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‘Only Son’ Law and the Draft

This military urban legend is only as old as World War II, and probably because out of so many Americans registered for the war, a relatively small number were actually drafted for the war. It makes sense that more than a handful might not understand why they weren’t called up to serve or what the rules for being called up or passed over might be. 

Only Son Being Exempt from the Draft

When the war ended, a number of myths and legends began to circulate. Stories about things that happened during the war were repeated time and again, spreading far and wide. Most of them were true – or started out as true. Like a large game of veteran telephone, some stories got a little distorted.

The legend of only children being exempt from the draft is one of those stories that began with a true story but morphed into something else entirely. 

Over the course of World War II, 49 million men registered for the draft in the United States. More than 407,000 service members were killed, and more than 600,000 were wounded at a time when communications depended on radio, newspaper, and word of mouth. The problem with the latter, as we are learning in the days of social media, is that word of mouth isn’t always based in fact. 

After the war ended, stories emerged – lots of stories. Veterans began sharing the tales of the strange and interesting things that happened to them, things they heard about, or things they saw. And why not? World War II was fought all over the world, among millions of people, at a time when technology and ideas were changing everything. There were bound to be a lot of great stories. 

Among those stories is the tale of the Sullivan brothers, five brothers who were all killed aboard the USS Juneau when it was torpedoed by the Japanese at the Battle of Guadalcanal. Then, there’s the story of Sgt. Fritz Niland of the 101st Airborne Division

The Army removed him from combat in France after all three of his brothers were killed in combat. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Sgt. Niland’s story was later the basis for the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan.”

While these stories are tragic, they did not affect the draft laws of the United States during the war. After the war, however, in 1948, Congress made some significant changes for American families whose children go off to war. This legislation provided an exemption for sole surviving sons from a family who had already lost a child to military service. If the male were an only child or the other children were lost to something other than serving their country, the only son could still be drafted.

In 1964, the laws were amended. That year, Congress extended the exemption to sole surviving sons whose fathers were lost to military service. In 1971, the law was extended once more, this time to any son who lost a family member to military service, be they father, brother, or sister. 

Who Can Be Exempted from Military Service?

So, being an only son does not exempt a person from military service or from registering for the draft. Any family member who has lost a family member as a result of military service is exempt from military service, but it’s important to remember that this exemption does not apply during a Congressionally declared war. 

If a draft ever does resume for an action such as the Vietnam War, which was not a war declared by an act of Congress, surviving family members would receive a deferment. 

So remember, no matter what your family’s military status is, it’s still important for all military-age males to register with Selective Service. It doesn’t mean they’ll be drafted, even in the case of a national emergency, but no one is exempt from registering. 


Tags: 101st Airborne Division, act of Congress, Battle of Guadalcanal, Congress, Saving Private Ryan, Selective Service, Sgt. Fritz Niland, tale of the Sullivan brothers, U.S. Selective Service System, USS Juneau, Vietnam War, World War II


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