after the 10th week of training, someone wrote a letter and blew his story. Officers told him to go home and rejoin at 17, but Bailey asked if could finish boot camp. He was sent back to his platoon.
He completed boot camp expecting to be discharged right away. Instead, Bailey was sent to infantry training and later aviation preparatory and maintenance schools.
He served 20 years in Marines, with two tours in Vietnam, where his helicopter was shot down once.
“I am extremely proud of my military service and the USMC. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it exactly the same way,” Bailey noted.
His story is also featured in “Young Warriors.” Bailey lives in Yuma in the winter and travels with his wife the rest of the time.
The local Veterans of Underage Military Service (VUMS) invite other underage veterans to join them once a month to “shoot the breeze and share combat stories.”
Members meet at 9:30 a.m. the second Thursday of every month at Burger King on Fortuna Road. There are no dues.
For more information about VUMS, go to www.oldvums.com or call Carl Bailey at 928-502-2920.