"I saw the handwriting on the wall," he says, and joined the Navy.

Long was 16 when his escort aircraft carrier, the USS Block Island, was hit by three German torpedoes off the Canary Islands in the north Atlantic. He says he jumped off the flight deck and had to tread water in the cold ocean for nearly three hours before a destroyer picked him up.

Long, now 86, served in both World War II and Korea before a 25-year career with the Maryland State Police.

It was the right choice, he says. Years after he enlisted he learned that some of those old friends had been caught robbing a bank.

Consequences for those caught serving underage vary among the military branches, but all void the enlistment and release the members.

Those who aren't caught worry they could lose their pensions or other benefits if discovered.

Stover wanted to clear his conscience. In 1991, he wrote letters to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard to ask whether veterans who admit to having enlisted underage could face prosecution. Eventually, each branch responded that no punishment would be brought.

With those letters in hand, he formed the Veterans of Underage Military Service. He recruited 650 members in the first three years en route to a peak of 2,800.

Many, of them — including Graham, the 12-year-old sailor, and Frank Buckles, the last living American World War I veteran, have since died — and membership has dwindled to 1,180.

Veterans of Underage Military Service has two requirements: Members must have been underage at the time of their enlistment in the U.S. military, and they can't have received a dishonorable discharge. A one-time $25 fee grants a lifetime membership.

In the organization's early days, Stover — a longtime engineer for Westinghouse and Northrop Grumman — and his wife spent hours and more than $1,000 recruiting and getting the word out.

The chance to share a beer and stories with others in his same situation made the investment worthwhile, he says. Letting fellow veterans know they had nothing to fear by admitting their patriotic misdeeds was mutually gratifying.

The group holds a national reunion every spring; the next is scheduled for May in Philadelphia. Areas with more members — such as the retiree-rich states of Florida and California — tend to be more active, said Henson, the national commander.

The York, Pa., man was 16 when he joined the Air Force in 1953. He ultimately served 25 years in the Air Force and the Air National Guard.

When he learned of Veterans of Underage Military Service, he says, he was relieved to be able to share his experiences with others who also had joined the service early.

"It was really heartwarming to know that there were so many other people out there who did the same thing and with whom I have so much in common," Henson said.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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Veterans Day events in Baltimore

•9 a.m. Parade that includes veterans, active duty military and high school ROTC members begins at the corner of Charles and Centre streets, proceeds south to Lexington Street, then east to War Memorial Plaza.

•10 a.m. Veterans Day ceremony, War Memorial Plaza, 101 North Gay St.

•11 a.m. Vietnam Veterans Of America ceremony, Maryland Vietnam Memorial, 2825 South Hanover St.