BRANSON, Mo. – Doris Gilbert remembers like it was yesterday that day in 1946 when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (search) shook her hand, grinned and said: "Go home little girl, and come back when you grow up. We need soldiers like you."
Gilbert had sneaked into the Women's Army Corps (search) during World War II at age 13. Like many others, she falsified her birth certificate to enlist at a time when others her age were happily playing childhood games.
Gilbert recalls coming across an Army poster in February 1944 in Houston that read: "I want you." Said Gilbert, 74, of Amarillo, Texas: "I thought, 'If they want me, I want to join.'"
She is now a proud member of Veterans of Underage Military Service (search) — a unique association for people who circumvented recruiting requirements, altered documents and in some cases lied to serve in war.
The association was founded in 1991 to, among other things, assure underage veterans that they would not suffer repercussions for their fraudulent enlistments.
Organizers secured policy letters from all military branches stating that underage veterans and military retirees were forgiven and eligible to receive the same benefit as other soldiers.
Six of its some 300 members served in World War II at 12, although most are between the ages of 13 and 16, said Ret. Col. Ken Buster, who helped organize a recent reunion here.
Women had to be 21 to enlist during the war, while men had to be 17. It was easier to skirt the age requirement because formal birth certificates were rarely issued in those days, Buster said. There also was no national system in place to verify documentation.
Computers now provide a more accurate means of cross-checking Social Security, birth records and other documentation to ensure both sexes meet the required enlistment age of 18, said Lt. Commander Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department.
"It would be highly unlikely that somebody would be able to do it as they did in the past," she said. "It was a different age, and some of the youngest members of the greatest generation did some mighty creative things to serve their country."
It's impossible to determine how many soldiers fraudulently enlisted, said Buster, who himself joined the California National Guard at 15.
"There was a wave of patriotism that spread across the United States during World War II," said Buster, who lives in Heber Springs, Ark. "There also were economic reasons because of the Depression. The military gave people a chance to make something of themselves."
Buster was a high school junior and a familiar face at juvenile hall when he met a retired Marine major who served as a California Cadet Corps instructor.
"He saw something in me that no one else saw," Buster said. "He told me I had potential and could become someone that I could be proud of, but I had to change the direction of my life."
The instructor convinced a friend at the local California National Guard unit to take Buster. He enlisted April 27, 1955, and went on to serve in the Navy, as well as Missouri Marine Reserves and Missouri Army National Guard.
"We all needed something that we didn't have," Buster said. "The military service gave us the support and guidance that we needed."
Dorothy Brandt enlisted in 1944 in the Women's Army Corps, at age 15, because she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her four older brothers. Brandt, now 76, of Alamosa, Calif., was sent to Italy nearly two years into her service.
"My parents didn't want me to go, but we were poor people," she said. "My mother told me that if I got into trouble to tell them (my age) and to come home."
Brandt said her greatest frustration is that women often don't get recognition for their service. "We don't want to be louder than we are, but we don't want to be a footnote either," she said.
In Gilbert's case, a recruiter gave her a form to fill out to verify her age and a friend's mother helped her complete it to indicate she was 21. Gilbert, who stood 5-foot-3 and weighed 105 pounds, was told she was underweight during her physical.
"They told me to go home and eat bananas and drink lots of water, and come back tomorrow," she recalled with a laugh. "That's what I did."
She was 15 years old in February 1946 when she was sent to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and was given an honorable discharge. That's where she had her memorable meeting with Eisenhower.
"I cried because I did not want to go home," Gilbert said.