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Vets were underage, but over determined

August 01, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

Fifty or 60 years ago, the government wasn't as good at record keeping as it is today, Clyde Stair told me. Many babies were born at home, he said. Doctors and not the hospitals issued birth certificates, so it was easier to claim you were older than you were.

But Stair and the men I interviewed recently didn't lie about their ages to buy beer, but to put their lives on the line in the U.S. military. And the five I spoke to last month at the Greencastle, Pa., VFW post were not unique. There are so many - 8,000 to 10,000 nationwide - that they've got their own national organization - Veterans of Underage Military Service, or VUMS for short.

Jerry Gettler went in when he was 15, joining the New York National Guard in 1939. No proof of age was required, just a signed statement. Then in 1940 came passage of the Selective Service Act, which authorized induction from the National Guard and Reserve units.

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"I could have gotten out. It was only supposed to be for one year so I elected to go," Gettler said.

Gettler served as a sergeant in an infantry platoon, but put in for air training when he turned 18 and eventually flew on 38 missions with the 475th P-38 fighter group that was nicknamed "Satan's Angels."

Donald Farner's desire to join up came because his two brothers served in World War II.

"I didn't miss anything about that war on the radio. When I was 16, I went to town one Saturday morning with my dad and I talked him into signing. I was leaving Monday morning and my mom almost had a fit," he said.

Farner served from 1946 to 1952, part of that time in Korea with the 433rd Fighter Squadron.

"I was right where the fighting was going on. I loved it. I got out on disability or I would have stayed," he said.

Charles Trite's father died when he was 3 months old and he spent eight years in Dresslers' Orphans Home in Loysville, Pa. He was reunited with his family when his mother remarried, but after a brother-in-law was killed, he was determined to enlist at age 15.

"When I went into the recruiter, I had no proof of my age. A World War I veteran wrote me a letter and that's how I got in," he said.

He went to Europe aboard the U.S.S. Houston.

"We saw a lot of damage, but we never came under fire. We went to a place in Southampton, England and went to these restaurants and you'd see where half the building had been blown away," he said.

Ned Renner was inspired to join at age 16 after he saw a 1944 movie entitled, "The Fighting Sullivan Brothers," about five siblings from Waterloo, Iowa, who were killed aboard the USS Juneau in 1942.

A 1999 article in The Cedar Rapids Gazette noted that, ironically, the brothers enlisted to avenge the death of their friend, Bill Ball, who died aboard the USS Arizona in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The story notes that five were allowed to serve on the same ship because the Navy was short of crewmen.

"I went in because I wanted to avenge the Sullivan brothers," Renner said.

Renner, whose enlistment allowed him to escape what he said was a "bad home situation," made a career of the service.

He started in the Army Air Corps, then became a deep-sea diver and finished his career in the CID, the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, heading up the Pittsburgh office before he retired, he said.

"I did well for myself. If I'd stayed out at age 16, I would have ended up in reform school," he said.

Renner said he even got to watch some of the Nuremberg war crime trials as a young enlistee.

All of the group's members said that they didn't feel that going into the service early hurt them in any way.

"The fellows that went into the service like we did, well, everybody progressed," Trite said.

"Some of the people I saw at the big reunion, why they were millionaires and heads of big companies," Stair said.

Stair is hoping to start a local chapter of VUMS for several reasons. The group's members nodded in agreement when Stair said that he doesn't feel that today's youth know enough about what happened during World War II.

Stair said encouraging veterans who enlisted at any early age to tell their stories would let today's youth know that freedom isn't free.

He also said it would give those who enlisted underage and who up to now have feared that they'd be penalized for it by the government the good news that they won't be punished in any way.

And there would be the camaraderie, Stair said, of associating with those who have gone through the same things they did.

The group Stair brought to the interview was unique in that none of them were ever hurt in combat, but all accepted the possibility that they could be wounded or worse when they signed up.

If you did the same thing as Stair and his buddies, you might want to contact the national VUMS organization at 1-888-653-8867, or visit its Web site at www.oldvums.com. The site recounts a number of interesting stories, including the fact that Jeremy Boorda, who enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 16, eventually became the chief of naval operations, the Navy's top job.

If you're interested in joining the local chapter, please call Stair at 717-597-5870.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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