When Elvis Presley was drafted into the US Army days before the Christmas of 1957, it was a massive moment in the music and wider entertainment industry. By this time Presley was already an international celebrity, and his career was just about to reach new heights. Many invested in Presley’s success feared that his induction into the military could kill his career before it had truly taken off.
As a successful musician, Presley was offered the chance to join the military’s Special Services, which would have kept him from frontline service. However, at the urging of his manager, Presley was drafted as a regular soldier.
He arrived at Fort Hood on March 24, 1958, where he was assigned to the 2nd Armored Division’s ‘Hell on Wheels.’ His arrival was a major press event, and many fans showed up to witness it.
He completed basic training and traveled to Europe on the USS General Randall, where he was then sent to Friedburg, Germany, to serve with the 3rd Armored Division.
Publicly, Presley was happy with his stint in the military, particularly enjoying the portions of tank training. However, behind the scenes, he was not so content. Reportedly he missed home and his family and disliked training. Also, Presley was understandably worried about his career – or lack thereof – when his service was over.
He was genuinely determined to complete his service as a regular soldier, but in reality, he had many unofficial benefits not available to other troops. Still, he was known to be extremely generous and provided those in his unit with TV sets and extra fatigues. Additionally, he donated his wage to charity.
While on exercises in the military he was introduced to amphetamines, something that Presley held in extremely high regard for their energy and weight loss “benefits.”
His presence in West Germany made the United States’ enemies uncomfortable, particularly the Soviet Union and East Germany. This created some serious tension between the US and Soviet Union, as they suspected that the US was using the “King of Rock ‘N’ Roll” to lure defectors over the border.
East Germany’s defense minister Willi Stoph said that Elvis and his music were a “means of seduction to make the youth ripe for atomic war.” East Germany’s Communist Party leader Walter Ulbricht said that it was “not enough to reject the capitalist decadence with words, to … speak out against the ecstatic ‘singing’ of someone like Presley. We have to offer something better.”
To counter rock and roll’s racy dancing, the communists created the Lipsi, a government-approved dance that was slightly more fun than standing on Legos. It was aimed towards young people and meant to win back rock and roll fans – unsurprisingly the dance not only never caught on, but was openly mocked by young people.
The King’s return
Presley was discharged from the Army in March of 1960 in a highly publicized event. Many were still bewildered by his decision to serve as a regular soldier, and so he was asked why he went that route during the press conference.
Presley 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.”
On March 5, 1960, Presley was officially honorably discharged from active duty.
Although he was terrified that his career had been killed by the military, Presley’s popularity had actually only risen while he was serving. His manager had secured plenty of material to drip-feed to the public during his time away.
Presley’s popularity also took an unexpected turn during his service. Before he had left the US Presley was an extremely controversial figure; loved by teenagers and feared by parents. Becoming a symbol of rebellion, older generations believed Presley was a threat to the moral well-being of teenagers and was corrupting the nation.
However, when he returned, he had gained considerable respect among the older generations for his service, many of whom became fans themselves. While many were still fiercely against Presley and his pelvic antics, his military career had actually given him a boost in fame.