Film

Elvis Presley's military service – as new film chronicles rock and roll legend's life

'Elvis' trailer shows a glimpse of the superstar's time in the armed forces.

Elvis Presley woke up on the morning of March 24, 1958, as the king of rock and roll and by the end of the day, he was a Private in the US Army.

The day marked the start of his military service – a brief but significant period of his life that features in director Baz Luhrmann’s new movie biopic of the American singer and pop culture legend.

The trailer for the Elvis film, from Warner Bros. Pictures, shows a glimpse of actor Austin Butler as Elvis in Army uniform as he embraces his future wife Priscilla, who he met while serving in Germany.

He may have been The King to his millions of fans, but by the time he left the Army, he was 'Sergeant' to those with whom he served, after gaining promotion to the rank.

Oscar-winner Tom Hanks portrays the singers' manager, Colonel Tom Parker, while Butler takes on the, perhaps unenviable, role of portraying Elvis, considered by many to be one of the most talented performers of the 20th century.

The military career of Elvis Presley 

The king of rock and roll's time in the military was a job that many critics believed he was not cut out for.

Just before Elvis left the Armed Forces in 1960, the entertainer spoke to the American Forces Network (AFN) - America's version of the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) - about, among other things, his time in the Army and how his service was seen by the public.

He said: "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."

Elvis was already one of the most famous people in America, following a string of his now-classic hits such as Heartbreak Hotel, Love Me Tender and Blue Suede Shoes, by the time he was drafted into the US Army, with many questioning if he could perform a useful role or if his rock star status would be too disruptive to the disciplines of military life.

Listen: Austin Butler, the lead star of 'Elvis', talks to Natasha Reneaux, a BFBS the Forces Station broadcaster, about the film, what it was like stepping into the shoes of the music icon and more.

He surprised his critics by becoming a model soldier who was respected by and became friends with his peers.

After receiving basic training at Fort Hood, Texas, Private Presley was assigned to the 2nd Armored Division and received advanced tank instruction. Elvis was a competent sharpshooter with a pistol and was named acting assistant leader of his squad.

The singer spent the majority of his military service overseas in Germany, assigned to Company C - a scout platoon which was often on exercise. Additionally, as part of his service, Elvis drove senior military commanders, developed a love of karate, and donated his pay to charity.

In a post-service conference, Elvis revealed that while he found basic training quite easy, the thing he found most challenging was coping with the cold weather on exercise, recalling difficult nights spent sleeping in tents in the snow and eating ration packs.

A far cry from the glamorous lifestyle the King Of Rock and Roll was already accustomed to.

Elvis Presley film AUSTIN BUTLER as Elvis and OLIVIA DEJONGE as Priscilla Presley in Warner Bros. Pictures' drama ELVIS a Warner Bros. Pictures release 3 CREDIT Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Cover image: Austin Butler as Elvis Presley and Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley in Warner Bros. Pictures' drama 'Elvis' (Picture: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures).

Why did Elvis join the Armed Forces?

In America from 1948 until 1973, men were drafted to fill vacant positions in the Armed Forces which were not being filled by volunteers. Since 1973, America's Armed Forces has comprised solely of people who wish to sign up as professional soldiers rather than conscripts.

Therefore, when Elvis turned 18 in 1953, the young man was fulfilling his patriotic duty and legal obligation to register his name with the Selective Service System.

His student status prevented him from fighting in the Korean War which was a matter of months away from ending.

Elvis Presley film AUSTIN BUTLER as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures' drama "ELVIS", a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Picture: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures).
Austin Butler as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures' drama "ELVIS" (Picture: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures).

However, in 1958 and with 45 million singles sold including a string of chart-topping hits which also included Jailhouse Rock and Hound Dog behind him, his draft number finally came up and in March 1958, Elvis was inducted into the US Army at the Memphis Draft Board and assigned serial number 53310761. 

On March 25, at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas in front of 55 photographers desperate to capture the image of one of the most famous singers of the 1950s in uniform and eager fans keen to see a glimpse of their beloved King of Rock and Roll, Elvis was given the traditional GI haircut - a US military regulation haircut in which the entire head is shaved with an electric razor.

