The rumor spread like wildfire.
The famous American G.I. was stationed at the U.S. Army Ray Barracks in Freidberg, Germany, and word was, he and his buddies would go to the local movie theater nearly every night. When Elisabeth Stefaniak heard that, she just about melted.
It was 1958, she was 19 years old and living on base, where her father was an ammunition instructor. She was beautiful, and with so few girls on base, she knew competition was scarce.
She stood in the back of the dark theater one night, trying to figure out which one was the star of all stars. All she saw was “a couple hundred crew cuts.” She didn’t have the nerve to walk down the aisle, to be seen by all those privates’ eyes, to risk the rejection.
A soldier walked back to get some popcorn and said hello, and she mustered up the courage to ask.
“Is he…in there?”
“Yeah,” the soldier laughed, “I’m one of his buddies.”
“W-w-would you get me an autograph?” she pleaded.
Five minutes later, another soldier came back.
“He wants to meet you,” that soldier, Rex Mansfield, told her.
She walked down the aisle, quite certain she was the luckiest girl in the world. “Here was my big moment,” she recalls thinking, six decades later. “I went into shock. I don’t remember walking down the aisle.”
Finally, she was there. And he was there, with those gorgeous lips and eyes that could take down an aircraft carrier.
“Baby, what’s your name?” he asked, and she was a puddle. They watched the rest of the movie, and he asked her if he could walk her home.
"So he walked me home,” she says all these years later. “I lived 10 minutes away from the gate, and we had to go through this wooded area, and we just talked and talked. And at the end, well, I got my first kiss."
Wait…so your first kiss was from Elvis Presley?
IN THE ARMY NOW
Sixty years later, it’s almost impossible to imagine. The world’s biggest star, whisked away by the United States Army at the height of his fame. Tossed a set of fatigues, thrust a rifle and a helmet. Maybe a pat on the back. A thank you from your country.
Can you even fathom that today? Shawn Mendes, you’re in the army now? Sorry, Justin Bieber, time for basic training? This was a different time and the America was a very different place, and in late-December 1957 -- just shy of 22 years old and perhaps the most recognizable entertainer on the planet -- Elvis Presley got his draft notice.
Though the United States was not at war at the time -- aside from the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which was growing -- the country was still conscripting soldiers at lesser numbers. A half-decade after the Korean War, and a half-decade before the escalations into Vietnam, peace was still tenuous throughout the world.
Elvis could have served in the Special Services, traveling the world entertaining the troops. He almost certainly could have gotten out of that, too, if he wanted. But listening to the sage advice of his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker -- who hoped that the fulfilment of this obligation would help change the opinions of some of Elvis’ harshest critics -- the young star joined up.
“He had some decisions to make,” says Angie Marchese, Director of Archives for Elvis Presley’s Graceland. “He could’ve asked for a deferment or special treatment. But he went in knowing he was going to serve his country like anyone else drafted. At that point, he wasn’t Elvis Presley, the teen idol. He was simply Elvis Presley, U.S. citizen.”
Originally scheduled to be inducted in mid-January, Elvis did receive one special concession: because he was filming the 1958 film musical King Creole, Elvis was not inducted until March.
And so it was, on March 24, 1958, Elvis Presley was inducted into the United States Army. To his fans, that day was considered “Black Monday.”
He got his physical and was sworn in. Army serial number 53310761, Elvis was named a leader of his group. The inductees were piled onto busses and off to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. The next day, his famous locks were shorn into the familiar military buzz cut, and the press covered the event like it was a movie premiere. Those iconic sideburns, piled into a heap and swept up. No matter how famous that haircut had become, there would be no exceptions.
Not for his hair, nor for his training, which he received in Fort Hood, Texas. Rex Mansfield, one of those original Memphis recruits -- who would go on to become close friends with Elvis -- recalls the singer and actor taking great pains to blend in. There is a reason those sideburns ended up on the floor. A buzzcut is the great equalizer.
For his superiors, however, it was made abundantly clear that he was to be protected. “One time we were in basic training and Elvis volunteered to beat the drums -- we always had a drummer, tried to have one in every company -- and some soldier made some sly remark, ‘Elvis, when you gonna put some swing into it?’ The platoon sergeant, Sgt. (Bill) Norwood, he said ‘Company, halt!’ Everybody stopped. He went over to this guy, put him on the ground, face down, made him do a 100 pushups. People really got to understand that you're not going to mess with Elvis.”
