Veterans Day: Musicians in the Military

WWI Veteran Joseph Ambrose in 1982

How was the weekend, music fans? As we all know – or should know – yesterday, we here in the United States celebrated those who fought and fight for our freedom through our annual Veterans Day celebration. While barbequing and slamming down a few tall cans is as American as apple pie, so is our pride for those who have served for our greater good. For all of our overseas visitors out there, Veterans Day is an official United States holiday honoring armed service veterans which is observed nationally at the federal level annually on November 11th. It was made to coincide with holidays from other parts of the world such as Armistice Day and Remembrance Day along with the anniversary of the end of World Way I (of which all major hostilities were formally ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 with the German signing of the Armistice).

Today, we here at PAL would like to take the time in honor of Veterans Day to acknowledge a few of music’s greats that have donned a uniform in the name of Uncle Sam. While there are probably a few on this list that made a big splash during their time in the military – not all of them positive instances, or that long even – most of them served with quiet passion and integrity, much like most of our guys in uniform today. Alright, so let’s check out a few of the most memorable rock and roll military men.


Rock and Roll Military Musicians

The Man

The Service

Jimi Hendrix: May 1961 - June 1962

One of the more well-known military musicians on our list, Jimi’s time in the U.S. Army spoke more to his love of rock and roll than anything else. After getting in trouble with the law twice for riding in stolen cars, Hendrix was given an ultimatum between spending two years in prison and joining the Army. He chose the latter, enlisting on May 31, 1961. He was stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where his commanding officers and fellow soldiers didn’t think to highly of the young enlistee – most likely due to the fact that he was well known for sleeping while on duty, failed to follow regulations, had little promise as a marksman and just generally needed supervision at all times. After about a year of service, Captain Gilbert Batchman requested that Hendrix be honorably discharged (which Jimi himself did not challenge). On June 29, 1962, Private Hendrix received an honorable discharge on the basis of "unsuitability.” And as that old saying goes, the rest was rock and roll history.

Elvis Presley: March 1958 - March 1960

One of the first original rock stars to serve in the military along with being one of the first to join while in the midst of his peaking fame, Elvis Presley garnered a lot of attention when it was announced that he would be joining the United States Army but little did the people know – or even Elvis for that matter – that it was all part of a bigger plan. Before entering the Army, Elvis had gained an unprecedented amount of negative attention form many parents, religious leaders and teachers groups due to his sexually charged performances and the impact among impressionable youth. Seeing this as a chance to capitalize among the older conservative crowd, legendary manager Colonel Tom Parker – who had initially promised Presley he would make sure he would go undrafted – suggested that his young star serve as a regular soldier in order positively spin his image among older America. Although Elvis changed much during his two year stint in the military, it is still believed that the death of his mother in August of ’58 – along with the Army’s refusal to grant Presley his request for an emergency visit weeks before her demise – that ultimately changed the rock star forever as the young star began abusing uppers and downers during this time. 

Tony Bennett: November 1944 - 1946

Before he left his heart in San Francisco, it was serving throughout Europe. Like many of the artists on this list, Tony Bennett got his start in the military through one of America’s oldest institutions – the draft. Called up for the Army during the waning days of World War II in 1944, Bennett was assigned to the 63rd Division where he served in France and Germany. During his time in Europe, he came across an old friend. After Bennett invited his old acquaintance – who was black by the way – to have a seat and eat with him, an officer from the south suggested that his friend eat in the kitchen instead. This apparently did not sit well with the young soon to be famous crooner as his response to the southern officer resulted in Bennett’s demotion from corporal to private along with reassignment to a unit responsible for disinterring mass graves and preparing those bodies for shipment back to the US. It wasn’t all bad for Bennett while in the Army though. It was during this stint that he got his first opportunity to sing while part of a military band. After the war was over and he continued his remaining service commitments, he studied music at Heidelburg University before returning to the US. Once home, he studied voice under the GI Bill while supporting himself as an elevator operator. He would go on to sign with Columbia Records and release his first hit, "Because of You," in 1951.

Woody Guthrie: 1945

Now here’s a guy who you wouldn’t expect to join the Army considering the fact that his personal beliefs were so far to the left that he made Bob Dylan seem conservative but that’s exactly what happened – albeit in a fashion as only Guthrie could deliver. Believing that performing his anti-fascist songs and poems back in the US made the best use of his talents during World War II, Guthrie lobbied the United States Army to accept him as a USO performer instead of assigning him as a soldier in the draft. After he was declined, his friends Cisco Houston and Jim Longhi convinced Guthrie to join the US Merchant Marine – a fleet of US civilian owned merchant vessels responsible for transporting goods and other non-combat commerce related war affairs. While a Merchant Marine, Guthrie served as a mess hall man and a dishwasher while frequently singing for the crew and troops during transatlantic voyages. He didn’t last long though; in 1945, his association with Communism made him ineligible for further service in the Merchant Marine and was subsequently drafted into the US Army. He never did see any action during his even briefer stint in the Army as the day of his draft coincided with the German surrender of World War II.

Johnny Cash: July 1950 – July 1954

Before he was well into his outlaw image of “The Man in Black,” Johnny Cash was wearing a different kind of color; blue – as in Air Force Blue. While most people his age waited for to be drafted in order to serve their two years, Cash opted instead to enlist in the United States Air Force for four years on July 7, 1950. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and technical training at Brooks Air Force Base, both in San Antonio, Texas, Cash was assigned to a U.S. Air Force Security Service unit as a “Morse Code Intercept Operator for Soviet Army Transmissions” at Landsberg, Germany. Although Cash became very good at his assigned job it was discovered that he had another talent of equal measure – music. While Stationed in Germany, he would regularly entertain the GIs and local Germans as part of the Landsberg Barbarians which was comprised of Cash and a few of his fellow Airmen. After he was honorably discharged as a Staff Sergeant on July 3, 1954, he returned to back home to Texas where he took advantage of the GI Bill by enrolling and completing a radio-announcing course at a broadcasting school in Memphis, ultimately leading to a lengthy and successful career in music.

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