When Louis Cianca was a 15-year-old altar boy at Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii in Williamsburg during World War II, he stole into the church records and altered a baptismal certificate with the goal of joining the fight.
The ruse worked, though perhaps too well.
Just months later, and still two years shy of the legal age for military enlistment, Cianca was a crew member aboard what became the most battle-tested destroyer in the American fleet -- the USS O'Bannon.StoryLI remembers WWIISee alsoWar stories: LIers recall D-DayExploreNYers who died in World War II
Sent with a pair of other destroyers to confront Japanese warships in the Solomon Islands north of Australia, the O'Bannon's 490 crew members would eventually find themselves fighting for their lives.
"I was scared, but even the officers were scared," Cianca recalled of the Oct. 6, 1943 Battle of Vella Lavella, during which the O'Bannon and another destroyer were badly damaged, a third was sunk, and Cianca sustained a head injury that ended his wartime service. "I think by then, everybody aboard ship was missing their mama and their papa."
Pushed by Depression-era poverty, pulled by Pearl Harbor patriotism, or lured by a lust for adventure, tens of thousands of American children evaded the military's ban on underage enlistments during World War II, and signed up before they reached the age of 18.
"I went in two months after Pearl Harbor, because I wanted to help defend our country," said Cianca, who joined up and was gone for months without telling his parents where he was or what he had done.
Now 89, and long retired from the Westbury furniture business he owned, Cianca said he was hardly the only underage kid he knew who enlisted around the time he did.
"I knew boys who went in at 16 and 17," Cianca said. "We were very patriotic."
An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Americans enlisted before they were eligible, according to John Henson, the national commander of Veterans of Underage Military Service, whose 1,200 remaining members mostly joined the military before their 17th birthday. Twenty-nine members enlisted at 13, Henson said.
The youngest on record was Calvin L. Graham, a Texas sixth-grader who was 12 years, four months and 12 days old when he enlisted in 1942. The smooth-talking Graham forged his mother's signature, then persuaded a military dentist who recognized his teeth as those of a child to let him pass.
Two months later, Graham was cited for bravery during the Battle of Guadalcanal when he pulled fellow sailors to safety aboard the USS South Dakota even though a shrapnel burst had knocked out his front teeth. Navy officials eventually voided his enlistment as fraudulent in 1943, denying him veteran status. But presidential interventions decades later secured for him an honorable discharge, the Bronze Star, with V for valor, and the Purple Heart.
Cianca, who was earning a veteran's pension by the time he was 17, said his teenage military experience matured him quickly.
The son of Italian immigrants, he said he was exposed to Jim Crow racial discrimination for the first time while stationed in Virginia. White southerners menaced and hurled racial slurs at him for socializing with African-American sailors, he said.
Later, the sight of dead sailors awash in the brine following sea battles in the South Pacific left the teenage Cianca deeply shaken.
"We sank a couple of destroyers, a heavy cruiser, and the bodies would come floating up," said Cianca, who manned a 20-mm anti-aircraft gun during the fighting. "As a matter of fact, we would pull our own seamen out during big naval engagements, and lay their corpses on deck."
"I saw things you shouldn't see at 16," Cianca continued. "I cried a lot in the dark. But you had to grow up quick. I did everything that guys who were 30, 40, 50 were doing."
Cianca almost perished during Vella Lavella. A Japanese torpedo ripped apart another American destroyer -- the Chevalier. Unable to avoid the sinking hulk, the O'Bannon rammed the Chevalier at speed, opening a cavernous hole in the O'Bannon's hull.
The collision with the Chevalier hurled Cianca into a beam, leaving him with a head injury that eventually forced him to recuperate at a naval hospital in San Francisco. He was still 17 when he was given a medical discharge. His $29.12 pension more than covered the rent for his first apartment two years later, in a Fort Greene brownstone he shared with his new bride.
Cianca said although he believes war is no place for children, he has no regrets that he was in combat while childhood friends were still in class at Brooklyn's Alexander Hamilton High School.
"Would I want my children to do it, no way," said Cianca, who married Julia Spina when he was 19, and six years later used a GI Bill mortgage to buy the Carle Place home where they raised four children. "I realized later on what I did to my mother and father. It was unconscionable. My mother not knowing where I was for three months."
"But those were the days," he continued. "I look back upon it and say to myself I'm proud that I did go through what I did."