Famous Veterans: Elvis Presley
He was the rebellious King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but Elvis Presley didn’t shirk his duty when he was drafted by the U.S. Army and gained the more modest title of “sergeant.” With that said, the timing for young Presley wasn’t the greatest, as he was experiencing a rise to stardom seldom seen before or since in popular music.
After some early dabblings as a blues snger, Elvis had hooked up with Sun Records and its famous owner Sam Phillips, and with his strutting yet sensitive rockabilly style, had rattled off a number of hits by 1957 that are still classic to this day: “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Love Me Tender.” At the end of 1956, he had already charted more top-100 hits than any performer since the list had been invented, and his handsome looks had scored him roles in movies such as Jailhouse Rock — and that’s not even mentioning his legendary appearances on the Ed Sullivan television show, which led to near-riots by the studio audience and an order from the show’s producers to show him performing “from the waist up” so America’s youth wouldn’t be corrupted by his gyrating hips.
And then the Army entered the picture. On January 8, 1957 (the King’s 22nd birthday), the Memphis Draft Board announced that Elvis had been chosen under the current selective service system to serve two years of active duty and four years in the Reserves. Knowing that the military had happened upon a good thing, the Navy and Air Force quickly made offers for him to join them — the Navy was ready to start a specially trained “Elvis Presley company” and the Air Force had starry visions of using Elvis at their recruiting centers. Refusing special treatment, Elvis turned them down, and after getting a deferment so he could finish filming King Creole, he entered the Army as a regular GI at Ft. Chaffee on March 24, 1958. As his famously tousled hair was shaved down to regulation length, he cracked, “Hair today, gone tomorrow.” His induction was a major event, with hundreds of overlookers and media there to witness it.
Elvis was stationed at Ft. Hood for Basic Training and was assigned to the Second Armored Division’s ‘Hell On Wheels’ unit (once led by General George Patton). He still remained involved with music in his free time, cutting a five-song record in Memphis during a two-week leave. Later he was assigned to the Third Armored ‘Spearhead’ Division, and stationed in Friedberg, Germany — it was here that he met Priscilla Beaulieu, who would eventually become his wife over seven years later. During his time in Texas and Germany, Elvis kept a low profile, although he was already wealthy enough to bring his father and grandmother to live with him off-base. One hundred members of his division also got a taste of Elvis-mania when they participated as extras in the film G.I. Blues, made during his stay in Germany. A Stars and Stripes article at the time described the movie as “a comedy on the light side dealing with 3d Armored Division soldiers. There will be three or four girls, one French, one Italian and two Germans. The finished film will about three GI’s or possibly four… The show will include eight or nine songs, mostly ballads, and some rock ‘n’ roll.”
By February 1960 Elvis had been promoted to sergeant (E-5), and he finished his 18-month stint in Germany in March of that year. At Fort Dix, New Jersey he was honorably discharged from active duty on March 5, 1960, receiving a mustering-out check of $109.54. Just prior to his return, Elvis reflected on his experiences in an interview for Armed Forces Radio and Television: “I was in a funny position. Actually, that’s the only way it could be. People were expecting me to mess up, to goof up in one way or another. They thought I couldn’t take it and so forth, and I was determined to go to any limits to prove otherwise, not only to the people who were wondering, but to myself.”
It has been reported that Elvis privately feared that his stint in the military would negatively affect the momentum he had building in his music and film career, but he needn’t have worried — over fifty years and a multitude of hits later, his legendary status and legacy as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is still secure.