Reunion for underage enlistees set for Lafayette

Veterans unite who served prior to being of legal age

Advocate staff photo by BRAD BOWIE -- Ralph Kleyla, Louisiana Commander of the Veterans of Underage Military Service, recalls his time as an underage Marine, when he joined at just 16. The organization is hosting it's annual reunion at the Holiday Inn this week in Lafayette.
Advocate staff photo by BRAD BOWIE -- Ralph Kleyla, Louisiana Commander of the Veterans of Underage Military Service, recalls his time as an underage Marine, when he joined at just 16. The organization is hosting it's annual reunion at the Holiday Inn this week in Lafayette.

Pulled by patriotism and a desire for a better life, American kids by the hundreds lied about their ages and signed up for military service during times of war.

Every year, a group of veterans known as the Veterans of Underage Military Service has met somewhere in the country for a party. Last year they gathered in Memphis, Tenn.; two years ago it was in Cheyenne, Wyo.

This year it’s Lafayette’s turn to host the confab for those who served in the military during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars when they were 16 or younger.

“This organization is comprised of those of us who lied to join the service,” said VUMS National Commander John Henson, an Air Force veteran who joined at 16.

He said the organization now has more than 1,100 members, though the numbers are dwindling as the years pass.

“The reason I went in was patriotism, and I knew I could get three square meals a day,” said Ralph Kleyla, a 77-year-old Marine Corps veteran who signed up in 1951 at 16 for action in Korea.

After boot camp in San Diego and additional training at Camp Pendleton, he found the action, getting wounded by artillery shrapnel after three weeks on Korean battlefields.

Then his mama found out where he was.

“She called the commandant of the Marine Corps, President Truman, (heck) I don’t know who else,” Kleyla said, and explained that shortly after he recovered he received an honorable discharge.

He later joined the U.S. Army then worked in the Gulf of Mexico on production platforms.

Kleyla and his wife Mickey live in Loreauville, and have done the planning and running around it takes to put on a reunion of veterans whose numbers are dwindling.

On Thursday, some of the friends they’ve made through the organization will start arriving at the Holiday Inn on the Evangeline Thruway for the four-day confab that features a welcome by Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Dural, a swamp tour in the Atchafalaya Basin and a cash bar for nightly events.

Kleyla, Henson and the group’s founder, Allan Stover, said guys and gals joined the services before they were legally old enough because they sought escape from a bad life at home.

“A lot of us, a lot of us went hungry on occasion. I know I did. That doesn’t sit well with anybody,” said Henson, 76.

Henson said he was 16 when he joined the Air Force at the end of Korean War.

“It had just stopped raging,” he said.

Henson later joined the Air National Guard, retired from the military and now lives in Lewisberry, Pa.

Stover, 74, also sought a better life from the one he was living in Cleveland. At 14, he wandered to the door of the Marine Corps recruiter, he said, but it was closed.

“It was just as well,” Stover said. “They would have laughed me out of the joint.”

The U.S. Coast Guard recruiters didn’t laugh and didn’t look twice at his phony birth certificate, he said, laughing as he talked about leaving the cold weather of Cleveland for Coast Guard duty in tropical climes such as Florida and Hawaii. He’s now living the retired life in The Villages in Florida.

Stover said he started VUMS in 1992 after hearing other vets talk of their experiences.

All three veterans said their military experience shaped them into useful, productive citizens.

“It (military service) doesn’t take care of your problems, but it does show you a better path,” Henson said.

The group’s website, http://www.oldvums.com, states those eligible to be part of VUMS are male war veterans who joined at 16 or younger, or Merchant Marines who were 15 or younger, and World War II female veterans who were 20 or younger.

The website also states that there will be no retribution from the U.S. government.