House Speaker Jim Wright is asking Congress to lift "a pall of shame" from the government and override the military's steadfast refusal to grant full benefits to a man who became a World War II hero at the age of 12.
Wright testified Calvin Graham was "hardly old enough to be a Boy Scout, let alone be a soldier or a sailor," when he lied about his age and enlisted in the Navy in 1942, burning with "a youthful enthusiasm to get into the fight and be a part of our country's effort."Although Graham ignored his injuries aboard the USS South Dakota during the battle of Guadalcanal to help those who had lost limbs, the government has turned a cold shoulder on the disabled man from Fort Worth, Texas, Wright testified Thursday before a House Judiciary subcommittee.
"From a narrowly legal point of view, perhaps those who so long have thwarted efforts to restore simple justice to Calvin Graham may feel they were justified. But on the basis of common sense, ethics, morality, valor, simple decency, justice and fairness, they were painfully wrong," said Wright, D-Texas.
"The denial of full benefits to Calvin Graham brings a pall of shame over the government of the United States," the speaker said as his wheelchair-bound constituent sat at his side.
When asked whether he wanted to testify on legislation to give him disability benefits and back pay, Graham, 58, said: "I've got a lump in my throat right now."
In an interview, Graham said patriotism was at a fevered pitch when, weighing 125 pounds and standing at 5-feet-2, he joined the Navy in Houston and was assigned to the battleship as an anti-aircraft gun loader.
After shrapnel ripped through his mouth during the battle of Guadalcanal, Graham said he remained aboard the ship's deck applying tourniquets to those who had lost an arm or leg.
"I remember everything that happened to me that year like it was yesterday," Graham said. "It burns in my mind. I dream about it a lot."
The military has fought Graham at every turn since a bureaucratic error landed him in the brig in Corpus Christi, Texas, upon his return from the Pacific. His ship's captain had given him leave to get a notarized letter from his mother permitting him to stay in the Navy. But when he returned, naval authorities treated him like a deserter because they thought he was really 17 and trying to lie about his age. His medals, including the Bronze Star, were taken away, and his record was voided.
It took the Navy until 1978 to grant him an honorable discharge and return the medals to him, Wright said.
In 1980, the government decided to give him $337 in back pay for the three months he spent confined in the brig and his mustering-out benefits, which would have been the right amount at the time of his discharge in 1943.
He also was granted disability status for one tooth, although he said he lost all of his teeth because of war wounds.
Graham has not cashed the two checks sent for his back pay.
Legislation introduced by Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, seeks to grant Graham disability benefits for his mouth injuries and back pay in 1988 dollars, with interest.
Graham joined the Marines when he reached the proper age and served during the Korean War. He said he broke his back and his right ankle when he fell from a pier in California, and those injuries now keep him in a wheelchair.
Even presidential promises have not helped Graham, Wright said. "President Reagan in a California radio address during his campaign for the presidency described Calvin Graham's case as the kind of problem he wanted to address if elected. So let's help him do it."