The United States used to require all able-bodied, healthy young men to register for the draft in the military and serve for at least two years, and the 18-year-old Elvis Aaron Presley did just that in 1953. Little did he know that soon after graduating high school, he would be skyrocketing into the entertainment industry. Below are nine quick facts about Presley’s time in the Army.
#1 He officially enlisted for basic training at the age of 23
When Presley received his draft notice in 1956, his manager Tom Parker did everything he could to delay the rising star’s enlistment. He was in the middle of making a name in film and recording around this time, and Parker wouldn’t want to lose the momentum of his career. But Presley insisted on going—though he later admitted that the “24-month spell as a GI” would ruin his career—and days after wrapping up the filming of “King Creole,” he headed to the Memphis draft board to report.
#2 Enlistment date
On March 24, 1958, Presley was sworn in and processed with others into the Army before boarding a bus to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. There, he’d bid his iconic hairstyle to receive his GI haircut and his celebrity status outside the boot camp to become soldier 53310761.
#3 “The Army can do anything it wants with me.”
His arrival at Fort Chaffee became a major media event, with hundreds of fans greeting him as soon as he stepped out of the bus. Photographers were also there, documenting every moment of his installation. However, Presley remained true to his words about not wanting to receive special treatment and instead sought to experience his whole time in the Army like everybody else.
#4 Served two different armor battalions
The future King of Rock and Roll became a member of two different armor battalions during his active service in 1) Company A, 2d Medium Tank Battalion, 37th Armor, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, between March 28 to September 17, 1958, where he’d complete his basic and advanced military training; and 2) 1st Medium Tank Battalion, 32d Armor, 3d Armored Division in West Germany from October 1, 1958, until March 2, 1960, three days before his honorable discharge.
#5 Recorded five songs during his break
In between his basic and advanced training, Presley received a two-week leave, and he used that time to record five songs in Nashville. Two months later, he was granted emergency leave to see his ailing mother, whom he deeply adored. Two days later, she passed away at the age of 46.
#6 Presley was an Armor Intelligence Specialist
During his deployment in Ray Barracks, Germany, via USS Randall, Presley served as an armor intelligence specialist in October 1958. Soon after, he was promoted to the private first class and specialist fourth class in June 1959.
#7 He learned karate in the Army
The Army introduced Presley to karate which he studied seriously and later incorporated into his live performances. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only thing he was introduced to during his service, as “it was in West Germany that he became addicted to barbiturates and stimulants”—something that would someday lead to the destruction of his marriage, eventually, death.
#8 A Good soldier
His secret drug abuse wasn’t uncovered until later, as he went through his service with less drama, nor didn’t commit any serious reprimands as some of the public eye expected from him. He knew that people were waiting for something big to happen, but he proved them wrong. Instead, he received the Army Good Conduct Medal award, with some of his fellow soldiers attesting to his humility and generosity. Some even suggested that Presley had done more than he expected out of fear that people might assume he received special treatment. Besides the Good Conduct merit, he also earned a medal for expert marksmanship all by himself.
#9 Honorably discharged
After two years of active duty, Presley would finally be discharged from the Army on March 5, 1960. He had been promoted to sergeant a month before. Many fans waved goodbye to him at the airport in Germany before he flew back to the United States, where he was greeted by an even larger crowd of fans who were overjoyed to see that the young artist was back to do some rock and roll.
In May, a biographical musical drama film about the life of Elvis directed by Baz Luhrmann premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, featuring actor Austin Butler playing the titular role and Tom Hanks as Col. Tom Parker, followed by a theatrical release in Australia and the US. It is now available for streaming exclusively on HBO Max beginning September 2.