Allan Stover wasn't even in high school when he enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1953.
Despite his doctored birth certificate, he believes commanders could tell he was too young to enlist. Stover never admitted it — though he came close when a drill instructor screamed in his face at boot camp.
"How old are you?" the instructor yelled.
"Seventeen, sir," Stover responded nervously.
"And I'm the Queen of Sheba," the instructor quipped.
Stover was 14 — and he was never caught.
Now, at 75, the former Ellicott City man says joining the Coast Guard was "the smartest thing I ever did." But at the same time, he has felt conflicted about having served illegally.
Those mixed emotions led Stover to come clean with the military two decades ago — and, ultimately, to found Veterans of Underage Military Service, a nonprofit created for the thousands who served before they were old enough.
National Cmdr. John Henson says the camaraderie and friendship among members lasts the rest of their lives.
"We're all heading for the final muster," Henson says. "When we get there, we'll know that our brothers and sisters in VUMS will always care about us."
In perhaps the best-known case, Calvin S. Graham was 12 when he joined the Navy in 1942. The Texas native fought in the Pacific, was wounded at Guadalcanal and earned a Bronze Star. But when his commanders learned his age, he was stripped of his medals, thrown in a Navy brig and given a dishonorable discharge.
After a decades-long campaign to clear his record, Graham eventually was given an honorable discharge, the Bronze Star and other awards were returned to him, and his story was made into the television movie "Too Young the Hero."
Such tales might make for good material for Hollywood, but the real-life effects of combat on child soldiers can be disastrous, says activist Jo Becker.
Becker, the children's rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch and founder of the organization now called Child Soldiers International, says children who have participated in armed conflict often have difficulty socializing, a tendency toward violence, nightmares and other psychological issues.
"War can be a horrific experience, regardless of age," Becker says. "Children who join, even if they have good intentions, may not have full awareness of what the consequences may be."
Veterans of Underage Military Service doesn't condone children joining the military, Stover says. But he makes a distinction between those sometimes younger than 10 who are forced into combat by warlords in the developing world and teens in the West who freely volunteer for it.
"It's a fine line," he says.
Group members say that if they were given the chance, they'd enlist again.
When Otis Long was young, he says, he hung out with a group of "hoodlums." The Linthicum man says he knew at the time that if he didn't join the service, he'd probably end up in jail.
"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.
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.