Elvis Presley as a Soldier in West Germany: 1958-1960
When Elvis Presley walked off an army troop ship in Bremerhaven, West Germany on October 1, 1958, he was only 23 years old. It was his first (and only!) trip beyond North America, courtesy of his local draft board in Memphis, Tennessee. His 17-month stay in Germany would be a pivotal period in his life and career.
“Colonel” Tom Parker, Presley’s manager, had gone to great lengths to ensure that Elvis Presley would be seen as just another “average G.I.” – but he was hardly average. Presley was already a huge international star by the time he arrived in Germany. There were throngs of screaming Elvis fans when he left the US and when he arrived in Bremerhaven. The Colonel had promised his star attraction that he would become an even bigger star after his tour of duty in West Germany. All Elvis had to do was “…stay a good boy, and do nothing to embarrass your country.”
By all accounts, Elvis was a good soldier, if not always a good boy. He performed his duties well (as a jeep driver in a tank battalion) and seems to have earned the respect of his fellow soldiers and his commanding officers while stationed in West Germany.
But Elvis was anything but your average G.I. in Germany. For one thing, the average G.I., with a monthly salary of less than $100 per month, could not afford to live off-base in Europe, much less bring family members over from the USA to keep him company. Elvis spent only a few nights in his army bunk in Building 3707 at Ray Barracks in Friedberg. After his father, grandmother, and some hometown buddies arrived in Germany, Elvis lived with them in hotels and later in a house in nearby Bad Nauheim. He hired a car and driver to chauffeur him back and forth between his home and the base each day – at least until he got his own Mercedes and a sporty BMW 507.
Nor does the average army private hold a news conference a day after his arrival on base. But that is what Private Presley did on October 2, 1958. At 10:00 a.m. in the Enlisted Men’s Canteen, in front of dozens of reporters and photographers, Elvis answered the usual trite, vapid questions while maintaining his legendary charm and affability. (Did he still hope to meet Brigitte Bardot?) As one journalist noted, “The conference was a shade smaller than President Eisenhower might expect.”
Even after the media people had left, life for Elvis was far from anything the typical US soldier in Germany experienced. Almost every workday he would come home for lunch and skip the army food at the base. Although he always showed up for, and carried out his military duties, he had a life in Germany that most G.I.s could only dream of. Besides his own place, girls galore, and several cars, Elvis was in a position very different from that of any “normal” soldier. He was even allowed to have his hair cut slightly longer than army regs dictated. (See below.)
His army assignments were often influenced by his fame. The one time Elvis was put on guard duty at Ray Barracks, he was so mobbed by fans, the “guard” had to be rescued! That was the end of Elvis doing guard duty!
GW Expat Blog
Also read the blog entry Bad Nauheim and Elvis, based on a recent visit to Bad Nauheim, where Elvis lived from 1958 to 1960.
First assigned as a jeep driver for the company commander Capt. Russell, Elvis was soon reassigned to a scout platoon – after the captain could no longer stand all the commotion involved with his new driver.
It was also no accident that Elvis was on hand for a special ceremony in April 1958 to relocate a stone memorial for German World War I veterans in Steinfurth. The photos of the event feature Elvis prominently – pretending to have an actual role in moving one of the large stone sections inscribed “Helden [heroes] – 1914-1918,” while the real workmen look on with puzzlement. (See photo below.) The memorial was moved again after 1958, but it’s still in Steinfurth, which is now part of Bad Nauheim.
Elvis’ Entourage in West Germany
As he had done at Fort Hood in Texas, Elvis brought his home with him to Europe. As Lamar Fike put it, “Elvis always kept his own world with him; he kept his own bubble.” Unfortunately, his mother had died before he left for West Germany, but his 68-year-old paternal grandmother, Minnie Mae (Elvis called her “Dodger”) filled in for her in Bad Nauheim. Of course, Elvis’ 42-year-old father Vernon was also there, just as he had been in Texas.
Elvis and the Cold War
At the time of the Berlin Airlift in 1947, Elvis was only 12 years old. When he arrived in Europe in 1958, Germany was already split into East and West, but there was no Berlin Wall until August 1961, over a year after Elvis had returned to the US and become a civilian again.
