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How Elvis Helped Save the USS Arizona Memorial

USS Arizona underway.

USS Arizona underway.

The Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 inflicted a brutal blow on the U.S. Pacific fleet but only two active ships were a total loss – U.S.S. Oklahoma and U.S.S. Arizona. Oklahoma was eventually refloated but was too badly damaged to repair and return to service. Arizona, however, had been devastated by a cataclysmic explosion caused by a bomb crashing through the deck and igniting the ship’s forward magazine. Nearly 80 percent of Arizona’s 1,512 crewmen were lost with most of them being entombed in the sunken ship.

The wreck immediately became a memorial as passing ships rendered honors to the Arizona and her crew throughout the war. Proposals to erect a permanent memorial were promoted as early as 1943 but it was not until 1949 that an organized effort began to take shape following the creation of the Pacific War Memorial Commission (PWMC). As the PWMC considered ideas to formally recognize the role of Hawaii during the war which would include a memorial to the Arizona, Admiral Arthur Radford had a flagstaff placed on the wreck in 1950 and ordered that the colors be raised at the site every day. This modest memorial was later expanded to include wooden platforms and a commemorative plaque. Requests for Federal funds to improve the memorial in the early 1950s were denied because U.S. military actions in Korea were deemed a priority.

elvis-bennington-tributeIn 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Public Law 85-344 that allowed the PWMC to raise money on the Navy’s behalf for the construction of a memorial to the Arizona. Several designs were considered before architect Alfred Preis’s plan to build a concave marble bridge that straddled the wreck was selected. A fundraising goal of $500,000 was set and the initial response from the public was promising. An episode of the popular TV series This is Your Life dedicated to Medal of Honor recipient Rear Admiral Samuel Fuqua sounded the initial call for donations, generating $95,000. However, the project quickly stalled as donations dried up. By the start of 1960, only $155,000 had been raised. The drive was in desperate need of a swift and hard kick.

“Colonel” Tom Parker read about the struggling campaign in a newspaper and spotted an opportunity. As Elvis Presley’s manager, he was eager to get a bit of positive publicity for his client who had been out of circulation for a couple years after being drafted into the U.S. Army. Parker surmised that a benefit concert for the USS Arizona Memorial would raise much-needed awareness of the fundraising campaign while also demonstrating that Elvis still had drawing power. Elvis was not only pleased to be able to perform for an audience, he was a patriot who genuinely believed in the cause and wanted to help.

The PWMC accepted Elvis’s generous offer and began making arrangements with the Navy to use the 4,000 seat Bloch Arena at Pearl Harbor as the venue for the concert. It was the same arena that had hosted the “Battle of Music” the evening prior to the attack in 1941. The “Battle of Music” was a spirited competition to determine the best ship band in the Pacific Fleet. Although they had been eliminated from contention, the band from Arizona was present and played dance music for the attendees. They would never perform again. The entire band was killed in the explosion on the ship the next morning.

With the venue secured and the show scheduled for March 25, 1961, Parker set ticket prices ranging from $3 to $100 and announced that everyone would have to buy a ticket to see the show. Rank usually has its privileges but Parker seemed to take pleasure in rebuffing admirals and generals who approached him about complimentary tickets. When he said he everyone had pay, he meant everyone had to pay. Even the performers. Elvis bought a $100 ticket for himself then bought dozens more to give to staff and patients at a military hospital.

elvis-pearl-flyerTo reduce out of pocket expenses, Parker tried to sell networks the rights to broadcast the concert as a television special but was unable to secure an agreement. Fortunately, Paramount signed Elvis to star in “Blue Hawaii” which paid for him and his entourage to relocate to Honolulu for the filming of the movie which coincided with the benefit concert.

