Ocean Beach author A. Lee Brown tells the untold story of underage WWII veterans in ‘The Varsity’
The novel centers on two young men who return from the war to high school in Point Loma.
A. Lee Brown is not like most octogenarians. Most people his age would be content to enjoy retirement, but the longtime Ocean Beach resident displays a noticeable drive when it comes to a certain project.
“I look back on it and I might have went into it a little naive,” Brown said as he gazed at the iconic Ocean Beach lifeguard tower where he once worked more than a half-century earlier.
That project is “The Varsity: A Story of America’s Underage Warriors in WWII,” a novel that, in more ways than one, has been decades in the making. Set both in San Diego and among the battles of World War II, the book centers on two young men — boys at the time they enlisted — who return from the war to high school in Point Loma. Once there, they lead the school’s football team to a winning streak while dealing with their personal traumas from the war.
As is often the case with historical novels, the true stories that informed “The Varsity” are often stranger than fiction. For Brown, it began with an incidental conversation he had with a fellow surfer in 1985. Brown had helped organize a reunion of a surfing club that he joined in the 1950s while attending Point Loma High School. When a fellow member mentioned Point Loma High’s championship football team of 1945 and ‘46, Brown inquired further and says he was surprised by what he was told.
“We were comparing old football stories and he told me that many of these guys on the football team had enlisted in the military illegally, underage, went and fought in World War II and came home still in their teens,” Brown said.
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Brown couldn’t help but wonder: Did that happen a lot, or were those local boys something of an anomaly?
“And if it is true, why have we not heard about this?” he said. “How many of them are there? I couldn’t find any information about it, and this is where the story really begins.”
‘A deliberately kept secret’
Finding information about military operations is already tricky enough, but for Brown, the thought that children, some as young as 12, had faked their age or forged their parents’ consent in order to enlist and fight in World War II became something of an obsession.
He’s collected dozens of newspaper clippings and photographs over the years. There’s the story of Army Lt. Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated soldiers who served in WWII, who tried three times to join up at age 16 and was finally successful at 17.
There’s the story of Calvin Graham, who was 12 when he joined the Navy shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and was aboard the battleship USS South Dakota when it was bombed during the battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. Despite his body being torn up by shrapnel and falling three decks, Graham rescued several of his shipmates and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Then there are the countless stories of service members who enlisted underage, served honorably, became heroes in some cases, only to return home and be denied military benefits after their true age was discovered. In Graham’s case, when his true age was found out, he was sent to the brig, stripped of his medals and benefits and relieved of service. Some of his medals were reinstated by the Navy in 1978, but he did not get back his Purple Heart and received only $337 in back pay.
When Brown first started researching these stories in the 1980s and ’90s, he was initially shocked that people weren’t more aware of the underage veterans. But as he continued to dive in, it became more obvious to him why the stories remained secret. The military likely would not want the public to know that minors had been serving, but what surprised Brown more was that many of the veterans did not want to come forward.
“There were maybe up to 100,000 of these kids, some as young as 12, and they had violated federal law and they were prosecuted if they were caught,” Brown said. “They just were reluctant to tell anyone, even their families. It was a deliberately kept secret by all parties.”
Things changed when Brown met Ray Jackson in the mid-2000s. Jackson, who joined the Marines when he was 16, founded the group Veterans of Underage Military Service in 1991 and had compiled a three-volume set of books (“America’s Youngest Warriors”) that became the authoritative compilation of the men and women who had served underage.
In April 2010, with some insistence from Jackson, Brown attended a Veterans of Underage Military Service reunion. He recalls hundreds of men in attendance and, with Jackson vouching for him, he began to make connections that he would use to schedule hundreds of interviews over the next three years.
Brown initially thought about doing something in the nonfiction realm. But given that Jackson had already written a comprehensive compendium, Brown decided to adapt the stories to a fictionalized form.
“At some point I thought to myself: ‘Why don’t you try telling this story? To make it as historically accurate as you can, but do the old Samuel Taylor Coleridge business where you suspend disbelief?’”
‘A challenge to myself’
“I must have written that opening paragraph 100 times,” Brown said with a laugh while reading the first passage from “The Varsity.” “It took me almost half a year just for that paragraph.”
The fact that the novel opens at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma is not coincidental. Brown had tried to write “The Varsity” for years, but like any first-time author, he became bogged down in details.
One day, however, he made a trip to Fort Rosecrans to take in the headstones against the panorama of the Pacific Ocean and thought to himself, “This story needs to be told.”
“In many ways, it was a challenge to myself. I’d never written fiction or dialogue before,” Brown recalled.
The dialogue presented a challenge, but even more daunting was presenting a novel that was both entertaining and historically accurate.
“I didn’t want to write anything that could be researched and found to be untrue,” said Brown, who spent weeks doing research at the Army Museum in Washington, D.C., and the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia.
The regiments in which the novel’s protagonists, Bruce Harrison and Manny da Silva, serve in “The Varsity” were actual units in World War II, and every battle and movement those units make in the book is historically accurate.
“There is some poetic license, of course,” Brown said. He added that there are some autobiographical elements to the character of Bruce.
Using the story of the Point Loma football team as a template, “The Varsity” follows Bruce and Manny, two San Diego kids who enlist and serve illegally, then return home in hopes of finishing high school. The two end up joining the varsity football team and, as co-captains, help turn a feckless squad into a championship contender.
“We now estimate that about 30,000 soldiers returned to their high schools nationwide,” Brown said. “Given the banality of senior ditch days and homecoming parades for guys who fought in a war, many of them turned to sports.”
‘A Homeric journey’
Brown likes to describe “The Varsity” as a “standard Homeric journey,” referring to Homer’s classic tale of Odysseus returning home to the island of Ithaca after fighting in the war at Troy. But Brown’s nearly 40-year journey to write his first novel could be seen as something of an odyssey itself.
But even without his new career as a novelist, Brown has lived a distinguished life. Born in Texas, he moved to Ocean Beach when he was very young and says he got “hooked on the beach.” He attended San Diego State University and, after some sojourns in Minnesota and Texas, where he received a water sciences doctorate from the University of Texas, he moved back to San Diego to teach at SDSU and Grossmont College.
After receiving multiple educator awards, a deanship and writing several textbooks and scientific papers, Brown retired from the California State University system in 2018 after 25 years. That same year, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. He’s now in remission and says he feels good.
Brown’s diagnosis served as one final push to complete “The Varsity” and get it out into the world.
“I almost had to unteach myself the academic writing, but in many ways, the story just told itself,” said Brown, who often read Hemingway for inspiration.
Though he’s already busy writing a semiautobiographical novel about San Diego beach culture in the 1960s, Brown is, for the moment, enjoying some of the positive reception he’s received for “The Varsity” since self-publishing it in 2020. He pulled out a handwritten letter from former newscaster and author Tom Brokaw, who wrote a glowing blurb for the book. The messages that mean the most to Brown, however, remain the comments and letters he receives from surviving underage veterans and their families.
“A lot of people who did serve during that time would ask: ‘How did you do that? Were you there?’” said Brown, who was made an honorary member of Veterans of Underage Military Service. “Of course that feels good.”