Samuel Leroy Mendel, who was turned away from the Army in 1898 because he was too young to enlist but lived to become the nation's oldest veteran, died at the age of 104.

Mendel died in his sleep Wednesday in Galva, Ill. He was past commander-in-chief of the Spanish-American War Veteran's Association, despite having never served in the war.

The Fort Worth, Texas, native was only 14 when the U.S. battleship Maine was sunk on June 23, 1898, in Havana, Cuba, then a Spanish port. But he was unable to enlist in the Army until after the Spanish-American war officially ended.

He enlisted in 1901 at age 17, hoping to join in fighting that continued in Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

"I wanted to go to the Philippines to fight," Mendel said in 1983. "But they said I was too young. It was one of the biggest disappointments in my life."

Mendel spent his three-year military career carrying a football on the athletic fields at Fort Sam Houston. In 1902, he was cited as the best athlete in the U.S. Army.