For six months, Elvis and his fellow troops underwent basic training. By all accounts, he was a model soldier, earning excellent marks in shooting, quickly shedding any pretenses that had formed over two years of growing fame -- and infamy.
ELVIS EARNS RESPECT
At that time, Elvis Presley’s hips were still registered weapons. Parents were more afraid of his gyrating than Kruschev himself.
Elvis had only become a household name a few years prior. He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on Sept. 9, 1956, and teens and young adults now had a star to call their own. Eighty-three percent of the television viewing audience watched him that night. Leave Sinatra to their parents, the kids thought. This one is ours. This one is ours.
To the older generation, he was a scourge. A nuisance. With one induction ceremony, however, he began changing minds.
“In the '50s, he was the one corrupting teenagers with rock and roll music,” Marchese says. “Teens loved him, parents didn’t like him. He got out of the army, and he had a whole new level of respect. Now he was a good ol’ boy who served his country and did us proud.”
Elvis had one other concern major concern entering the army: Now that he’d won over the parents, how could he keep the kids? He was nervous about being out of the public eye. Elvis was no dummy. He knew fads came and went. Rock and roll had only been a craze for a few years, since Bill Haley and the Comets’ version of “Rock Around the Clock” took the country by storm in 1955. Rock music could go at any time. How would his career turn out if he became just a footnote on the Billboard charts?
For that, he turned to Parker, the brilliant, controversial manager who made Elvis a noun. Parker had it all mapped out: For the next two years, he steadily released a stream of pre-recorded Elvis material -- including the hits “Dontcha Think Its Time,” “Hard Headed Woman,” “A Fool Such As I” and “A Big Hunk O’ Love.” Parker also had to fight off the execs at RCA, who wanted even more material.
“The Col. knew what he had and what it took -- give them just enough,” Marchese says. “He not only kept Elvis calm, but kept the record company at bay.”
The result? Elvis’ popularity grew even as he served, and when he returned to the Billboard charts -- with the 1960 album, Elvis is Back!, and a television special hosted by Frank Sinatra and watched by millions -- his star status was only cemented further.
A CALL TO ARMS
Elvis the Soldier was a far cry from Elvis the Star, according to those who knew him then.
He and Mansfield became quick friends during their enlistment, and Mansfield may be the only man to have actually taken a girl from Elvis -- Elisabeth Stefaniak. Still married nearly six decades later, the two recalled intimate moments with The King, whose stint in the army would mold him for the rest of his life.
The death of his beloved mother, Gladys, midway through basic training camp was a huge blow. He was said to have never recovered from her passing. And then there was the stark reality of their situation: Stationed in West Germany, Elvis’ company was most certainly on the front lines of the Cold War.
They were stationed about 100 kilometers from the East-West German border, and, Mansfield said, “We were there to protect that border.” They had a full battalion of tanks, a full battalion of anti-aircraft, heavily artillery, infantry. “We'd been warned [war with Russia] could happen at any time,” Mansfield says.
“It was more like war than you might think,” he continues. “It was not peacetime. It was ‘be ready’ time.”
Mansfield described one particularly frightening afternoon, when an alert came in. “We moved all our tanks to the East-West German border, and the Russians were jamming our radio signals,” he says. “We could hear their tanks running, we were that close. We dug in, we had foxholes, we had everything we needed. We were just waiting for someone to declare war, and we'd be on our way to battle. They settled it politically, and the Russian tanks went back to Russia, and we went back to our bases, but that was about a 10-day journey.
“Later on, after we got out of the service, the Berlin Wall went up,” he continues. “But that was one time we stopped them from making that wall.”
There were fun times, as well. One time, Elvis invited the boys -- Mansfield and two of the famed Memphis Mafia, Lamar Fike and Charlie Hodge -- to Paris. Knowing there would be some attention, he had a press conference behind their hotel off Champs Elysees, Mansfield said, and more than four dozen reporters came from all over Europe.
“When he stepped up to those microphones, he changed into a different person,” Mansfield says. “He changed into Elvis the entertainer. His speech would change from this southern drawl like we all had, to his stage voice. He became Elvis. Like a totally different person. When it was over, he'd come back to ground, come back to earth, and I had the feeling that he was just real happy to be a normal person again. He'd had enough of that already. The army did more to help Elvis be normal than anything he ever did.”
Elisabeth interjects: “It changed him into a man.”
On March 24, Graceland will provide complimentary tickets to Elvis Presley’s Memphis entertainment complex, a museum that celebrates his unique history, to active and retired military. They’ll also unveil an enhanced “Private Presley” Army exhibit.
