Elvis’ tour of duty of duty in the U.S. Army ended in March 1960. However, getting home from Germany was a long seven-day process that included two military troop transport air flights, a secret limousine ride, two private car rail trips, and a special police escort from the Memphis Airport to Graceland. Here is a look at Elvis leaving the Army and going home.
DAY 1 – March 1, 1960:
The first of three press conferences during Elvis’ week-long trip took place on this day at the base near Bad Nauheim, Germany. It was the Army, not Col. Parker, who scheduled this one for the Armed Forces Radio and Television, and there were more than one hundred reporters and photographers in attendance.
The Enlisted Men’s Club provided the venue for Elvis’ commanding officer to present him with a certificate of merit. It cited his “cheerfulness and drive and continually outstanding leadership ability.”
The reporters were allowed to ask Elvis questions, and here is his response to one about serving as a real soldier rather than as a Special Services entertainer at military clubs:
“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.”
I believe any objective analysis would have to agree that Elvis accomplished his goal.
(Editor’s note: Last week when I posted the photo of Elvis and former Sun Records office manager Marion Keisker, I did not realize the shot had been taken at this press conference marking Elvis’ discharge from the Army. I found that out researching for this new post.)
A highlight of the press conference was surprise appearance of Captain Marion MacInness (her Air Force rank and married name).
When Elvis saw her, he was overjoyed and excitedly asked her, “I don’t know whether to kiss you or salute.” Showing her sense of humor, she answered, “In that order.”
DAY 2 – March 2, 1960:
Although Elvis was later asked if he left behind any special girl, and he replied “not really,” the truth is that he showed up at the Rhine-Main airbase with Priscilla Beaulieu in the car with him. There is a famous photo of Priscilla waving goodbye to him that appeared in the March 14 issue of Life magazine. They must have figured out what was going on, because the caption read, “Girl He Left Behind.”
Once on the plane, Elvis had plenty of other female attention. He entered the plane through a rear door and took a seat in the back to keep a low profile. However, the word of his presence soon spread throughout the plane. For the next two hours, stewardesses and the wives and children of other GI’s made a line to the back of the plane asking for Elvis’ autograph.
The Air Force troop transport plane flew from Frankfort, Germany to a base in Prestwick, Scotland, where there was a two-hour layover before a different plane continued the trip to the U.S. Apparently, the Air Force had made extensive plans for his short stay, and word of Elvis’ impending arrival had leaked out. Here is what the Scottish Daily Mail said about Elvis’ only visit to Great Britain:
“Hundreds of screaming teenagers drowned the noise of the jet engines when Sergeant Elvis (the Pelvis) Presley flew into Prestwick last night.”
Elvis shook hands, signed autograph books, posed for pictures – then bewilderedly whispered to an Air Force Lieutenant, ‘Where am I’?”
Elvis was allowed to speak to reporters for five minutes on the tarmac and then was whisked away in a staff car to meet the troops at the local NCO club. Next, he was shuffled off to the base Teenage Club for more interaction with young fans.
Finally, Elvis and seventy-nine other soldiers boarded a Military Air Transport Service C-118 for the trip back to America.
Day 3 – March 3, 1960:
At 7:42 AM, Elvis arrived at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey during a driving snowstorm. The welcoming party included Col. Parker, already in full Elvis-promotion mode. He was accompanied by nineteen-year-old Nancy Sinatra, who had announced her engagement to singer Tommy Sands just one week earlier. The Colonel had signed a deal for Elvis to appear on TV with Frank Sinatra, and daughter Nancy’s presence was the perfect start to the PR campaign.
Also present was actress Tina Louise from the TV show Gilligan’s Island, representing the Mutual Radio Network. A March 9 Variety article noted that Tina Louise was dressed in a “tight white dress with her bright red hair peeking out of a turban,” She made Elvis blush when she asked him, “Are you still going to use suggestive movements?”
There were hundreds of reporters on hand to gobble up the news, as the Army held its second Elvis discharge press conference. The New York Times ran a front-page story of the event.