It is apparent that Elvis did not view the concert as merely a career enhancing photo opportunity. He came prepared to give the audience the best performance he could. He brought a talented band including several members from a group of accomplished session musicians known as the “Nashville A-Team.” Guitarist Hank Garland, bassist Bob Moore, pianist Floyd Cramer and saxophonist Boots Randolph (whose “Yakety Sax” has become synonymous with comedian Benny Hill) joined Elvis’s regular drummer DJ Fontana and guitarist Scotty Moore. Moore was no stranger to Pearl Harbor, having spent time there while serving in the Navy years earlier. The show would also include performances by the local comedic act Sterling Mossman, Elvis’s backing vocal group the Jordanairs and Grand Old Opry star Minnie Pearl.

elvis-adm-radford-at-uss-arizonaAfter a brief introduction by Rear Admiral Robert Campbell of the 14th Naval District, Elvis took the stage as hundreds of teenagers screeched in excitement. The King looked resplendent in his signature gold lame jacket with silver sequin lapels. He let out a brief screech of his own in response to the ecstatic audience before launching into his hit “Heartbreak Hotel.” All accounts state that Elvis was in peak form, giving an enthusiastic and energetic performance that included favorites “All Shook Up,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “It’s Now or Never.” He finished the show with a rollicking version of “Hound Dog” during which he slid across the stage on his knees. The 15 song set and 45 minutes of stage time were among the longest of his career. The concert would also be his last for 8 years.

The benefit was a resounding success. Ticket sales accounted for $47,000 with additional donations ($5,000 coming from Elvis) pushing the total take to over $60,000. Funding for the memorial was still well short of its target but the electricity of Elvis had generated the jumpstart the campaign needed. Money began to flow from other sources. The combination of public funds and private donations (including $40,000 from Revelle raised through sale of model kits of the Arizona) reached the goal of $500,000 by September, 1961 – just 5 months after the concert. Construction on the memorial was completed by the end of the year.

elvis-revell-uss-arizonaThe USS Arizona Memorial was officially dedicated on May 30, 1962. Elvis certainly took pride in his role in building a permanent memorial to the crew of the Arizona and made several visits to the site on subsequent trips to Hawaii. The memorial has reached its own iconic status and welcomes 1.5 million visitors a year.

Elvis did not forget the Arizona, and the Navy did not forget Elvis. When Elvis passed away in 1977, the Navy showed is gratitude by placing a wreath for him at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial.

elvis-1965-visit-to-memorialHe’s your uncle, not your dad
He’s the best friend you ever had
So, come on, dig, dig, dig in until it hurts
Just remember Pearl Harbor

The Alamos and nothing could be worse

— Elvis Presley, “He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad”

  • Marcd30319

    Many thanks to the news staff for an excellent article on this 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Long live the USS Arizona and long live Elvis!

  • Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello

    Every time Elvis did something to help a worthy cause, it was long lasting. His appeals on behalf of the March of Dimes and Polio (October 28, 1956), the 1956 Hungarian refugees ( January 6, 1957), St Jude’s (the first of many such appeals being on June 28, 1957), the “USS Arizona” Memorial ( March 25, 1961) and numerous other benefits. Even the spinoff of yet another of his charities, the “USS Potomac” , the 155 feet long Presidential yatch under FDR and which he donated in early 1964 to St Jude’s so that they could auction it for a big profit is, believe it or not, currently operational, taking tourists from Oakland to the Golden Gate and back.

    • Linda Correia

      Wow interesting, I knew he bought it and gave it to Danny Thomas for St Jude, did not know it’s operational, Huge Elvis fan thanks for the info.

      • Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello

        Afetr Elvis gave it to St jude’s, they sold it, had two different owners, one of them carrying drugs, It then sunk. But the Navy went out and got it out of the deep water, painted it, made it look nice and it is now at Oakland. I was there two months ago, knowing that that was the day it did not either allow passengers inside, nor cruise to the Golden gate, and back, but since I couldn’t change mt schedule , just went there to see it. Lovely.

        • Linda Correia

          Thanks for info, I appreciate it!! Maybe someday I will get to see it Thank You Verry Much.

  • Duke

    Comparing most modern-day “entertainers” to Elvis is like comparing dirt to gold dust.

    • Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello

      Yes, and it shows here. Elvis is the most celebrated artist born in the Twentieth Century, ranking #10 amongst all artists born since 4000 BC. The key word being celebrated which in this MIT launched program, means read, discussed, heard, commented, in more than 100 languages worldwide, today.. LOL http://pantheon.media.mit.edu/rankings/people/all/ARTS/-4000/2010/H15

    • Kim Chul Soo

      I am so in agreement with you on the comparison.

      • Jack

        Amen!!

        Modern entertainers are all the same.

        • TexasPete65

          But not Gary Sinese. He is tireless in his support for the troops. Does his best to emulate Bob Hope.

          • Jlgwn

            Gary Sinese is very much cut from the same mold as Elvis. He is humble, kind, and has been so generous while quietly donating and raising untold money to help no telling how many people. Another great man.

          • Matt Albrecht

            seeing the “Lt Dan Band” in the sand box, i must agree. very humble man, would talk to or take pictures with any service member, never looked or talked down to them, i really think he was as humbled by us as we were with him and that he would come there for us.

          • Jlgwn

            I think so and I thank you for your service, sir.

          • Diana

            I was trying to figure out a way to weave Gary into this story as well and decided that no this was Elvis’ tribute so I didn’t. Gary deserves as much honor on other military sites as Elvis for his faithful service to our vets! He is also a true Patriot!

    • old guy

      He was a true patriot and deserves all the accolades he has received.

    • Wesley Long

      Selma Hayek said it best in Dogma (specifically about the King), “That’s why he’s the King and you’re a schmuck!”

      She was referring to something ELSE EP did that was noble, but still right on target when comparing with today’s “artists.”

  • Brian Quinn

    Elvis gave a great show that day. It should have been recorded on film for posterity. Nobody could compare to Elvis on stage. He was truly magnificent.

  • Robert Muir

    One of a kind…Both of them…Arizona and Elvis.

  • muzzleloader

    Thank you news staff for a piece of history I knew nothing about. Elvis was a true giving soul, and a patriot. BTW, the picture of the Arizona is truly remarkable in that it is the only one I have ever seen where you can practically see the whole ship from bow to stern.

  • Jack

    Awesome article… thank you for writing it and posting.

  • Dennis

    Anyone know what was done about the steady oil leak from Arizona?

    • Pat Patterson

      Nothing, it still seeps out. The Arizona is a war grave so no attempt will be made to stop it. Most of the oil burned or was pumped out during the initial salvage operations.

      • Dennis

        Thanks for the come-back. After all these years, the oil slick cannot be stopped. I wonder what that is doing to the ecology of the area.

        • Pat Patterson

          I don’t really know. It’s mostly a color sheen on the surface that’s visible. The National Park Service and Navy must have some reports of the effects on the local ecology since they continually monitor the site.

          • Donald Carey

            The leak is not harming the local ecology. There are naturally occuring marine bacteria that eat the oil. They live anywhere there is a constant supply such as the Gulf of Mexico where natural oil seeps release many thousands of gallons of oil a year (estimated to be more than an Exxon Valdez per year).

          • Pat Patterson

            Correct. Current leaks are small. The only real concern is that in the future a hull collapse could release a significant amount of oil, hence continuous assessment. Supposedly around 500,000 gallons remaining.

          • Donald Carey

            At the current rate, that will last almost 700 years. Of course, the Park Service could drill into the tanks and pump them out, it is not like we don’t have copies of the ship’s plans.

      • Mike Mixa

        It is call the 1177 “Black tears”
        About a Gal. everyday!

        • Dennis

          I understood it was only a few drops a day. What you say amounts to about 30 thousand gallons so far! Are you right?

          • Mike Mixa

            Sorry exact amount:
            Estimated amounts of oil:
            1.5 million gallons in tanks on December 7, 1941
            1/3 (500,000 gallons) destroyed the day of the attack
            1/3 (500,000 gallons) lost in the next 2 ½ days
            1/3 (500,000 gallons) estimated remainder on December 10, 1941
            Initial leakage: 2 quarts per day
            Current leakage: 8 to 9 quarts per day

    • desert

      still leaking oil 75 years later…

  • RobM1981

    This would make a great movie.

