In 1958, Elvis Presley surprised fans and critics alike when he joined the army. He left behind the life of a celebrity to serve his country with pride, and was all the more cherished for it by fans.
On the night of Sunday, March 23, 1958, Elvis was riding the crest of a wave of popularity: Chart-topping records, hit movies, sold-out concerts, fan hysteria, and near-constant controversy all helped him become the biggest star on the planet. Yet on that March night, at the pinnacle of his success, with the world at his feet and an omnipresent support system of fans, relatives, and friends, it seemed as if he was giving it all away.
For more than a year the specter of military service hung over his head. When Uncle Sam came calling, Elvis passed his pre-induction physical and considered his options. Instead of taking the easy route chosen by so many celebrities in his position -- entering Special Services to entertain the troops -- he decided to show his allegiance to the Stars and Stripes by serving his time as a regular soldier.
In the face of overexposure and negative publicity about his destabilizing influence on American youth, Elvis' refusal to accept special consideration was viewed by the public in an admirable light. Though he made the most of his last night as a civilian, he seemed understandably upset about leaving his loved ones and giving up the good life. And, while making positive comments to press reporters, he was also said to be privately concerned that, after two years away, he'd never be able to pick up where he left off.
On the morning of March 24, accompanied by his parents, girlfriend Anita Wood, and various friends, Elvis reported to the draft board in the M&M Building on South Main Street in Memphis, and was soon traveling on a bus toward the Kennedy Veterans Hospital, where he and twelve other recruits were examined and processed.
Pronounced fit, Private Elvis Presley US 53 310 761 bid farewell to his distraught mother, weeping father, and Anita, and boarded yet another bus, this one bound for Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Several hundred fans were in tow, as well as a posse of reporters and photographers intent on recording his every word and action, from folding his civilian clothes to making his army bed.
The next day, after undergoing further processing procedures, the King of Rock 'n' Roll was given the most famous haircut since Samson was tricked by Delilah. Before popping flashbulbs and whirring news cameras, Elvis good-naturedly submitted himself to a standard-issue GI cut...and promptly forgot to hand over the 65¢ fee out of the generous $7 partial pay that he'd been given a short time earlier. While a porter used a broom to sweep up the famous locks and discarded fragments of sideburn, the barber reminded Elvis that he owed some money.
Subsequently issued his U.S. Army uniform, Private Presley was assigned to the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas, for basic training and advanced tank instruction. Fans and members of the media followed him all the way there before Elvis' military superiors declared him off-limits to reporters and photographers following his first 24 hours at Fort Hood.
Once the immediate attention subsided, Elvis adapted to life with his fellow recruits, though he seemed desperately homesick at times. He phoned Gladys at least once a day, and many times both of them were in tears, with Gladys begging him to take proper care of himself and Elvis trying to reassure his worried mother.
While some of the soldiers gave him a hard time about his celebrity status, Elvis soon became friends with others such as Privates Rex Mansfield and William Norvell, as well as Sergeant Bill Norwood who, after suggesting that Anita Wood should visit, made his home available to her. Consequently, by the time he completed basic training at the end of May, the teen idol had begun to settle in. He earned his marksman's medal with a carbine and was classified as a sharpshooter with a pistol. Elvis had always loved guns, so it made perfect sense that he excelled in these exercises.
Life in the military wasn't always easy for Elvis, but he made the best of his two years of service. To learn more about Elvis' life in the military, see the next section.