It is well-documented that Elvis served his country by fulfilling two years in the U.S. Army from 1958-60. But his most patriotic act may have been his contribution to the USS Arizona Memorial in Honolulu, Hawaii.
On March 25, 1961, Elvis Presley performed a special concert in Honolulu, Hawaii to raise funds for the USS Arizona Memorial, a tribute to the US service men and women who lost their lives during the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941.
The 2021 documentary film by the World War II Foundation called Elvis and The USS Arizona tells the story of how Presley literally helped build the memorial that stands today.
By 1960, fundraising for the yet-to-be constructed war memorial had stalled. Only half of the estimated $500,000 that was needed to build the monument had been raised. It was Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who came up with the idea for an Elvis benefit concert after reading an article about the memorial’s funding problems in a Los Angeles newspaper.
Without Presley’s concert, the USS Arizona memorial may have never been finished. As George Chaplin wrote in the Honolulu Advertiser in 1991: “His [Presley’s] Hawaii concert did more than raise money. It created national publicity and revived public sentiment for the memorial. That September, Congress was prodded into voting $150,000; then the Hawaii Legislature added $50,000 to a previous contribution.”
The next year on Memorial Day 1962, over 20 years after the “date which will live in infamy” of December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona memorial was dedicated.
You can watch the one-hour documentary right here:
Elvis said that helping with the memorial “gives me a warm feeling. It’s wonderful to get a chance in your lifetime to do something of this nature.”
Elvis, wearing his famous gold lamé jacket with black pants, performed 15 songs that night including “Hound Dog”, “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel”. This would be Elvis’ last live performance for eight years until 1969 when he started performing in Las Vegas.
Earlier in the day at a press conference, Elvis was presented with an Award of Honor from the Pacific War Memorial Commission for his efforts. During his visit, Elvis stayed at the Hawaiian Village Hotel on Waikiki beach (now the Hilton Hawaiian Village). Two days later, he would start filming Blue Hawaii.
In subsequent years, Elvis visited the memorial several times in private, not wanting to attract publicity. In August 1965, during the filming of Paradise Hawaiian Style, Elvis, his father, Vernon, and Colonel Parker visited the memorial and brought two memorial wreaths. One of the wreaths was made of 1,177 carnations in the shape of a bell to honor each man that was lost on the ship from the Japanese torpedo and bomb attack.
Elvis, Priscilla and a few friends made another visit to the memorial in May 1968.
When Elvis died in August 1977, the 14th Naval District in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii sent a telegram to Presley’s father, Vernon: “Elvis Presley was greatly admired by the Navy men and women, past and present, of the 50th State,” the telegram read. “Your great loss is deeply shared by all of us who remember Elvis Presley as an outstanding American who loved his country and felt a kindred spirit with American men and women in uniform.”
For more fascinating Elvis Presley stories, check out the author’s book, ELVIS: Behind The Legend: Startling Truths About The King of Rock and Roll’s Life, Loves, Films and Music