At 14, Korean War Soldier Enlisted Before He Could Shave

July 28, 1991|By Marc LeGoff | Marc LeGoff,Staff writer

At 14, an age when most boys' biggest concern is making the junior varsity baseball team, Allan Stover served aboard the Coast Guard cutter Basswood during the closing months of the Korean War.

Stover, then a "semi-rebellious" Cleveland teen-ager who lived with his divorced mother, lied to the Coast Guard recruiting office about his age, intercepted the parental waiver forms sent through the mail and reported to boot camp in January 1953.

Eager to share his experiences with others like him, Stover, 53, of Ellicott City, has founded the Veterans of Underage Military Service.

The group's aim is to ensure fair treatment of U.S. military veterans who served prior to age 17, promote camaraderie and record the personal histories of its members.

He also hopes to correspond with enough "underage" veterans to plan a reunion some time next year.

"There was a lot of pressure. I obviously looked like I was only 14 and was being asked how old I was at every turn," he said. "But I never cracked and made it through four years without telling a soul my true age."

Now a systems engineer with Westinghouse in Hunt Valley, the silver-haired Stover admits that he was not much of a studentin his youth. Swept up in the wave of patriotism during the Korean War, he figured the military would be the best way to escape his dead-end Cleveland neighborhood.

By threatening to join a local gang, Stover persuaded his older sister, Irene, to change the year on his birth certificate from 1938 to 1935. The typewriter in the unemploymentoffice where Irene worked as a secretary was identical to typewriters in other state offices.

Stover initially took the altered document to the Marine Corps recruiting office. But when he found that office closed, he headed cross-town and talked to recruiters from the Coast Guard.

"The thing that probably saved me from being found out was the bureaucracy," Stover said. "I guess no one checked up on me because it would have been too much of a bother. Plus, I think that they were getting a little desperate for recruits at the time."

The nearly 5-foot, 3-inch, 120-pound lad even got a little unsolicited help from the doctor during his physical examination.

"The doctor told me to take a big breath," Stover said. "I didn't really understand what he meant at the time, but I figured out afterward that (the giant breath) lifted my head up an inch or so and shot me over the minimum required height."

Stover said he begged his superiors to send him into combat when he finished boot camp at Cape May, N.J., in April 1953, but his first assignment as a seaman apprentice took him to Honolulu.

"I was strong enough physically to perform my duties, but Iwasn't that mature emotionally. After all, I was just a kid dealing with men four and five years older than me," Stover said.

Some of his general on-deck responsibilities included painting, sail-making, rope work and cleaning.

The only time Stover crossed the Korean coastline was by airplane while on R & R about six months after the warhad ended.

By the time he was promoted to the rank of seaman at the end of his first year, the dark-haired youth had outgrown quite a few uniforms and reached his present height of about 5-foot-8.

Stover did his best to give the appearance he was older. Although he didnot sport any facial hair for a few years after enlisting, he would often lather up and go through early morning shaving rituals just thesame.

Once, a fellow seaman shaving next to him grabbed his razorand discovered it had no blade.

"I was mortified. I'm not sure whether he thought I was too young or just embarrassed that I didn't have enough of a beard and had to fake it," Stover said. "But he never told on me."

"Kids" -- as fellow servicemen called them -- risked being court-martialed for their fraudulent enlistment. However, the majority who were caught were quietly discharged and sent home.

"After all, we were juveniles. If society doesn't punish juvenile criminals like adults, how can they punish those whose only real crime is serving their country?" Stover asked.

Stover recently placed advertisements in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the American Legion magazine seeking prospective members for his group. He has received three responses.

He said there are probably quite a few "kids"in the military now -- some who served in Operation Desert Storm -- and would like to hear from them as well. All contacts would be kept confidential, he said.

After his honorable discharge at 18, Stoverreturned to civilian life.

He earned his high school equivalency degree through a correspondence course and graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Pacific States University in Los Angeles, with financial aid provided by the G.I. Bill.

Stover later added a master's degree in engineering management from Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

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