By Caleb Slinkard
Thankfully, today most American 15-year-olds only play at war on popular video games like Call of Duty.
When he was 15, Clifford Roy Wherley of Peoria, Ill., was flying combat missions in World War II.
Wherley lied about his age to Army recruiters and forged his parents’ signatures when he enlisted on April Fool’s Day of 1942 and, by the time the Army figured out how old he was, he had already flown 22 combat missions as a gunner aboard a B-26 Martin Maurader bomber in North Africa and the Mediterranean.
He was honorably discharged on Aug. 17, 1943 after the Army discovered his true age. Considered the youngest American to serve in World War II, Wherley was nicknamed the “Babe in Armor” and was featured in the Aug. 27, 1943, edition of Time Magazine.
According to a May 26, 1980, article in the Journal Star, Wherley was credited with shooting down a German Messerschmitt ME-109 fighter and 15 other probable hits. His record led to him being awarded an Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters.
After his honorable discharge, Wherley worked at a factory that made his favorite Martin Maurader and later for the Caterpillar Tractor Co. in East Peoria before enlisting in the Navy at the age of 17. He served as a turret gunner on a B-26 again, eventually reaching the rank of Seaman 1st Class. He saw action in the South Pacific toward the end of the war and served on seven bombing raids.
Wherley completed his tour with the Navy in 1946 and retired from military service at the age of 19.
He later worked at the Keystone Steel & Wire plant in Bartonville, according to the Journal Star, on a dairy farm in Minnesota, and briefly as a Peoria County sheriff’s deputy.
In 1964 he moved his family to his wife’s farm near Athens, Texas. He worked as a justice of the peace before retiring to farm life. During the Iranian Hostage Crisis, he reportedly planned to volunteer for military service again, if the U.S. decided to free the hostages by force.
Wherley moved to Greenville about 20 years ago after living in Garland and Carrollton. He passed away on Feb. 8, 2013 at the age of 85 of complications from bladder cancer in Wolfe City.
A memorial service was held at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery with military honors.