On March 25, 1961, Elvis Presley did a benefit concert for the Arizona Memorial which raised over $62,000 and helped to restart public funding for the war memorial that so many Americans visit every year.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States quickly rebuilt its facilities there and raised several of the ships that were sunk. One ship that was not touched was the battleship Arizona (BB-39), which had entombed 1177 of its crew when she sunk after bombs had exploded her magazine. The Navy had scrapped her superstructure which was above the waterline and removed the gun turrets but the ship lay as she sunk.
An effort was made to make the ship a shrine and a memorial project was launched. The Pacific War Memorial Commission was created in 1949 to build a permanent memorial in Hawaii. The Commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Arthur Radford, began a tradition where, after he had installed a flagpole to the main mast of the ship, beginning in 1950, sailors would hoist and lower the flag.
Later in 1950, a temporary memorial was built above the remaining portion of the deckhouse. Radford requested funds for a national memorial in 1951 and 1952 but was denied because of budget constraints during the Korean War.
President Eisenhower authorized and approved the creation of a National Monument in 1958. However, the $500,000 needed to construct it had to be privately financed. The territory (not yet a state) of Hawaii donated $50,000 for the initial funds donated.
Later in the same year, another $95,000 was raised when a surviving member of Arizona’s crew Rear Admiral Samuel G. Fuqua, appeared on the television show, “This is Your Life”. Fuqua was awarded the Medal of Honor at Pearl Harbor for his efforts to valiantly save crewmen on that day. After his appearance, the donations poured in for a short while but then they soon stopped.
More than two years later in December 1960, the fundraising had virtually ceased. Enter Presley and his manager Col. Tom Parker. Presley had just earlier in the year finished up a two-year hitch in the Army after being drafted.
Presley was going to Hawaii to film his next feature “Blue Hawaii” and he and Parker came up with an idea to have a benefit concert to raise funds for the Arizona Memorial. “Every penny of that taken in must go to the fund”, Parker said, “otherwise, we are not interested in doing the show.”
Presley and Parker set the goal for the one-night show at $50,000. Ringside seats were going to be $100. The rest, in the 4000 seat Bloch Arena, across from Arizona would vary from $3 to $10. All of the talent would perform for free and Presley offered to pay all the expenses for everyone to fly in for the show.
On March 25, Presley flew straight from the studios in LA where they were filming parts of his film, to Honolulu were crowds swamped him. He did a brief press conference in the afternoon and then prepared for the show that night.
The other performers on stage that night included, pianist Floyd Cramer, the Jordanaires (Presley’s backup singers), jazz saxophonist Boots Randolph, and comedienne Minnie Pearl. After a brief intermission, Rear Admiral Robert L. Campbell introduced Elvis.
The young women in the audience screamed for 2 ½ minutes as he was still at the height of his popularity then. Presley then performed for an hour. His song list, courtesy of RCA Records which released a copy of the concert in 1980 would include:
- Heartbreak Hotel
- All Shook Up
- A Fool Such As I
- I Got A Woman
- Love Me
- Such A Night
- Reconsider Baby
- I Need Your Love Tonight
- That’s Alright Mama
- Don’t Be Cruel
- One Night
- Are You Lonesome Tonight?
- It’s Now Or Never
- Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
- Hound Dog
Presley wore his trademark gold lame jacket and thrilled the crowd with the gyrating moves that he was so known for in the mid-1950s that seem so tame today. But the crowd loved it and cheered long after he left the stage.
Ticket sales for the event topped $52,000 which was more than the original goal of $50,000. Additionally, all of the merchandising and concessions plus a $5000 check from Presley made the take on the night a total of $62,000 (over $512,000 in 2017 cash). But more importantly, it breathed fresh life into the Arizona Memorial Project.
Coincidentally, it would be the last time Presley would wear his trademark gold lame suit. And it was his last live performance for nearly eight years. He would continue making films until his “comeback” show in LA as part of his television Christmas special. He would then resume touring until his death in 1977.
The Arizona Memorial was officially dedicated on May 30, 1962. Today thousands of visitors flock to the site every year, especially around Pearl Harbor Day. It is now a U.S. Historical landmark.
It is a fitting monument to the men of the USS Arizona who are still silently on duty and will remain there for eternity. It is also a memorial for all of the brave sailors, Marines, and soldiers who gave their lives that day in 1941. But they owe a tip of the cap to the boy from Tupelo, Mississippi who helped raise the funds for the Memorial we see every year.
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