Elvis Presley’s entertainment career is probably one of the most well-chronicled of any person ever. From his rise in Nashville to his stint as a Vegas showman, he lived an incredibly interesting, captivating, and well-documented life that many people are familiar with.
His service in the military speaks to Elvis’ character while also adding to his legend.
Elvis turned 21 and became eligible for the draft in January of 1956, and in the immediate months afterwards he started becoming the mega-star we remember today. After months of groundbreaking rock ‘n roll performances on variety shows and on records, Elvis and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, grew to be concerned about his seemingly inevitable draft notice and how it’d affect his career.
Parker initially considered getting Elvis into Special Services. Through this program, Elvis would go through six weeks of bootcamp and then be released, only servicing the Army for special performances a couple of times a year.
But Parker saw two problems with this plan. Firstly, if Elvis did Special Services, that meant he was performing for free and that meant there was less money getting into their pockets. And secondly, Elvis had grown to be a controversial figure to pretty much everyone not in the rock ‘n roll scene. Kids loved him, but authoritative figures like teachers, politicians, and parents found him to be explicit, vulgar and all-in-all a bad influence on the next generation. Weaseling through his duty by leaving after basic boot camp would only grow the number of Elvis dissenters. It would be an awful move for public relations reasons, and they needed to figure out a plan before Elvis received his notice.
That fateful day came in December of 1957. Elvis had already passed his pre-physical earlier in the year and was expecting to get his notice any day. Parker came to Elvis and told him that serving his two years as a normal soldier would allow him to gain the respect and fandom of older America, and that he could return as an even bigger star than when he left. Elvis was first bewildered and angry, thinking that Parker had had different plans for his service.
He did eventually come around to the idea, and on March 24th of 1958 he was conscripted into the Army in what was described as a media spectacle. At the event, Elvis committed to his service as a regular soldier, saying “The Army can do anything it wants with me.” Along with his fellow recruits, Elvis had a brief stop at Arkansas’ Fort Chaffee before being transferred to Texas’ Fort Hood. It was here where Elvis became a pistol sharpshooter and also did his tank training.
After finishing his training, Elvis joined the 3rd Armored Division in Friedburg, Germany. He was still receiving offer after offer for Special Service opportunities but continued to refuse them.
Elvis’ fellow soldiers respected him. He stayed true to being an ordinary soldier, and was also very generous during his service. He bought televisions for base, extra fatigues for his unit, and donated his modest wages.
He lived off base in a couple of different hotels in Germany. While doing his service, Presley continued to get press coverage in America thanks to Parker. Most of it pertained to his highly-anticipated return to entertainment, along with a couple of stories of Presley partying in his hotel rooms.
Presley had an eventful time, both good and bad, in his time in Germany. He lost his mother, clashed with his father, met lifelong friends, and was introduced to his future wife.
After a promotion to sergeant, his active duty service ended on March 5th, 1960. Elvis was awarded the Army Good Conduct Medal and also qualified as an expert marksmen with various weapons.
Elvis came back from Europe with several movie and recording contracts waiting for him and was able to dive back into the celebrity world, this time with the respect of an older audience too. He had high highs and low lows for the rest of his career before his untimely death in August of 1977.
Though his intentions were a little muddied when he first started his service, Elvis proved to be a capable, serving soldier during his two years of active duty. It’s quite possible we never see someone of his status serve again!