By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
In 1947, Richard “Gene” Pershall of Clovis was infatuated with the military and wanted to follow in his older brother’s footsteps.
At the age of 15, he pestered his father to let him join the Army Air Corps. Reluctantly, his father agreed and signed a consent form stating Pershall was 17.
“He knew I was too young, but he just finally said, ‘Hey, that’ll make a man out of you,’” Pershall said.
Now the retired educator serves as the commander of the New Mexico chapter for the Veterans of Underage Military Service, or VUMS. He was appointed in June.
Members are veterans of World Wars I and II and the Korean War, with a few from the Vietnam War.
Some of them hid their deceit for years — ashamed of their dishonesty or afraid the government would penalize them if they admitted the truth. VUMS seeks to bring them out to tell their stories, Pershall said.
The group is a national organization that boasts a membership of approximately 2,200, with 15 scattered throughout New Mexico. Pershall is the only Clovis member.
The group meets once a year with a few smaller reunions here and there, the former Floyd school superintendent said.
A newsletter is also published by the group giving members an opportunity to share their stories and experiences.
Pershall said his primary role as state commander is to maintain contact with members and keep them aware of events.
Young people lied about their ages to join for a myriad of reasons, Pershall said.
“There wasn’t much extra money at the end of World War II. It was three squares a day, and I was infatuated with the military and I loved the uniform.
“Lots of times I knew my dad was right, but I toughed it out and nobody found out (I was underage). Lots of times I thought, ‘Hey, what am I doing? I made a big mistake,’” he recalled.
At age 18, Pershall got out and used his GI Bill to pay for college.
“I wouldn’t recommend that for everybody. A lot of kids could not survive in the military because it takes lots of determination and grit. I thought I was grown when I was 15. I was just a big ol’ kid,” he said.
Unbeknownst to his parents, fellow VUMS member Bruce Salisbury of Aztec signed up for the draft in 1945, telling the board he didn’t have a birth certificate. He was 15.
It was two years before he saw his family again.
“We were very poor, (our family) had six children,” Salisbury said. “I just wanted to get involved. I was afraid the war would be over and I wouldn’t get a chance to do my thing. Everybody else was in the military.”
A master sergeant at 21, Salisbury was in charge of men almost twice his age.
Salisbury made a career of the Army, serving in three wars and retiring at 35. “I joke I was born in northern Colorado and raised in the U.S. Army,” he said.
Salisbury said VUMS is a veterans group he has come to love in his eight years of membership.
“We don’t talk about combat, we don’t talk about war stories — we talk about how we got in. It’s almost like a bunch of kids out behind the school house. We have a lot of fun,” he said.