Rounding out the retinue in Bad Nauheim were a few of Elvis’ friends from Memphis and a couple of army buddies from the transport ship and Fort Hood. Living with Elvis were his two “bodyguard” buddies Red West and 300-pound Lamar Fike. (Elvis paid them nothing, providing only room and board, plus a small weekly allowance.) The hot-headed West would later leave and be replaced by Cliff Gleaves, a rock-a-billy musician friend of Elvis from Memphis. In January 1959, Elvis’ personal secretary, 19-year-old Elisabeth Stefaniak, would have her office at the Hotel Grunewald and later in the house. Elvis had met her during field training in Grafenwöhr. She got along well with grandma and helped her with the cooking each day. Elisabeth earned a salary of $35 per week, plus room and board.
Several other army friends were frequent visitors to the Presley homestead in West Germany. Elvis had met Rex Mansfield when he was inducted. Rex (“Rexadus” to Elvis) was a fellow southerner from Dresden, Tennessee, and probably Elvis’ closest army buddy. Charlie Hodge was a fellow soldier and musician whom Elvis had befriended during his trip from Fort Hood to Bremerhaven. Elvis and Charlie had been put in charge of producing a talent show during the Atlantic crossing. In Germany, Charlie would come over from his base in Butzbach to visit on weekends and sleep on the couch. He, Rex and Elvis would sometimes have jam sessions together.
Ray Barracks: The buildings at Ray Barracks once housed Hitler SS troops. After WWII they were named for First Lieutenant Bernard J. Ray, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. Ray sacrificed himself to destroy a wire obstacle that was blocking his unit’s path. The US base where Elvis served was deactivated in August 2007.
Elvis Stela: In 1995, an inscribed black stone stela was erected in front of the Hotel Grunewald in Bad Nauheim. The “Elvis Stele” was donated by a local stonemason. Now a shrine for Elvis fans, the stela commemorates the time when Elvis lived in the hotel.
Hotel Grunewald: In 2007 the former Hotel Grunewald, built in 1888, ceased being a hotel and is now a private home. Elvis and his entourage lived at the Grunewald in Bad Nauheim until he rented the house on Goethestraße.
Town Rivalry: The two German towns in which Elvis lived (Bad Nauheim) and worked (Friedberg) have a friendly rivalry over which one is truly “Elvis’ second home.” Both now offer annual events and tours every August 16, the anniversary of the King’s death in 1977. Both also feature an Elvis-Presley-Platz. Both cater to and profit from Elvis tourism.
FDR in Bad Nauheim: When US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a small boy, he spent time in Bad Nauheim where his father was taking the salt water cure that is still offered there.
The Daily Routine in Bad Nauheim
Each workday Elvis would rise at 5:30 in the morning. Minnie Mae would prepare his standard breakfast of slightly burned bacon, hard fried eggs, peaches, and homemade Southern baked biscuits with butter and jam. He washed it down with coffee before driving to the base at 6:30 – at first in his black Mercedes, later in two different BMW two-seaters. Most days, if he was not away on maneuvers, he would come home for lunch. Sometimes he would sign autographs in front of the house before coming in for lunch. In the evening he would return from the base in time for dinner with the household. At 7:30 p.m. he would go out and sign autographs for fans until 8:00 p.m. (There was a sign indicating the times in front of the house.)
The House on Goethestraße
After living in two different hotels in Bad Nauheim – and getting kicked out of both – Elvis finally found a house to rent. Frau Pieper, his landlady, demanded and got 3,200 marks a month (about $800), which was higher than the going rate, but she knew that Mr. Presley could afford it. She turned out to be a shrewd business woman (or a cutthroat one, according to some).
