Elvis Presley entered the United States Army at Memphis, Tennessee, on March 24, 1958, and then spent three days at the Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, Reception Station. He left active duty at Fort Dix, New Jersey, on March 5, 1960, and received his discharge from the Army Reserve on March 23, 1964.
During his active military career Elvis served as a member of two different armor battalions. Between March 28 and September 17, 1958, he belonged to Company A, 2d Medium Tank Battalion, 37th Armor, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. During this assignment he completed basic and advanced military training.
His overseas service took place in Germany from October 1, 1958, until March 2, 1960, as a member of the 1st Medium Tank Battalion, 32d Armor. For the first five days of that period he belonged to Company D of the battalion, and thereafter to the battalion's Headquarters Company at Friedberg.
Before entering the U.S. Army, Presley had caused national outrage with his sexually charged performances and rock and roll music. Many parents, religious leaders, and teachers groups saw his draft, removing him from public view, as a positive thing. Despite being offered the chance to enlist in Special Services to entertain the troops and live in priority housing, Presley decided to serve as a regular soldier which earned him the respect of many of his fellow soldiers and people back home who had previously viewed him in a negative light.
During his service not long before he was to be stationed in Germany, his mother died of a heart attack brought on by acute hepatitis and cirrhosis. At age 24, when he was stationed in West Germany, he met his future wife Priscilla Beaulieu and became dependent on stimulants and barbiturates. His addiction eventually led to his divorce, and ultimately his death at age 42 in 1977.
In January 1956, Presley turned twenty-one and was eligible to be drafted. Colonel Tom Parker, Presley's manager, led Elvis to believe that it was possible to avoid the draft completely. But, unknown to Presley, Parker had no intentions of allowing him to avoid the draft. The wily Colonel Parker believed the negative publicity about Presley could be negated by his serving in the Army.
Parker explained to Presley that getting drafted was a great opportunity. When Presley was told that he would have to serve as a regular soldier he was furious; how could his manager, the man who had claimed to be able to do anything, not be able to find a way out of the draft? Parker promised Presley that if he worked hard, kept his nose clean, and served as a regular GI for two years, he would return "a bigger star" than when he left. So, on January 4, 1957, Presley attended Kennedy Veterans Hospital in Memphis for a pre-induction Army physical.
On January 8, Presley's twenty-second birthday, he was declared 1-A by the Memphis Draft Board; physically fit and likely to be drafted some time in the next eight months. It was on December 16 that it was officially announced that Presley would be receiving his draft notice. While fans around the country were upset about the news, parents and teachers groups were ecstatic. Presley had been, in their opinion, a menace to society.
The Navy offered to create a special Elvis Presley Company made up of men from Memphis and Presley's closest friends. They also offered him the chance to perform in Las Vegas, and have his own private quarters. The Army offered Presley the chance to tour the world and visit Army bases to boost morale among soldiers and encourage other young men to enlist. Presley politely told both parties that he would consider their offers. The Pentagon had also been in touch to offer Presley the opportunity to join Special Services, entertaining the troops without having to actually train as a regular soldier; among many soldiers and veterans it is known as "the celebrity wimp-out". After discussing each possibility with Colonel Parker, Elvis decided to serve as a regular soldier. In Parker's words, "Taking any of these deals will make millions of Americans angry".
Elvis was originally scheduled to be inducted on January 20, 1958. However, due to commitments at Paramount and the filming schedule of his latest film, King Creole, he personally wrote to the Memphis Draft Board to request a deferment, explaining that Paramount had already spent up to $350,000 on pre-production of the film, and that many jobs were dependent on him being able to complete filming, which was due to begin on January 13. They granted him an extension until the middle of March. When news of the extension broke, angry letters were sent to the Memphis Draft Board complaining about the "special treatment" that Presley was receiving. According to the head of the draft board Elvis would have gotten the extension anyway.
Elvis reported for induction on March 24, 1958, was given a physical and assigned Army serial number 53310761, before being sworn in and made leader of his group. Parker, with the permission of the Army, had arranged for news crews from around the world to be on hand to report his induction. After all the hoopla Elvis and his fellow recruits were bussed to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.
After four days at Fort Chaffee he was transferred Fort Hood in Texas where he was assigned to Company A of the Third Armored Division's 1st Medium Tank Battalion and completed basic training by June.
Elvis claimed he enjoyed the being a tanker, but in letters to a friend described his homesickness and insisted that he hated the training. His real fear was that his career was over and one of his instructors recalled Elvis breaking down in tears during many of his phone calls home.
He was given a short break to record new material for RCA Victor in June then returned to Fort Hood to finish his tank training. He was living off post, in his own house, with his mother, father, grandmother, and friend Lamar Fike. Having his family close by cheered him up although he still spoke to friends about his fears for his career. Parker, who was often a visitor to Presley's home, would attempt to reassure him and informed him that he had arranged for enough material and merchandise to be available to keep Elvis's name before the public during his two years in the Army, but Elvis remained unconvinced.
In early August, while in Texas with Elvis, his mother, Gladys had recently increased her alcohol intake to cope with her son's fame and Army commitments; she had also begun using diet pills to attempt to lose weight and this, coupled with a bad diet, had led to the deterioration of her liver. One afternoon, after a heated argument with her husband Vernon, she collapsed from exhaustion. Elvis arranged for her and Vernon to return to Memphis on August 8, but the next day her condition worsened so rapidly that she was rushed to a hospital. On August 11, Elvis requested emergency leave to visit his mother. His request was initially turned down so Elvis threatened to go AWOL, As a result he was granted leave on August 12. The officer who initially denied his emergency leave was later disciplined for his actions.