  • Pat Patterson

    I had one of the Revell Arizona kits many years ago as a child.

    • desert

      I would love to have one right now!!

      • jw

        still out there on ebay,amazon or walmart. good sales right now. also a youtube on building tips.

  • USNVO

    The USS UTAH (AG-16 formally BB-31) was also sunk in the attack and was a total loss. It most certainly was an active ship at the time of the attack although it was only used for training. There is a USS UTAH memorial overlooking the hulk of the ship on the west side of Ford Island.

  • James Bowen

    Was the Oklahoma too damaged to return to service? I have also read that the decision not to return her to service might have had something to do with her propulsion system not being as modern as her sister ship the Nevada.

    • Pat Patterson

      Yes, the Navy changed their minds and decided she was too damaged to repair. It took until December 1943 to right, refloat and put her into a dry dock. She was decommissioned in September 1944. All the pre-war battleships were too slow (about 21 knots) for fast carrier forces and were relegated to ASW escorts and more importantly, for shore bombardment duties.

      • James Bowen

        That is interesting how most of the battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor were salvaged and returned to service but ended up in assignments where the likelihood of seeing fleet action were reduced, especially considering that up until the attack on Pearl Harbor they were considered absolutely vital to the defense of the U.S. and achieving sea control.

        As for the Oklahoma, I have also read that her reciprocating engines were probably the reason for the Navy’s decision to decommission her, so there seems to be conflicting information on this.

  • Linda Correia

    Elvis most generous heart that walked this earth, who truly loved his Country, he proudly served in the Army!!! He was’nt just the Greatest Entertainer of all time, He loved giving because he knew what it was like to financially struggle, a very Giving Soul!! Long live the King, Love Him!!!

  • Duane

    Good for Elvis. In his early days, it was common for entertainers to be very patriotic and appreciative of our military members. That changed in the 60s and 70s with the anti-war movement. Today there are relatively few in the arts and entertainment world who are like, say, Gary Sinise – which is why today he stands out … in the WWII era and the next 20 years thereafter, there were a lot of entertainers like Elvis, including Bob Hope and scads of entertainers who went to Viet Nam and entertained the troops.

    Today, even though general public attitudes are more positive towards military members, it’s still nothing like it was 40 years ago, before “Hanoi Jane”, Woodstock, and all that.

    • Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello

      I was at student, a sophomore, at a New England college in late October of 1971, when I found out Elvis was going to give a concert at the Boston Garden. It was sold out the day the tickets went on sale, with 16,201 in attendance a month later, including my then girlfriend and I. A few months later, in 1972, when a few of my left leaning friends who had declined to see Elvis, invited me to accompany them to a Jane Fonda lecture at a nearby college for women, I went. LOL. Suffice to say I was so proud of the fact that there were 11 people in attendance, us 5 included, in a classroom which could have held 50..

  • Jlgwn

    I guess we will be seeing these things about Elvis for decades to come as the history of his generosity and patriotism continues to be uncovered and told. My sister-in-law once worked for a audiologist and he had an entire file cabinet of patients who had been fitted for hearing aids that Elvis paid for. He did so many wonderful things for underprivileged adults and children throughout his adult life that he never even wanted the public to know about. That, ladies and gentleman, was his real legacy. He loved people and he helped so many.

  • John Hattabaugh

    I never knew this fact. a doff of the hat (or cover), a tip of the glass to the king…and a hearty “Bravo Zulu” as well.

  • Ghost

    I always imagined that if Elvis had been alive he would have participated in the 9/11 concert (October 2001) and I think that includes Frank Sinatra and John Lennon who were much better men than they were considered to be when they were alive, the stories of both Sinatra and Lennon tell great tales.

  • Diana

    Nothing more gut wrentching than to visit Pearl Harbor. And nothing that will ever compare to the deep love Elvis had for Pearl Harbor and the soldier’s and citizens that sacrificed their lives that day. He is a true Patriot and will forever be in our hearts for his love of this country, our soldiers, and for his devotion to fulfilling the Arizona Memorial. Love you Elvis!