From a young age, Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Hosey was devoted to serving. When he was only 16, he illegally enlisted in the military.
“I guess I’ve always been very patriotic,” Hosey said. “I think I just wanted to do something new or get away from going from school to school, state to state, with my parents.” Hosey’s father was a contract welder, which meant the family moved often.
At the recruitment office, they asked Hosey his age and how much he weighed.
“I had a cousin that had joined the service at 15, but he was a much bigger boy than I was,” Hosey said. “I figured that if cousin Charles could join the paratroopers, then I could.”
So he fudged his birthdate and later had his brother sign paperwork for him. “What’s the paperwork for?” his brother asked. “A job,” Hosey replied.
About halfway through bootcamp, Hosey’s parents showed up.
“Dad wanted me to get out. Mom was crying and wanted me to get out,” he said.
Despite their pleas, he decided to stay.
Hosey and his cousin weren’t the only ones to enlist before they turned 18. Thousands of teenagers, some even as young as 12, signed up to fight. A Los Angeles Times article estimates the number might be as high as 25,000.
A group called VUMS (Veterans of Underage Military Service), of which Hosey is the Washington State Commander, has about 1,200 living members. In Wash., about 53 members survive today.
The group aims to unite those who joined the military so young, and also to spread the word that those who did sign up illegally can’t be punished for it any longer.
According to Hosey, until about 25 years ago your benefits could be taken away if the government found out you enlisted underage.
The change came in 1991 thanks to Allan Stover, another veteran who joined the military at age 14, who wrote letters to the different military branches asking them to grant amnesty to all underage enlisters.
Hosey was born in Birmingham, Ala. and spent most of his early years around Alabama and Mississippi.
After bootcamp, he went to paratrooper school and was eventually sent to Korea.
“I met my wife on a Greyhound bus on my way up to Seattle,” Hosey said. “At the time I didn’t realize I was meeting my wife.” She was on her way to attend Cornish School of Music.
“I thought he was obnoxious,” Hosey’s wife, Sandy, said. Nonetheless, she promised to keep in touch while Hosey was overseas.
“She wrote to me the whole time,” he said.
Once Hosey returned from Korea, he went back home to the South. He waited a few months to get his “mustering-out pay,” and then, returned to Seattle to see about “that redhead.”
“I hitchhiked from Mississippi to Seattle,” he said.
He arrived Memorial Day weekend of 1954, and he and Sandy were married by June of 1955. 2017 marks 62 years of marriage.
Hosey worked various jobs in the Pacific Northwest, including as a Seattle transit driver, as a welder for Boeing, and as a Seattle firefighter, until a coworker of his wife’s convinced him to rejoin the military.
“Once I got back into the military, I stayed,” he said.
Hosey attended flight school and later helicopter school. Stationed in France and then Germany, he was eventually sent to fight in Vietnam.
After 28 total years of military service, Hosey retired with a Silver Star, a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Bronze Star, Purple Hearts, and numerous other awards. He and his wife moved back to the Seattle area where he worked for 15 years for the Lynnwood post office and for 22 years as a reserve sheriff for the King County Sheriff’s Department.
“Being a country poor boy and just being a person who respects the country, respects the people, I think I just wanted to serve so that I could be an example to a lot of the young people and do things that would make my family proud of me,” he said.
Hosey and his wife have four children, 13 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
And although Hosey technically never graduated from high school (he enlisted before he could finish), he recently earned an honorary diploma the same year and from the same school his granddaughter graduated from—Edmonds-Woodway High.
“Unbeknownst to her, I went to the principal,” Hosey said. “We arranged that I was going to graduate from high school.”
When asked what his most proud accomplishments were throughout his nearly three decades of military service, Hosey said he was especially glad that he was able to become a fixed-wing and rotary-wing pilot.
“That and having the opportunity, of course, to meet my beautiful wife who I have been with all these years,” he said.