How Elvis Presley Helped Save the USS Arizona Memorial
In the 1950s, any American of a certain age could be drafted into the US military. Famous athletes and actors regularly served, as did musicians like Elvis Presley, who was drafted into the US Army and deployed to West Germany. He served honorably and continued to support the military following his discharge. One such instance had to do with the memorial for the USS Arizona (BB-39), which was struck during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
The USS Arizona was destroyed during the attack on Pearl Harbor
The USS Arizona was built from 1914-15 and named for Arizona’s admission into the United States. The “super-dreadnought” wasn’t utilized during the First World War, but became an important ship in the US Navy’s fleet. She was one of the vessels used to ferry President Woodrow Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference.
In April 1940, Arizona and the rest of the Pacific Fleet were moved to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to serve as a deterrent to Japanese imperialism. On the morning of December 7, 1941, the ship was anchored off the coast of Ford Island when she was struck by a 1,760-pound projectile, which caused her fuel and munitions to ignite, subsequently causing an explosion. The attack resulted in the death of 1,177 crew members, and Arizona sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
In the late 1950s, a fund was taken up to build a memorial to Arizona and her crew. However, the drive was unsuccessful and only raised around a quarter of the money needed.
Elvis Presley’s time in the US Army
At the same time efforts were being made to build a memorial for the USS Arizona, Elvis Presley was the biggest star in the world. In March 1958, he was drafted into the US Army as a private at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas and sent to Fort Hood, Texas for basic training. He was deployed to West Germany, where he asked to be treated like any other soldier, and rose to the rank of sergeant by the time he was discharged.
There was a worry that his time in the Army could hurt Presley’s career, as the public moved on to other musical acts. Despite this, the singer didn’t perform while he was serving, at the behest of manager Tom Parker, who convinced him of the importance of not seeming different than those he served with.
Elvis Presley needed to be reintroduced to the American public
The King of Rock and Roll was formally discharged from the Army in March 1960. He’d enjoyed meteoric success prior to being drafted, but had spent 24 months not performing. Presley and his managers decided that helping out with the USS Arizona Memorial campaign would return him to the public eye in a charitable and patriotic way.
Presley’s management team reached out to the Pacific War Memorial Commission, offering their help. The commission, which had been struggling to raise money, was thrilled. Presley planned a concert at Hawaii’s Bloch Arena, from which all proceeds would go toward the memorial. He wouldn’t, however, be coming alone.
The concert was a roaring success
Elvis Presley didn’t perform in Hawaii alone – he brought some friends along with him. Also performing were Minnie Pearl and The Jordanaires. Tickets to the show weren’t cheap, but the charitable Presley had an answer for that. He footed the bill for all of the patients at the local military hospital. He also agreed to star in the film Blue Hawaii (1961), which wound up being a runaway hit, drawing more interest and tourism to the beautiful state.
The concert was a smashing success and raised $54,000 for the USS Arizona Memorial fund, on top of what the singer himself donated. More importantly, it brought attention to the cause, and donations continued to come in over the subsequent weeks.
The USS Arizona Memorial becomes a reality
Thanks in large part to Elvis Presley’s fundraising efforts, the memorial for the USS Arizona became a reality. By the end of 1960, the Pacific War Memorial Commission had the money it needed to properly work on the project, and by the end of May 1962, it was complete.
Today the USS Arizona Memorial sits over the site where the original vessel sank. Arizona‘s reputation still looms large, as every two years the Chief of Naval Operations awards the USS Arizona Memorial Trophy to the most battle-ready ship.