WASHINGTON - From the likes of Clark Gable to Ronald Reagan to Ted Williams to Joe Louis, the U.S. military has a long history of taking celebrities into its ranks, usually with happy results. Jimmy Stewart, after all, enlisted right after Pearl Harbor and went on to fly 20 combat missions as a command pilot in World War II.
But documents released yesterday by the National Archives suggest that sometimes the brass must have wondered whether the famous names were worth the trouble - Elvis Presley, for instance, Steve McQueen or the Pied Piper of the beat generation, Jack Kerouac.
When Elvis was drafted in 1957 at the height of his teen-frenzy popularity, a storm of letters swept over Washington. Fans pleaded with first lady Mamie Eisenhower to make the Army return Elvis to the stage.
Then there was the public relations furor kicked up by gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, who reported that Elvis, due to be discharged in March 1960, might receive an early "good behavior" release. This prompted outraged letters to congressmen from parents whose sons were also serving in the Army.
Congressmen who inquired received an exasperated response from the Pentagon: There was no such thing as a good behavior release because, as Maj. Gen. R.V. Lee put it in one letter, "Good behavior is expected of all men in the Army."
The military may have tried to act as though Elvis were just a regular soldier, but it never quite worked out. His biographer, Peter Guralnick, reported that while Pvt. Presley was serving in Germany, he lived in a luxury hotel surrounded by his traveling entourage.
The records are among 1.2 million military personnel documents that the archives recently received from the Pentagon and will open to the public at its National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, beginning next week. Most deal with Navy and Marine Corps personnel who served between 1885 and 1939.
But there are also documents relating to 150 celebrities who have been dead at least 10 years - political figures, entertainers, athletes and others the archives described as "persons of exceptional prominence."
"A lot of folks recognized the relevant information that historians and genealogists might be interested in," said Bryan McGraw, director of archival programs at the St. Louis facility, which will be dedicated tomorrow.
The military collection, stored on five floors, comprises 1.6 million cubic feet of material that McGraw said would cover 15 football fields. As more records go public - the Pentagon releases the documents 62 years after soldiers have separated from the military - the Archives plans to open them to public inspection, McGraw said: a batch in 2009, another batch in 2022 and then every year after that.
McGraw said it was too expensive to digitize all the records, so archivists are looking at ways to computerize summary separation documents for military personnel as well as records of VIPs - such as Elvis - whose service is of great public interest.
Unlike Elvis, heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis was far from a public relations headache for the military. Inducted in 1942, Louis won a Legion of Merit for his service. Louis fought exhibition matches and talked to gravely wounded and dying soldiers, lifting morale and raising more than $250,000 for Army Relief, said Capt. Fred Mally, the officer in charge of the Joe Louis tour.
The fighter, whose real name was Joe Louis Barrow, was "an exceptional soldier," Mally said.
As for Kerouac, the Navy struggled to make a sailor out of him but finally admitted defeat. He was discharged as "unfit for service" less than a year after he enlisted in 1942.
Doctors described him as schizoid, noting that he claimed to hear in his mind whole symphonies.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.