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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. 

Read About Other Military Myths and Legends

If you enjoyed learning about ‘Only son’ law and the rraft, we invite you to read about other military myths and legends on our blog. You will also find military book reviews, veterans’ service reflections, famous military units and more on the TogetherWeServed.com blog.  If you are a veteran, find your military buddies, view historic boot camp photos, build a printable military service plaque, and more on TogetherWeServed.com today.


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


  1. Megan Simmons

    My father was drafted in 1969. He got to come home but was already dead, he died 42 years later my oldest son Dylan will be 20 in Nov of this year. My father said no child or even my grandchild should have to fight in a war he did his time and my time and my son’s time. The military should at least give my father that honor of be able to save his family’s life when he had to give his twice over. Once in Vietnam and then again dying when his kids were only 24 23 20 20. He gave his life literally for us to be free.

  2. James

    I graduated from high school in 1961. I started at a 2-year Business and Accounting college in the fall of that year. I dropped out after 2 semesters (maybe only1) for financial reasons. With my high school classes in bookkeeping and retailing, I was able to get fairly good jobs but none of them were long term due to me finding what seemed to be more lucrative jobs. Then things were really hearing up in Cuba and the draft was breathing down my neck Fighting from a fox hole didn’t appeal to me (most draftees were sent to the Army) so scratch that and Marine Corp; jumping out of a plane – same, so scratch Air Force; so that left Navy. Three of my high school buddies had joined the navy so I talked to a recruiter who I thought said it straight. I joined the Navy and never looked back. It was some of the best 21 years of my life.

  3. Edward Fake

    I had just graduated from a community college in 67 and was transferring to a 4 year college when I received my first draft notice. After notifying the draft that I was enrolled at a 4 year college, I received a deferment and was advised that I would be drafted again when I graduated. So when I graduated in 69 from college I was checking out the different services, when I received my second draft notice. My dad had been in the Navy in WWII, and his best friend had been in the Army, and his best friends son, had just returned from VN , who was in the Marines. They all recommended that I go in the Air Force. So I did, and those 2 drafts were the “old draft”. Then, in 70, while in Viet Nam, I received another draft notice under the lottery draft. So I wrote back to them and sent them a copy of my orders. So in 74 I get out of the Air Force, and in 75 I receive another notice of being drafted under the lottery draft. I sent them a copy of my DD-214, with no response. My friends and neighbors must have really loved me, as they did not want me to miss out on that opportunity. lol


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