At the age of 12, Calvin Graham told his mother he was heading off to visit relatives in San Diego. Already in a boarding house with his older brother in Crockett, Texas, to avoid the wrath of an abusive stepfather, Graham’s absence wasn’t so unusual, and his mother didn’t think much of it.

Not until she learned Graham wasn’t off visiting relatives but was actually stationed on a battleship during World War II. He had enlisted.

Graham’s story, which was dramatized in the 1988 TV movie Too Young the Hero with Ricky Schroder, is among the most outlandish of the war. Though he was eager to escape his fractured domestic situation, he was also inspired to represent his country after learning that some of his cousins had died during the conflict. But at just 12 years old, he was five years younger than the minimum required enlistment age of 17—and even that required parental consent. So he had his mother’s signature forged and a phony notarization placed.

Along with a friend, he lined up for a physical at a Navy recruitment office in 1942. Despite his slim 5-foot, 2-inch, 125-pound frame, the attending physician was too overworked to investigate his questionable claim of being 17. The Navy had suffered tremendous losses during the war and was eager to build up its ranks.

That was how Graham found himself first in basic training and then onboard the USS South Dakota, a battleship in the South Pacific that saw heavy fire from Japanese opposition. During the Battle of Guadalcanal in the fall of 1942, Graham—working as a gunner—absorbed fire, shrapnel slicing through his face. That conflict resulted in 38 dead on the South Dakota.

The skirmish had profound effects on Graham, who was honored with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his courage. While he was recovering, newsreel footage of the battle was circulated. And when his mother saw it, she immediately reported to the Navy that her underage son was fighting in the war.

Though Graham had only the best of intentions, the Navy stripped him of any valor. They put him into a brig for three months, took away his medals, and denied him disability benefits.

The war and the subsequent controversies aged him considerably. After trying to attend school, he dropped out and got married at 14. The next year, he was a father; his divorce would soon follow. When he was older, he enlisted in the Marines, got injured a second time, and took on odd jobs for the remainder of his life.

In the late 1970s, Texas senators Lloyd Bentsen and John Tower lobbied to give Graham an honorable discharge so his benefits could be restored. That finally happened in 1988, though Graham only received a portion of the benefits he was owed. (He was also given his Bronze Star back.) In the 1990s, the newly formed Veterans of Underage Military Service found Graham was just one of many minors who had enlisted.

He died in 1992 at age 62, leaving behind a complicated legacy. While no one could ever sanction a child serving in wartime, Graham’s nobility and selflessness will never be forgotten.

[h/t Smithsonian]