A big difference from his usual pompadour hairstyle which formed part of his iconic look many attribute to Elvis still to this day.

Of the drastic haircut, Elvis said: "Hair today, gone tomorrow".

"Hair today, gone tomorrow." - Elvis Presley (Fort Chaffee, Arkansas)

Posted by Elvis Presley's Graceland on Thursday, 25 March 2021

 

Known as Private Presley to his fellow soldiers, Elvis completed his basic training at Fort Hood, Texas in May 1958 and was assigned to the 2nd Armored Division and received advanced tank instruction. 

He earned a marksman's medal and was classed as a sharpshooter. Elvis was stationed there for six months during which time his parents, Vernon and Gladys Presley, lived at a temporary home near the base. 

However, that arrangement was short-lived when, in August 1958, Elvis' mother Gladys became ill with acute hepatitis and was hospitalised in Memphis, where Elvis had lived with his parents since he was a teenager. 

Image ID F2B5J7 Elvis Presley and other soldiers read a map on exercise in Germany 1st Medium Tank Battalion 3rd Armoured Division 1959 CREDIT Everett Collection Historical Alamy Stock Photo
Elvis Presley and other soldiers read a map on exercise in Germany in 1959 (Picture: Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo).

Due to the seriousness of his mother's condition, Elvis requested emergency leave to be with her in the days before she died on 14 August 1958 at 46. 

Gladys had always been fiercely protective of Elvis, after his twin brother Jesse was stillborn. The singer's childhood friends say Gladys was a "sweet mama bear" and he was devasted by her death at such a young age. 

Giving his parents, who had lived in poverty for most of their lives together, a better life had been one of Elvis' most important ambitions. He bought his Memphis home Graceland - the iconic landmark visited by thousands of dedicated fans to this day – for him to live with his parents. 

With gratitude for your service to America on Veterans Day and always. Thank you to all the brave men and women who have helped preserve our freedom.

Posted by Elvis Presley's Graceland on Wednesday, 11 November 2020

 

According to Elvis' wishes, Gladys lay in state at Graceland until the funeral was held at the Memphis Funeral Home on 15 August. 

He resumed his US Army role ten days later and headed off on an 18-month assignment to Ray Barracks in Friedberg, Germany in September 1958. 

To keep Private Presley out of the public eye and give him a better chance of being able to serve without the distractions that came with fame, Elvis was assigned to Company C, a scout platoon frequently on exercise.

Determined to keep his family close to him while stationed in Germany, Elvis' father and grandmother Minnie Mae lived with him off-base in Bad Nauheim. 

This is where, at a party at his home in 1959, Elvis met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, the stepdaughter of a US Air Force officer - his future wife and mother of his only child, Lisa-Marie Presley.

Elvis Presley film AUSTIN BUTLER as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures' drama "ELVIS", a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Picture: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures).
Austin Butler as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures' drama "Elvis" (Picture: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures).

Did Elvis receive special treatment in the military? 

Company C left for exercise in Grafenwohr, Bavaria on 2 November 1958. While there and throughout his service, Elvis endured the same field conditions as every other soldier. Elvis achieved the rank of Private First Class in November 1958, Specialist Fourth Class in June 1959 and Sergeant in January 1960. He was honourably discharged on 5 March 1960.

Elvis never performed for the troops while serving and when asked by the American Forces Network if he would ever perform for his fans "behind the Iron Curtain" - the post Second World War, Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe - Elvis said: "Well if certain people ... think I should then I would have no objections at to give it a try. 

"I don't think I'm very well-liked over there; you know. 

"They possibly think I'm a bad influence on their youth or something of that nature. 

"For that reason, I'm not very well-liked over there. 

"But, if it were decided that I should go then I would go." 

Elvis Presley film AUSTIN BUTLER as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures' drama "ELVIS", a Warner Bros. Pictures release CREDIT Hugh Stewart
Austin Butler as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures' drama "ELVIS" (Picture: Hugh Stewart).

The film Elvis will be released in UK cinemas on 24 June and in BFBS Cinemas from 25 June.