LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Living in Arkansas are a group of 20 people like no other. They have a bond that was built as children, thrown into one of the scariest situations anyone could ever face.
They lied about their birth dates in order to go off to war.
They’re known as the Veterans of Underage Military Service Association.
Hot Springs man Sid Heafner is one of them. He joined the Marines at just 15 years old.
Sid loves computers and telling stories that make people laugh. But Sid also remembers a time when survival was the only thing on his mind.
“Literally woke up in the middle of the night and pinched myself, clawed my skin, to try to get myself to wake up,” Sid said. “This has gotta be a dream. This is not really happening.”
Sid became the newest member of the United States Marine Corp when he was just 15 years old.
“We was no longer a human being,” Sid said. “We was maggots. Back in those days, they didn’t have to treat you with kid gloves.” Like most coming of age stories, this one starts with a girl.
“I wanted to go see her before they left,” Sid said. “They was movin’ the next morning.”
But Sid didn’t have a working car and his parents wouldn’t let him borrow theirs. He was fed up.
Sid ran away from his home in Pope, Miss. in 1955.
“I picked the phone up, called a friend of mine, said I’m leaving home,” Sid said.
That friend was Sid’s younger buddy, Melvin Burns.
Sid asked Melvin to pack him an extra pair of pants, and that was that.
“The last thing I could hear my mother saying was, ‘Sid, you come back here” and Daddy saying he’s gonna take a belt to me and I just kept walking,” Sid said.
Sid and Melvin went to Memphis, but couldn’t find work.
“We just made our minds up,” Sid said. “We’re not going back home one way or another.”
But they did find a Marine Corp recruiting office.
The recruiter knew Sid and Melvin were underage but —
“He asked, do you think that your high school principal will give you a blank school record?,” Sid said.
And sure enough, he did.
“Mr. Davis said, ‘well you know this might be good for you,” Sid said.
Now, the principal refused to sign a fraudulent document, so Sid and Melvin —
“We signed each other’s,” Sid said.
Soon, Sid was on his way to Parris Island in South Carolina for training.
He was more excited than scared.
Sid’s big brother, Orman, was also in the service and had told Heafner about all the good times he had.
“I could go to the clubs, the slots and drink beer, and stuff like this,” Sid said. “So, this is what I’m expecting and I get there, that was my first bubble burst.”
Sid’s naivity got him through painful drills as he recalls wondering —
“Now which one of these is the beer hall?,” Sid said.
Sid saw things that would make a kid grow up real fast.
One member of his platoon turned in one of Sid’s drill instructors for abuse.
That instructor didn’t get in trouble and that member was brutally hazed upon his return to the platoon.
“It was a different time, different place,” Sid said.
Sid knew telling people his age would have been an easy out.
“If I tell them now, everyone in my platoon is gonna, baby this and chicken that,” Sid said.
After Sid’s training, he went to Okinawa, where he was told to keep his bayonet clean and ready to go. He was 17 years old.
“I was prepared to do my job,” Sid said. “I didn’t think about death, but naturally, it was there. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t dwell on it. You did what you was told and you did the best job you could.”
Sid spent a few years in the Marines before switching to the Air Force.
That’s when he married Joyce and had three children.
“They have trouble believing my story,” Sid said. “That can’t be you, pop. Yeah, that’s me! Can’t you recognize me? Of course, that’s me. They say you look like a baby. I say, well, I was kinda young.”
Sid served his country until his retirement in 1976.
As for his runaway buddy Melvin, “Melvin was in a severe car wreck,” Sid said. “He got brain damaged. He’s been deceased now quite a while. Forty, forty-five years.”
Sid has a simple message to folks about his small group of underage veterans.
“I just want them to know that we exist,” Sid said. “No particular fame or anything like that and no particular recognition. It’s just something we did.”
Those few, those band of brothers, like Sid, who chose the hard road of bravery and sacrifice — that forged a boy into a man.
The Veterans of Underage Military Service Association has no headquarters, no local chapters, no address, no email.
They operate out of their homes and sadly, are totally dissolving on December 31, 2020.
Most of the members are 90 years old or older.
Sid hopes, though, by telling this story, the group will continue on.