The article contained two quotes I find interesting.
“Maj. Mark Bottorff announced that Sergeant Presley had ‘behaved himself in a manner so to cast great credit on the Army.’”
“Tom Parker, the singer’s manager, said his client had a gross income of $1,600,000 in 1959. But Parker admonished: ‘Please state carefully the Government gets 91 percent in income tax.’”
So, the Army brass talked about Elvis’ great behavior and being a credit to the Army, but Col. Parker talked about money.
In their People section, a Time magazine article had two of Elvis’ press conference answers to reporters’ questions, including this nugget:
“Elvis, proudly wearing medals for good conduct and marksmanship, promised he will soon climb into his gaudiest working mufti [Ed. note: civvies], agitate his pelvis of yore (‘If I stand still, I’m dead’), and ‘never abandon rock ‘n roll as long as people keep appreciatin’ it.’”
Of course, the writer for Time magazine had no idea what Elvis’ gaudiest working outfit would become in another decade.
Day 4 – March 4, 1960:
Elvis was back on US soil, but he wasn’t free from the Army, yet. He spent this entire day going through the involved Army discharge procedures. However, his presence back home was enough motivation for Estes Kefauver, the Tennessee Senator, to read a tribute about him in the U.S. Senate chambers. So, Elvis is commemorated forever in the Congressional Record with this passage:
“To his great credit, this young American became just another G.I. Joe…. I for one would like to say to him, yours was a job well done, Soldier.”
Day 5 – March 5, 1960:
It was never reported if Elvis slept well the night before, but if not, his excitement at being discharged would certainly have been the cause. Finally, at 9:15am, the Army gave him a formal honorable discharge and a mustering out check for $109.54 (The TV appearance with Frank Sinatra would pay him $125,000).
Note the three stripes on his sleeve.
Elvis and the Colonel left the base in a limousine and traveled along a snow-packed and fan lined highway. Somehow, they eluded the press and went to Trenton, NJ, where they waited at a hotel for most of the day. They were joined by Col. Parker’s assistant Tom Diskin, Parker’s brother-in-law Bitsy Mott, and Elvis’ buddies Lamar Fike and Rex Mansfield. That night, they all went to the train station to board a private railroad car that took them to Washington, DC.
Day 6 – March 6, 1960:
In Washington, Elvis and his party boarded a second private railway car on the “Tennessean” line, which would take him home to Memphis. The train left at 8:05 a.m., and made many stops along the way. The Colonel had made sure Elvis’ private car was at the end of the train and included an observation platform. At each stop along the way, Elvis would stand on the platform and wave to the adoring crowds. He was wearing a specially tailored blue dress uniform, complete with white gloves. Somehow, either through error or perhaps at the instructions of Col. Parker, Elvis’ rank insignia gained an additional fourth strip, indicating he was a Staff Sergeant.
Day 7 – March 7, 1960:
There were a few reporters on the train, and one of them reported that Elvis did not sleep through the night. Who could blame him? In a matter of hours he would be home. Elvis arrived at the Memphis train station at 7:45 a.m.
He mingled with the fans for a while, and then he and Col. Parker got in a police car for the ride to Graceland. The driver was Memphis Police Captain Fred Wollard, and Elvis received a full police escort.
When Elvis arrived at Graceland, he stood outside looking at it. He took a deep breath before going in. This has been generally interpreted as his reflection on his mother’s death while he was in basic training and his sadness in knowing she would no longer be in the home he bought for her.
That afternoon, Elvis held his third press conference in seven days. This time it was with fifty reporters in his father’s office in a building behind Graceland.
The most famous quote to come out of this event was this:
“I just can’t get it in my mind that I’m here.”
(Editor’s note: I wanted to include an image of Elvis’ Army discharge certificate in this post, but this is all I could find. It appears that some Photoshop jockey produced a bogus one. I wonder why he didn’t put in the correct date while he was at it. The oval marks are mine.)
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