Elvis in the army—he went in amidst a whirlwind of press coverage and came out in the same fashion. But to this day, the part of Elvis’s adult life that the American public knows the least about is the period between his army induction and discharge, in particular, the 18 months he spent in Germany. There are two main reasons for this hazy section in Presley’s biography. First, the army removed him from show business—no movies, no personal appearances, no TV—and so Elvis essentially vanished from public view. Second, the few reporters who wanted to interview Presley found two big obstacles in the way—an ocean and a military policy designed to shield the high profile draftee from the press.
Elvis entered the army on March 24, 1958, with a two-year obligation scheduled to end on March 24, 1960. (Actually, Elvis was discharged 19 days early on March 5, 1960.) The darkest days of press coverage came in the middle of his army stretch. The fanfare of his induction had long since faded away and anticipation of his return to civilian life had yet to start building. In that nebulous period, halfway through his military service, suspicions that Elvis’s star had faded reached their height.
Elvis himself had doubts. “I have no way of telling if my fame is fading,” Elvis admitted in March 1959. “I stay homesick all the time. I’d give my neck to be back. You just don’t know. I hope the folks back home haven’t forgotten me.”
• Billboard article profiled Elvis at army halfway mark
Elvis’s fears were reported in an article by Hazel Guild, who filed her story from Germany on March 24, 1959, the official halfway mark of Elvis’s army stint. Billboard printed the article on page 2 of its March 25 issue. With the army making access to Elvis difficult, Guild obviously gathered the material for her piece on Elvis from a variety of sources in Germany.
“Meanwhile, Presley is just one of the boys at Ray Kasern,” Guild explained of Elvis’s current army profile. “Under orders from the Pentagon, he’s being given no special treatment and no special publicity during his tour of duty overseas. Both Stars and Stripes and AFN, military-controlled newspaper and radio station for servicemen overseas, have been told [to put] no special emphasis on Presley being here.”
Actually, the military was making a special case of Elvis by isolating him from the press. Guild pointed out that when journalists from back home arrived in Germany looking for a story, local military officials would usually make some hometown soldiers available for interviews. “But if photogs or reporters from New York, Hollywood or Memphis arrive, they’re absolutely barred from contacting Elvis during duty,” Guild explained. “And the Armored Div hasn’t taken a single photo of him at work.”
She also noted that normally writers were encouraged to cover army maneuvers at nearby Grafenwoehr, but with Presley involved even Life magazine was barred from doing a photo spread. Occasionally, an enterprising photographer penetrated the army’s perimeter around Elvis. One from American Weekend, a paper for servicemen in Europe, slipped through and got some shots of Elvis shaving and polishing his boots.
• Elvis tried to keep up with press and fan requests
“While the military bars the press from him, Presley is doing a standout p.r. job on his own,” Guild reported. “Living with his father, grandma and one male aide at a rented house in this small but luxurious spa (Bad Nauheim), he gets an average of 100 calls a week for interviews, tv appearances, [and] photo layouts. He generally devotes one night a week to keeping up with the major requests—meaning constant layouts in German, French and English papers.”
In his off-duty time, Elvis found his every move covered by the local German press—Elvis at an ice show, Elvis watching a film shoot in Munich, Elvis driving around in his new snow-white supercharged BMW. According to Guild, since Elvis’s rented home had no garage, he had to park the car on the street each night. “And every morning, it’s covered with lipsticked notes, phone numbers and names of local gal fans.”
Elvis’s first purchase in Germany was a guitar, Guild stated. “I wanted to bring my own along, but it didn’t fit in the duffle bag,” quipped Elvis.
• Elvis not dead—wire services seemed disappointed
The wire services went wild when a phony report circulated that Elvis had died in an auto accident. “Unhappy Third Armored Div PIOs (Public Information Officers) were kept up all night denying the info,” explained Guild. “Reporters screamed, ‘I know it’s true—why do you lie to me?’ And AP, UPI, Reuters and France Press answered queries from throughout the world denying his demise. An angry UPI official believed [the] rumor started from ‘some fellow in the States who’s writing a book on Elvis and wants publicity.'” (Actually, the rumor began locally when Elvis’s father, Vernon, and Elvis’s secretary, Elisabeth Stefaniak, were involved in an auto accident on the Autobahn.)
Despite all the press attempts to get at him, Elvis was living a normal soldier’s existence in Germany midway through his military deployment. “Elvis gets up at about 5:45 a.m. to be at the barracks for 7 a.m. duty,” Guild wrote. “[He] shares a car pool with several other soldiers living in Bad Nauheim. [His] day is spent in classroom study of map-reading, compass work, cleaning his jeep, or out on the terrain in practice. As a jeep driver, he’s taught to plant and locate munitions and scout work. Friday is a GI party night, scrubbing latrines and barracks until 10 p.m. to be ready for Saturday inspection.”
• KP—The Great Leveler
“When I came in the army I was expecting a lot of kidding and so-called harassment from the other boys,” Elvis explained. “People told me when I got in they would make it hard for me. But it was really just the opposite. When the fellows found out I was doing the same things they were—on guard detail, road marches, KP—they figured we’re all alike.”
Actually, the army’s handling of Elvis in Europe resulted in him living as close to a normal life as he ever would as an adult. But the reality is that Elvis loathed living a normal life. He had tasted fame and adulation, and during his army years he longed to return to the exhilarating lifestyle he enjoyed.
And even in the middle of his tedious army stretch, there was evidence back home that his popularity there had not diminished. As of March 24,1959, the midpoint of his army service, dealer orders for his latest stateside RCA Victor release of “A Fool Such As I” coupled with “I Need Your Love Tonight” had just gone over 1,000,000. It was Presley’s 20th consecutive gold record. He was out of sight, but obviously not forgotten. — Alan Hanson (July 2010)
"When the fellows found out I was doing the same things they were—on guard detail, road marches, KP—they figured we’re all alike."