“‘Elvis in the Army’ was always part of the story we told, even if it was just one mannequin… but our audience has connected with it so much, and it is such an important part of his story, and we want to make sure people see artifacts never seen before,” Marchese says.
The exhibit will include never-before-seen relics and memorabilia, including the dress Elvis’ mother Gladys wore to his induction ceremony, and the military form letter the government mailed to his family upon his arrival to basic training.
For the Mansfield, the 60th anniversary will provide just the latest reminder of their brief, but memorable time with The King. They’ve recounted their adventures abroad with Elvis in a pair of books, Sergeant Presley: Our Untold Story of Elvis' Missing Years and Living The Moments: My Journey With Elvis, Elisabeth and Jesus.
Mansfield, or “Rexadus,” as Elvis nicknamed him, became one of his closest confidants in Germany, and upon returning to the States in 1960, he was first invited to travel back to Memphis with Elvis from Fort Dix on the same sleeper train, and better yet, was offered the role of his road manager. Mansfield had already built himself a career in sales before his army stint, so he declined the position.
Plus, he had other things on his mind -- like Elisabeth Stefaniak. Stefaniak had some special moments with Elvis, but she quickly realized another girl had caught his eye: Priscilla Wagner, whom Elvis met in 1959 at a party at his home in Germany.
Nonetheless, Stefaniak was a close confidant. Just months after his mother died, a sullen Presley went to the Stefaniak’s home for Thanksgiving dinner.
“He'd show up a lot for breakfast,” she recalls. “He had a certain way he liked his food, and of course the army wasn't going to serve him anything different, so he'd come to the kitchen, and he'd say to my mother, ‘Ella, would you fix me some bacon, eggs and toast?’ He had to have his bacon almost burned, and his eggs had to be flipped over ten times. He’d come by in a Jeep, and I could hear the Jeep coming.”
When Elvis left Germany, he went to Stefaniak’s parents, Raymond and Ella, with a beautiful glass clock for a gift, and asked if their daughter could accompany him as a traveling secretary. “It just blew me away,” she says now, “to be part of the life of one of the most famous people ever. His name became a household word. It’s hard to explain what a feeling it was, like, little old me. I was part of his inner life.”
But romantically, Stefaniak didn’t want to be just another one of Elvis’ girls. She’d started falling for another soldier -- Mansfield -- and the two were encouraged in their relationship by Elvis’ grandmother, whom Elisabeth helped with the cooking. They began covertly dating, but Elisabeth had to travel to Graceland with Elvis’ family to prepare for his arrival, leaving their future in question.
Plus, Elvis was known to be possessive, and to possess a temper. “After three or four days, I was on pins and needles, and the phone call came,” Mansfield says. “She told me that Elvis had let her down slow and easy, and said she could date other men, and she called me up and said I’m ready to go.”
A short time later, Mansfield traveled to Memphis. He had some bad news for the King.
He remembers the scene like it was yesterday -- the two of them standing, looking into a mirror, as Mansfield helped Elvis put on his suspenders. “Elvis, I’ve decided to go back to my old job,” he said. “And by the way…I understand that you're going to allow other guys to date Elisabeth?”
“He was in shock at first, didn’t say anything for a while,” Mansfield says. “And finally, he said, ‘Rex, you know Liz will never love anybody but me,’ and I said, ‘That's probably true.’” However, Mansfield says that Presley did allow: “But you know, I don’t know anyone I’d rather have her date than you.”
“He didn’t see what was going on inside of me, but it was like a big whew.”
Rex and Elisabeth married in 1960, the same year Elvis returned from his improbable stint in the army -- one he would remember fondly for the rest of his life, before his untimely death in 1977 at the age of 42.
The couple were living in Germany when they heard the news. Looking back now, Rex calls it “traumatic.” Elisabeth says she was not shocked, “because we’d heard so much about how his life was. You almost expected something bad to happen one day.”
They chose not to attend the funeral, instead choosing to preserve their memories of The King from the better days, when they were halfway around the world, in a cold war with Russia, but at peace with themselves.
“You’ve heard the phrase, ‘I’ve never seen an atheist in a fox hole?’ You learn more about yourself, where you stand in life, in the army, than where anywhere else,” Mansfield says. “You’re there with 220 guys, and you know where you are among them, if you’re in the upper 10 percent, in the middle or down in the lower part. It’s about being a man, being able to stand up. You found that out.... You see where you stand as a person.”