Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Soldier Boy

Elvis and his fellow recruits. Still image from footage by Frank Koza.

On this day, 63 years ago, Elvis entered the Army by reporting to the draft board in Memphis at 6:35 a.m. After a physical at the Kennedy Veterans Hospital he and the other recruits boarded a bus that took them to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, where they  arrived late in the evening. The next day began with reveille at 5:30 a.m. (it was the military, after all), after which followed further processing. 

At the beginning of this year, 18 minutes of new footage documenting Elvis' first two days in the Army, was made available on the Chicago Film Archives website. Shot by Frank Koza, one of the many photographers and reporters covering this historical moment, it shows Elvis putting on a brave face. But the camera also captures the uncertainty he obviously is feeling about what is going to happen. The same goes for his parents, especially Gladys, who looks devastated. 

Another thing I thought of while watching the footage, which is mostly silent but in excellent quality, is how intrusive the cameras were allowed to be. It couldn't have been easy for Elvis having a couple of cameras practically in his face while filling out some paperwork, or being filmed and photographed taking his clothes off and standing on the scale in his underpants. Still, to his credit, he endured it all.

Elvis looking a bit anxious. Still image from footage by Frank Koza.

Some 30 years later, I started my military service in the Royal Swedish Navy. There were no cameras present, but I think I can relate to some of what Elvis was going through as seen in the footage by Frank Koza. My face must have shown the same anxiety, and I remember the nervousness I felt. I had no idea what was going to happen, and I don't think Elvis had either.

In the end, it turned out all right. I made some close friends and adapted to military life, as did Elvis. On the bus to Fort Chaffee he met Rex Mansfield who was inducted the same day and would become one of his best army buddies. Later on he befriended fellow soldier Charlie Hodge, who also did his basic and advanced training at Ford Hood, Texas. They would bond during the crossing to West Germany and stay close friends until Elvis died in 1977. 

And though Elvis' life was affected in many more ways than mine during the service – starting with the loss of his mother – I guess he never forgot those first days in the military. I know I never will.

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