Vets who joined while underage gather for reunion in Branson

Sunday, April 25, 2004

BRANSON, Mo. -- Doris Gilbert remembers like it was yesterday the day in 1946 when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower shook her hand, grinned and said: "Go home little girl, and come back when you grow up. We need soldiers like you."

Gilbert sneaked into the Women's Army Corps during World War II at age 13. Like many others, she falsified her birth certificate to enlist at a time when others her age were happily playing childhood games.

Gilbert is gathering with some 300 of those other "young warriors" through today at Lodge of the Ozarks in Branson.

They are members of Veterans of Underage Military Service -- an association for youngsters who circumvented recruiting requirements, altered documents and in some cases lied to serve in the armed forces.

Forgiven by militaryVeterans of Underage Military Service was founded in 1991 to, among other things, assure underage veterans that they would not suffer repercussions for their fraudulent enlistments. Organizers secured policy letters from all military branches stating that underage veterans and military retirees were forgiven and eligible to receive the same benefits as other soldiers.

Six of its members served in World War II at age 12, although most were between the ages of 13 and 16, said retired Col. Ken Buster, who helped organize the reunion.

Women had to be 21 to enlist during the war, while men had to be 17. It was easier to skirt the age requirement because formal birth certificates were rarely issued in those days, Buster said. There also was no national system in place to verify documentation.

Computers now provide a more accurate means of cross-checking Social Security, birth records and other documentation to ensure both sexes meet the required enlistment age of 18, said Lt. Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department.

"It would be highly unlikely that somebody would be able to do it as they did in the past," she said. "It was a different age, and some of the youngest members of the greatest generation did some mighty creative things to serve their country."

It's impossible to determine how many soldiers fraudulently enlisted, said Buster, who joined the California National Guard at 15.

"There was a wave of patriotism that spread across the United States during World War II," said Buster, who lives in Heber Springs, Ark. "There also were economic reasons because of the Depression. The military gave people a chance to make something of themselves."

'He saw something in me'Buster was a high school junior and a familiar face at juvenile hall when he met a retired Marine major who served as a California Cadet Corps instructor.

"He saw something in me that no one else saw," Buster said. "He told me I had potential and could become someone that I could be proud of, but I had to change the direction of my life."

The instructor convinced a friend at the local California National Guard unit to take Buster. He enlisted April 27, 1955, and went on to serve in the Navy, as well as Missouri Marine Reserves and Missouri Army National Guard.

"We all needed something that we didn't have," Buster said. "The military service gave us the support and guidance that we needed."

Meanwhile, Gilbert was working for a Chinese couple and sleeping in the back room of their restaurant in February 1944 when she came across an Army poster in Houston. It read: "I want you."

"I thought, 'If they want me, I want to join,"' said Gilbert, 74, of Amarillo, Texas.

The recruiter gave her a form to fill out to verify her age. A friend's mother helped her complete it to indicate she was 21.

Gilbert, who stood 5-foot-3 and weighed 105 pounds, was told she was underweight during her physical.

"They told me to go home and eat bananas and drink lots of water, and come back tomorrow," she said. "That's what I did."

Gilbert entered the Women's Army Corps on March 5, 1944. She had served nearly two years as a medical corpsman when she was called into her commander's office. Gilbert was shown a letter from her mother that claimed she was underage.

"I flatly denied it," she said.

She was 15 years old when she was shipped in February 1946 to Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, and given an honorable discharge. That is where she had her memorable meeting with Eisenhower.

"I cried because I did not want to go home," Gilbert said.

Gilbert married a year after she returned home and never returned to service.

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