The house at Goethestraße 14 was a three-story white stucco four-bedroom home in less than perfect condition, but at last Elvis had a real house to live in – where he could relax and not worry about bothering hotel guests. Frau Pieper remained in the house, living in the attic-level bedroom, and helping grandma with the housekeeping.
|Elvis-Orte in Deutschland
Some of the many places in Germany where Elvis Presley lived or spent time while a US soldier stationed in West Germany: Bremerhaven (port of arrival), Friedberg (Ray Barracks, US Army base), Bad Homburg (Ritters Park Hotel, now the Steigenberger Hotel), Bad Nauheim (Hilberts Parkhotel [no longer standing], Hotel Grunewald, house at Goethestrasse 14), Steinfurth (WWI memorial relocation), Usingen (karate lessons with Jürgen Seydel), Mannheim, Wiesbaden (Bill Haley concert, Eagle Club; Hotel Helene, Priscilla Beaulieu), Frankfurt am Main (army hospital for tonsillitis 2x, Holiday on Ice 2x), Munich (Bavaria Film Studio, Starnberg Lake, Hotel Edelweiß, Bayerischer Hof hotel, McCraw barracks), Gederner See (lake, Haus am See retreat – www.campingpark-gedern.de), Winterstein, Grafenwöhr (army maneuvers), Hirschau, Weiden, Wildflecken (fall and winter maneuvers), Hammelburg,, Baumholder (army maneuvers), and Rhein-Main Air Base (departure by air from Frankfurt).
On the next page we learn about Elvis’ first haircut in Germany (by a German barber), Elvis as an expat, his early drug use, G.I. Blues, how he met Priscilla, and other things.
1. Tom Parker, in The Colonel. Alanna Nash, Chicago Review Press, 2003; p. 177
2. Sergeant Presley: Our Untold Story of Elvis’ Missing Years. Rex and Elisabeth Mansfield, ECW Press, 2002; p. 65
3. Quoted in Private Presley: The Missing Years – Elvis in Germany. Andreas Schröer, HarperCollins, 1993/2002; p. 26
4. Sergeant Presley: Our Untold Story of Elvis’ Missing Years, p. 109
5. Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. Peter Guralnick, Back Bay Books, 1999; p. 10
6. Sergeant Presley: Our Untold Story of Elvis’ Missing Years, p. 109
NOTE: Elvis, Elvis Presley, Graceland and King of Rock ‘n’ Roll are registered trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc.
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Elvis Presley in Germany – Part 2 – More about G.I. Elvis in West Germany
- Photos: Elvis Presley in Germany – Our special Elvis photo gallery
- GW Expat Blog: Bad Nauheim and Elvis – A visit to Bad Nauheim, where Elvis lived from 1958 to 1960
- Mini Bios A-Z – Brief biographies of people from the German-speaking world
- Featured Biographies – More detailed bios of notable people from the German-speaking world
- Notable Women from Austria, Germany, Switzerland
- Famous Graves in Germany – Where are they buried?
- Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick. Back Bay Books, 1999. Paper. This second volume of Guralnick’s excellent Elvis bio covers Presley’s army years and the later part of career. See Volume 1 below.
- Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick. Back Bay Books, 1999. Paper. This first volume of Guralnick’s excellent Elvis bio covers Presley’s early years – before he went to Germany. See Volume 2 above.
- The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley by Alanna Nash. Chicago Review Press, 2004. Paper. This well-written bio offers a detailed look at the mysterious life of Elvis’ longtime manager. Did he really kill someone in his homeland of the Netherlands?
- Elvis and Me by Priscilla Beaulieu Presley. Berkley, 1986. Paperback. Elvis’ wife recalls her years with Elvis, starting in West Germany.
- Private Presley: The Missing Years – Elvis In Germany by Andreas Schröer. HarperCollins, 2002. Paper.
- DVD: G.I. Blues (1960) widescreen. The first movie Elvis made after his military service is set in West Germany. Probably the best in a series of formulaic Elvis films.
- DVD: King Creole / G.I. Blues (Double Feature). Elvis made King Creole just before he joined the army. Two DVD set.
ON THE WEB
- Elvis Presley Verein – German fan site with Zeitzeugen – Germans who knew Elvis during his time in Germany
- Ray Barracks Closed – 2008 – elvispresleymusic.com.au
- Elvis’ BMW 507 – The full story of his two leased BMWs in Germany – elvispresleymusic.com.au
- Elvis Aaron Presley – in the US Army 1958-1960 – from www.elvispresleymusic.com.au
- Photos of Ray Barracks and Elvis – by Reiner Strack
- Bad Nauheim – The official site of the town of Bad Nauheim, with its Elvis page for fans and tourists
- www.elvis.com – The official Elvis site also has info about his time in West Germany.
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