When Elvis was drafted into the Army in 1958, the press reported he would be treated just like any other GI. Perhaps he was during basic training in Texas, but when it was time for him and 6,000 other soldiers to board a troop ship in New York Harbor, strange things happened. Col. Parker made sure Elvis’ send-off was a big event.
For one thing, it was estimated that 250 reporters, photographers, and cameramen were on the scene. One of them was Alfred Wertheimer, who had taken thousands of photos of Elvis back in 1956. This time, he did not have an exclusive, but he got plenty of good pictures. He was also in position to see the master marketer, Col. Tom Parker, in action.
Wertheimer didn’t know if the official Army Band was present at all major troop deployments, but they were there the day Elvis shipped off. Perhaps Col. Parker arranged for their appearance, perhaps not, but he still engineered a first in Army history. He printed up copies of the music to several Elvis songs and passed them out to all the musicians. Songs they played that day included “That’s All Right,” “Hound Dog,” “Don’t be Cruel,” and others that Wertheimer can’t remember. No John Phillip Sousa marches to mark this occasion. Dressed in full Army parade uniforms, the band played Elvis rock & roll.
Elvis held forth with a half-hour press conference. Who but Col. Parker could have arranged this? He probably worked out a deal with the Army brass, because Elvis stood in front of big “Join the Army” posters. There was one Army General who would not leave Elvis’ side. He enjoyed being in the spotlight so much that he hovered around Elvis the entire time.
The hoards of photographers and cameramen wanted to get film of Elvis going up the ramp from the dock to the second deck of the ship. Five soldiers were selected to join Elvis in the shot to make it look natural. Of course, Elvis was carrying going-away presents as well as his duffel bag. He was also in his dress uniform, while the other guys were in fatigues. When one cameraman flubbed the shot, he asked them to repeat the trek up the ramp. Wertheimer couldn’t believe it when they actually complied.
The ship had four decks and soon Elvis appeared on the top one – along with Col. Parker. Wertheimer wondered to himself, “What is Parker doing on a troop ship?” To give something to Elvis, it turned out. Elvis opened a box from Parker, and guess what it contained? Dozens of playing-card-sized autographed photos of Elvis. Then, Elvis flipped then one-by-one over the railing, and they fluttered down to lucky fans standing on the dock four decks below as the band played “Hound Dog.” Just your average troop deployment.
Many thanks to Al Wertheimer for sharing this story with me. It wasn’t used in my Elvis International article about him, because the focus there was his 1956 experience with Elvis. However, it was a good story I hadn’t heard before, and it deserved to be shared on this blog with other Elvis fans.
© 2006 Philip R Arnold www.elvisblog.net