Veterans who were underage enlistees share their experiences
FAYETTEVILLE, Pa. — In 1946, Donald Farner, Fayetteville, decided he was going to serve in the military.
The only problem was that he was only 16 at the time, too young to enter the service.
Farner, now 84, said that with a little help from his father, who signed that he was eligible at a recruiter's office, he joined the United States Air Force.
"There was something about the military," Farner said. "It was something I wanted to do."
He had never "slept a day away from home," which was a plot of land in Fayetteville. He worked on the family fruit orchard until Sept. 7, when he went into the recruiter's office.
"I was just a farm boy, raising fruit," he said. "But growing up, everything around me was war. There were shows on the television about it and I watched every single one."
The hardest part came when he told his mother that he'd enlisted and was scheduled to ship out on Monday, two days away.
"She was not too happy," he said, laughing.
While there wasn't a discussion of it, he said he knew that there were other underage soldiers who were enlisting, but said he was never questioned, possibly due to his size and build from farming.
His career Air Force was with the 433rd Fighter Squadron. He traveled to Korea, Japan and even Alaska — for cold weather testing of aircraft engines.
"Now, that was quite an experience," he said.
At 19, he was assigned to escort deceased WWII soldiers back home. It was something that no soldier wanted to do.
"I actually declined to go the first time they asked me," Farner said. "Eventually, they wore me down."
After serving for five years and 10 months, and becoming a staff sergeant, he was medically discharged due to a diagnosis of Crohn's Disease. In 1954, he went to work at Letterkenny Army Depot until he retired.
"I didn't want to get out," he said. "I was serving my country."
It was not until later in life that he discovered that many other veterans, who had joined the service under the guise of being older, had an organization where they could share experiences.
The Veterans of Underage Military Services, Inc., founded in 1991, offers membership for U.S. military servicemen under the age of 17, under 16 for World War II Merchant Marine vets and under 20 for female veterans of World War II, according to their website. The organization has at least 60 members, not including descendents and spouses, Farner said, but the exact number changes frequently.
"What they do is great," Farner said. The organization, currently under the command of John Henson, who entered the Air Force at 16, tries to maintain contact with these veterans, to assure all underage veterans that there will be no retribution from the government and allows a place for them to socialize
Farner said the reunions, held all over the world, offer a great opportunity to get together to talk and share stories as well as review photographs from the war.
He said the organization often gets new members when soldiers become aware of its existence, but many have never heard of it and due to modern age restrictions, there are no more soldiers entering into service at young ages.
"We are a dying breed," he said. "As time goes by, we get older. It's nice when we get new members so the organization can live on."
Farner was featured in one of the organization's books, the third volume of "America's Youngest Warriors" but made sure to point out other volumes featured soldiers, some as young as 12, who joined the service.
"I'm no hero," Farner said. "These are the men and women who enlisted because of the war and that they felt it was the right thing to do."
And have there been any consequences to the soldiers for entering at a younger age?
"They were thinking about court-martialing us," Varner said, with a hint of a smile. "But they decided against it."