Drums man served in Army with Elvis
By Tom Ragan (Staff Writer)
Published: September 9, 2013
James Reil can honestly say he knew Elvis Presley.
The Drums man - who is 78, the same age Presley would be if he were still alive - met the charismatic young crooner in the U.S. Army and got to know him better as they served in the same platoon in West Germany.
"He was a regular guy to talk to," said Reil, who was the only man from Pennsylvania who served in the unit.
On Jan. 8, 1957, his 22nd birthday, Presley was classified "1-A" in the selective service. But he did not want any special treatment, and even turned down offers from the Navy and Air Force.
Elvis already was making his mark in the music industry that year, topping the Billboard charts with his No. 1 hit, "All Shook Up." He also had three more hit songs in the top 20 and a total of six in the top 100 that year.
By the time he was inducted into the Army on March 24, 1958, Elvis was a singing sensation, a movie star and probably the hottest entertainment ticket in town, regardless of where he ventured.
So how was it that a megastar met up with a small-town GI? Fate, pure and simple.
Reil met Presley on a train en route from Fort Hood, Texas, to Brooklyn, N.Y., where they would board the USS Gen. George Randall along with more than 1,100 American servicemen, headed for a place near Frankfurt, West Germany.
"I got on the same train as Elvis, and I remember the Army terminal was packed," Reil recalled.
Presley and Reil were assigned to the 32nd Battalion of the American Third Armored Division near Friedberg, West Germany, serving in Company C, a scout platoon.
And so it began.
Presley always had a lot of women and a gaggle of photographers following him around, Reil said. But the Army did not allow the women and photographers on base (unless it was approved by Col. Tom Parker, his manager and promoter).
A book, "Like Any Other Soldier," was published about Elvis' years in the Army from 1958 to 1960. Reil owns a copy of the book, in which his picture appears with Elvis and other members of the platoon.
Presley lived off base most of the time, said Reil, who quickly remembers that Presley did indeed show up every day and did what other soldiers did, including taking his turn on "KP" (kitchen police) duty, which also meant cleaning the latrines. Presley also earned "sharpshooter" and other marksman levels in the service, and learned karate from a private trainer. "He was always showing us different holds," Reil said.
He recalled that Elvis rarely carried money, usually because Parker was always around to make sure he had whatever he needed or wanted. Parker wasn't a real colonel nor was his real name Tom Parker. He was born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in Holland on June 26, 1909, and died in Las Vegas, 20 years after Presley died, in 1997, at the age of 88.
Presley was popular with the soldiers in his platoon, according to Reil.
"He was a nice fella," Reil said, looking back.
He recalled one Christmas when Elvis was "homesick," so he rented a bar in Germany and made food and drink available for his platoon after they received passes.
"He didn't show up right away," Reil said, but eventually came with a couple of carloads of German women.
"He sang a little bit, he had a good time and we had a good time," Reil said. "They were nice girls, not prostitutes or anything like that, but nice German women who danced with us while we all had a good time."
Elvis was always doing nice things for people, according to Reil.
For example, the men's barracks in West Germany had concrete floors and it was very cold sometimes. Elvis felt sorry for the soldiers having to get out of their bunks and put their feet on the cold cement floor, so he bought rugs for them.
Being a Southern boy, Presley was always cold, Reil said. "Elvis would sit on the hood of an Army vehicle that was recently used to keep warm."
Reil recalled how Presley enjoyed playing touch football every Sunday and how the others in his platoon joined in. Presley was a good athlete, Reil said, and kept in good shape while in the Army.
"I wasn't his best friend but we got along well," Reil said.
He also talked about how Presley did not drink or use drugs while he was serving in the Army, and sang gospel songs to himself while on duty.
"He was a regular guy and did what we did," Reil said, summing up the 18 months he served in the Army with Presley.
In 2010, Reil and seven other Army buddies who served with Presley were invited to Graceland in Memphis, Tenn., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that era.
Presley's relatives and caretakers of Graceland "were really nice to us," Reil said.
The veterans brought some of their mementos of Presley and they were given photos and other items to commemorate the occasion.
At the time they were visiting Graceland, there were many rumors about Presley being alive, but Reil said he and his friends only remember seeing Elvis impersonators, not the real Elvis.
"We had a lot of fun with it," he said.
Reil was impressed with Presley's many solid gold records and his costumes on display at Graceland.
He recalled another example of Presley's generosity when one of the guys who served with them talked about Elvis buying a new Cadillac for a West Virginia soldier.
Reil has many photos of himself with Presley in Germany and with the other members of the platoon. They are memories of a young man who would become famous throughout the world before his tragic death at his Graceland home on Aug. 16, 1977, at age 42. Presley's fans never seem to get enough of him and continue to visit Graceland by the thousands.
He is one of few people who can say they knew Presley when he was young and innocent, and just another GI serving his country.
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