On August 14, Gladys died from cirrhosis. The official cause of death was listed as heart attack, but the Presleys refused an autopsy to verify it. Presley and Vernon were both devastated by her death. Her funeral was held on August 15, and Presley collapsed several times before, during, and after the service. His mother had always been the most important person in his life, and now he felt as though everything he had worked for had been for nothing. Presley's leave was extended by five days on August 18, and when he finally left to return to Fort Hood he left instructions that nothing in his mother's room was to be altered.
After training at Fort Hood, Presley was assigned to the 3rd Armored Division in Friedberg, West Germany. He left Fort Hood on September 19, for Brooklyn Army Terminal in New York where he and his division would ship out to West Germany on September 22. After a short press conference arranged by Parker, which also involved Presley walking up and down the plank of the USS General George M. Randall eight times for cameras, the ship set sail and Presley would spend the rest of his service overseas.
During the crossing Presley became a friend of a fellow soldier named Charlie Hodge who had enjoyed some success as an entertainer himself before being drafted and they, at Hodge's urging, put together a show for the troops. Elvis only agreed to play piano in the background because Colonel Parker had drilled into him that there would be no public performances of any kind during his service. and Elvis became such close friends that after they were discharged, Hodge went to work for Elvis.
On October 1 the General George M. Randall arrived in West Germany and Elvis was offered the chance to join Special Services, but he politely refused and was assigned to drive the commanding officer of Company D, Captain Russell. Russell didn't like the attention surrounding Elvis and he was transferred to driving duties for Reconnaissance Platoon Sergeant Ira Jones of Company C.
After he arrived in West Germany, Elvis was allowed to live off post and his family moved into Hilberts Park Hotel in Bad Nauheim, but within three weeks they moved to the more elegant Hotel Grunewald.
In the meantime Colonel Parker had acquired deals with RCA and 20th Century-Fox to make sure Elvis's return to public life would go as smoothly as possible. RCA agreed to release an album of his press conference the day he left for West Germany titled Elvis Sails, the album would pay Presley $0.22 per sale in royalties, guaranteed up to at least 100,000 copies.
20th Century-Fox had agreed upon a $200,000 fee for one Presley film, with options on a second for $250,000 and a 50/50 split on profits. Paramount had also signed deals to produce a number of new Presley films after his discharge.
News outlets regularly reported stories, mostly released by Parker, about plans for Elvis's return to entertainment. Stories of wild parties in Presley's hotel room were also making it into the papers regularly, and Parker was forced to hold a press conference to dispel these rumors.
For Elvis, being in West Germany was not a happy time. He would often write home to friends and family about how homesick he was, how desperately he missed his mother, and of how his fears about his career after he was discharged.
Elvis was introduced to amphetamines by a sergeant while on maneuvers and he became a firm believer in them because they gave him energy, strength and weight loss. Elvis was such a strong believer in their benefits that he helped introduce many of his friends in the outfit to join him in indulging. It was also in the Army that Elvis was introduced to karate, which he studied seriously.
His fellow soldiers attested to Elvis's wish to be seen as an able, ordinary soldier, despite his fame, and to his generosity while in the service. He donated his Army pay to charity, purchased TV sets for the post, and bought an extra set of fatigues for everyone in his outfit.
In early 1959, after complaints from other guests about the behavior of Elvis and his friends, the group left the Grunewald Hotel and moved to a five bedroom house nearby and fans would congregate outside the house to see Elvis as he came and went to work and a sign was put up stating that autographs would be signed between 7.30 and 8.00pm.
Although Colonel Parker had forbidden him from performing while in the Army, pressure from RCA for him to record led to Parker sending a microphone and a tape recorder to West Germany with a letter stating that recording of gospel songs with just a piano for accompaniment would be good enough. Elvis used the recorder to mess around with friends and family, singing mainly gospel and current hits, but none of the recordings were sent back for release by RCA. Decades later these recordings would be released officially on titles such as Private Presley and Home Recordings.
In June, with 15 days leave , Elvis and his friends traveled to Munich followed by over a week of partying in Paris where, on several occasions, Elvis would invite the whole chorus line of girls from The 4 O'Clock club back to his hotel.
In the meantime Elvis's father was getting close to a woman named Dee Stanley, the wife of an Army sergeant. She was an Elvis fan and had invited him to dinner, but he was not interested in dinner with what he considered an old woman, so sent his father instead. Most biographers state that Dee was already in the process of divorcing her husband when she met Vernon, but some others claim that Vernon had gotten to know both of them together, and was even asked by Bill to help him save his marriage. In any case, when Elvis heard of the relationship he flew into a rage, believing his father had no business in a relationship with another woman so soon after his mother's death. Close friends of Elvis claim that Dee's husband received a payoff for his signature on the divorce papers. Dee and Vernon would eventually marry in 1960, with her children becoming stepbrothers to Presley. Elvis never liked Dee, but he became very close to her young children and welcomed them to his home. In later years they would be employed as bodyguards and drivers. Dee died on September 28, 2013.
On September 13 an airman who had met Elvis a couple of months earlier introduced him to 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu during a party and Elvis took an instant liking to her. They were practically inseparable during the rest of his time in West Germany and would eventually marry after a seven-and-a-half-years.
On January 20, 1960, Elvis was promoted to sergeant. On March 2, with Priscilla in attendance, Elvis left Germany and flew home. On March 3 his plane arrived at McGuire Air Force Base near Fort Dix, New Jersey at 7:42 am. Nancy Sinatra, RCA representatives, and Parker were there to welcome him home, as well as a huge crowd of fans. Two days later, on March 5, Presley was officially discharged from active duty. He was awarded the Army Good Conduct Medal. He also qualified as an expert marksman with several weapons.