With basic training under his belt, Elvis Presley left Texas on Sept. 18, 1958 and shipped out for West Germany to complete his two-year military obligation.
When the rock ’n roll sensation turned 21 in January 1956, he was automatically subject to the peacetime draft. Colonel Tom Parker, who micromanaged every aspect of his golden goose’s life, told Elvis not to worry, that he would somehow find a way for him to avoid conscription.
But the master manipulator was lying through his teeth. The Dutchman, who had entered the U.S. illegally in 1927, had no intention of helping his client dodge the draft, which he strongly believed would anger and alienate the American people.
Taking Parker at his word, Elvis put the matter out of his mind until the day in late December 1956 that he received notice of his pre-induction physical set for the first week of the New Year. He passed with flying colors and was told to expect his draft summons that fall.
Elvis’ absolute faith in Parker was badly shaken. The smooth-talking Colonel had let him down and now he faced a two-year exile that could wreck his career just as it was taking off.
Elvis resumed his hectic schedule, while Parker tried to negotiate a sweetheart deal with the service branches. The Navy offered a custom-made unit composed of men from Memphis and Presley’s closest friends. He would be allowed to live in his own private quarters and be given leaves to perform in Las Vegas. The Army countered with a plan that would have made him a soldier in name only whose sole “duty” was to entertain the troops.
In the end, Parker rejected those offers and convinced a skeptical Elvis that it was in his best interest to be seen as an ordinary GI doing his patriotic duty. He grudgingly went along but still felt the Colonel was putting his future at risk.
The official letter came in the mail the week before Christmas 1957 ordering Elvis to appear for induction on Jan. 20, 1958. In a personal appeal to the Memphis draft board, he asked for and received, despite howls of protest, a two-month extension in order to finish filming his fourth motion picture “King Creole.”
Elvis Presley the civilian became Elvis Presley the GI at a swearing-in ceremony on March 24, 1958. With the blessing of the Army, Parker arranged for camera crews from all over the world to record the big – or, in the view of his despondent fans, dark – day.
Following tearful farewells with his family, Elvis and his fellow draftees boarded a bus for Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, where they spent four days before being taken to their final destination – Fort Hood, Texas.
It was for the young entertainer a return of sorts to Central Texas, where two years earlier he had given a sold-out concert in Waco. The reporter for The News-Tribune was more startled by “the squeaks and squeals of 4,000 teenagers (that) bounced off the walls of the Heart O’ Texas Coliseum” than she was impressed by “the ‘new’ king of the rock and roll set.”
At Fort Hood, the famous private was assigned to the Third-Armored Division’s 1st Medium Tank Brigade. He sailed through basic training, qualified as a sharpshooter and, as far as the public was concerned, made a smooth adjustment to military life.
But behind the scenes, Elvis was far from happy and often miserable. He was desperately homesick and, despite Parker’s assurances, deeply troubled by the thought of fickle fans moving onto the next teenaged idol during his long absence. One of his instructors, who regularly let him phone home, later revealed it was not uncommon for him to break down in tears on those calls.
Army life improved for Elvis when he was permitted to move into a house off-base after basic training. He immediately brought his mother, father, grandmother and best buddy to Killeen and in their company returned to his old upbeat self.
However, the death that August of his mother Gladys, who had been in ill health for years, yanked the emotional rug out from under her devoted son. It was all Elvis could do to make it through the funeral and force himself to go back to Fort Hood.
He had been in Texas only a month, when orders came to pack up for West Germany. At the port in New York, he paraded back and forth on the gangplank for the cameras before disappearing into the bowels of the troop transport.
Elvis was able to relax and enjoy his time overseas after learning how RCA was keeping his recording career alive and going top speed. Using unreleased material, producers fed his fans a steady diet of Top 40 hits and four best-selling albums.
While stationed in West Germany, Elvis met and fell in love with 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, whom he would marry seven years later. It was also where he was introduced to amphetamines, the start of the drug addiction that contributed to his premature passing at age 42 in 1977.
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