The battleship USS Arizona sank after being bombed when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. More than one thousand of the ship's sailors lost their lives with at least 900 of them still rest with the submerged ship. In the 1950s, plans took shape for the creation of an Arizona memorial. However, by 1960, less than half of the $500,000 needed had been raised. That would change after Elvis Presley performed at a benefit concert for the memorial on March 25, 1961.
Elvis was discharged from the Army one year before the benefit concert
When Elvis's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, learned of the fundraising shortfall, he thought a benefit concert would provide wonderful publicity for Elvis. The singer soon agreed to participate. And though Elvis' involvement wasn't out of character — he was known for his generosity to numerous people and organizations — supporting the USS Arizona Memorial was a particularly appropriate cause for him.
On November 11, 1957, Elvis had sung in Hawaii for service members and their families; it was his final concert before he was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1958. And his recent service experience (he'd been honorably discharged in the spring of 1960) offered another connection to the fundraiser. He hadn't seen combat while stationed in Germany, but in another era, his time in uniform could have been much different. As Parker reminded people at a press conference about the concert, a 26-year-old Elvis was "about the average age of those boys entombed in the Arizona."
Three thousand people greeted Elvis at the airport in Hawaii
Parker chose to advertise Elvis' concert by sharing selections from the singer's religious album on Oahu radio. But the event, which would take place in the Bloch Arena at Pearl Harbor, really required little promotion, as members of the public scrambled to get tickets to see Elvis. It was necessary for everyone to buy a ticket — Parker was insistent there would be no giveaways, so even high-ranking officials had to pay for entry.
Elvis was set to shoot the movie Blue Hawaii on the islands after the concert, so Paramount Studios flew out the star and his entourage. When he arrived at Honolulu International Airport on the day of the benefit, the singer was greeted by an excited crowd of around 3,000 (film icon Jimmy Stewart was on the same plane but received little attention from spectators).
Grand Ole Opry star Minnie Pearl, who'd come in on the flight with Elvis to be one of his co-stars at the benefit, said of the scene, "There is no way to describe the pandemonium. I never saw as many women in my life. They were screaming. They were yelling. I was just horrified. I thought, 'They’re going to kill him.' And they would have if they could have gotten loose, I’m afraid."
The concert was only his second live performance in more than three years
Following an afternoon press event, Elvis headed to the Bloch Arena, where 4,000 fans packed in to see him that night. There, he appeared onstage in his famous gold lamé suit jacket. He'd first worn the suit in 1957; this concert was the last time he'd perform while wearing it.
After being discharged from the army, Elvis had done a benefit in Memphis but otherwise hadn't sung at a live concert in years. But there was no hesitation as he began to croon —and he was mesmerizing. The song list featured 15 of his biggest hits, including "All Shook Up," "Don't Be Cruel" and "Are You Lonesome Tonight." His final song was "Hound Dog."
The crowd's screams made it hard to hear the music at times. Fortunately, Elvis seemed to thrive on the charged atmosphere, while charming fans with his trademark smile. Unfortunately, no video recording was made of the event — Parker had tried to get NBC to produce a TV special of the concert, but the two parties hadn't been able to come to an agreement. As Elvis wouldn't perform live for eight years after the benefit, those in attendance were even luckier to get to see him.
The concert raised enough money to build the memorial
Elvis' concert raised more than $54,000 for the memorial fund, with Elvis also making a separate donation. On March 30, Hawaii's House of Representatives passed Resolution 105 to thank him and Parker for the services they'd provided.
Even more important than the amount that was immediately raised, Elvis' actions drew fresh attention to the USS Arizona Memorial Fund. After the benefit, more money arrived from both the public sector and private sources, and the memorial was soon under construction. It was dedicated on May 30, 1962.
Elvis was always proud of the help he'd offered. He stopped by the memorial for the first time in 1965, placing a wreath on the monument during his visit. And Elvis made his way to the memorial on other trips to Hawaii, including when he brought Priscilla Presley there during their marriage.