Pfc. Elvis reported for duty; McQueen didn’t, public figures’ records show
From the likes of Clark Gable and Ronald Reagan to Ted Williams and Joe Louis, the U.S. military has a long history of taking celebrities into its ranks, usually with happy results. Jimmy Stewart, after all, enlisted right after Pearl Harbor and went on to fly 20 combat missions as a command pilot in World War II.
But documents released Thursday by the National Archives suggest that sometimes the brass must have wondered whether the famous names were worth the trouble — Elvis Presley, for instance, Steve McQueen or the Pied Piper of the beat generation, Jack Kerouac.
The stories are among the records for 1.2 million military personnel that the National Archives will open up to the public Saturday. Archives officials on Thursday gave reporters a sneak peek at the records, which included excerpts from the files of a number of celebrity GIs.
When Elvis enlisted in 1957 at the height of his teen-frenzy popularity, a storm of letters swept over Washington. Fans such as Lawrence Grickson and his wife pleaded with first lady Mamie Eisenhower to make the Army return Elvis to the stage.
“The theatres need him to help fill their many empty seats (in) these days of TV,” the Gricksons, of Sacramento, Calif., wrote. “Also did you know Elvis has been paying $500,000 in income taxesâ¢ We feel the huge taxes he has been paying could help our defense effort far more than his stay in the Army.”
Then there was the public relations furor kicked up by gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, who reported that Elvis, due to be discharged in March 1960, might receive an early “good behavior” release. This prompted outraged letters to congressmen from parents whose sons were also serving in the Army.
“My son also has a job waiting for him, of course not as important as Elvis,” wrote Rose Phelan, of Oak Park, Ill. “I am sure us poor people can do without his singing and rock and roll until he serves his country like my son has to.”
Pfc. Presley’s records show that while he was the most celebrated GI in peacetime, the Army bent over backward to treat him like a regular soldier. For example, Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. James F. Collins, in a 1959 memo, nixed a request that Presley be flown back to the United States for interviews from his assignment in Germany.
Any suggestion of favorable treatment, Collins argued, would undo the Army’s successful public relations work in creating “the public impression of a good soldier serving his military obligation.”
He added: “Many teenagers who look up to and emulate Private First Class Presley will, to a varied degree, follow his example in the performance of their military service.”
McQueen made several great escapes in movie roles, but Marine Pfc. Terrance Steven McQueen went AWOL ignominiously while assigned to Camp Lejeune, N.C., in November 1949.
Raleigh police picked McQueen up and jailed him. He got a month in the brig and a $90 fine.
As for Kerouac, the Navy struggled for months to make a sailor out of him but finally admitted defeat. He was discharged as “unfit for service” less than a year after he enlisted in 1942.
Doctors described him as schizoid, suffering from “dementia praecox,” noting that he claimed to hear in his mind whole symphonies. He told one doctor that he had been fired from every job he had ever tried except newspaper reporting, which he quit.
Kerouac didn’t agree with the diagnosis. “As far as I’m concerned,” he’s quoted in the record, “I get nervous in an emotional way. … I don’t hear voices talking to me from no where but I have a photographic picture before my eyes. When I go to sleep and I hear music playing. I know I shouldn’t have told the psychiatrist that, but I wanted to be frank.”
Even at that point Kerouac hated the military. “I just can’t stand it,” Kerouac said, according to the record. “I like to be by myself.”
Under “sexual,” a category in the hospital’s medical chart, Kerouac told the doctor he had “a sex contact at the age of 14 with a 32-year-old woman which upset him somewhat.” No additional detail is given.
On June 26, 1943, a sparse medical entry jarringly shows the end of Kerouac’s military career when a doctor evaluated him as “unsuitable.” He was discharged two days later.
During World War II, flyboy movie star Clark Gable got strikingly different treatment from the Army Air Corps. The service’s commanding general decreed that Maj. Gable’s cameraman be trained as an aerial gunner so that the star’s adventures in bomber combat could be used in promotional films.
Boxer Joe Louis also got special treatment in World War II, but it wasn’t all good.
Army Sgt. Joe Louis Barrow, then heavyweight champion of the world, won a Legion of Merit citation for his many voluntary boxing exhibitions for the troops in Europe and North Africa.
This “entertainment and inter-racial relations morale mission,” the Army’s Special Services Division put it, left Barrow’s hands battered and “endangered his entire boxing future, valued at millions.”
And yet, “he risked it all willingly,” wrote division Capt. Fred Maly in recommending the 1944 citation.
Lt. Jackie Robinson’s file captures racial barriers he encountered, noting he checked with the Special Service Branch and learned there were no openings for black officers there. His file shows he made a request in August 1944 for a discharge on medical grounds — a college football injury.
Robinson won his medical discharge, getting out in November 1944, and the old college football injury failed to stand in the way of a Hall of Fame career in baseball.
To review such famous records, or just ordinary ones, in person, it’s best to phone ahead to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis at (314) 801-0850 and make a date to visit.
Option two is to request copies of archival records in a letter to: National Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63132-5100. Copies cost 50 cents a page and take an average of 90 days to arrive.
For non-celebrity veterans, available records cover those who served between 1885 and 1939 as enlisted Navy personnel. Records for Marine Corps enlisted personnel who served between 1906 and 1939 are also available.
Records for Marine Corps officers will be available in 2036 and for Navy officers in 2040.
Army and Air Force records will start coming out in 2022.