As a fan of both Elvis and Hawaii, I was disheartened when I visited the USS Arizona memorial in 2016 only to see virtually nothing mentioning Elvis Presley’s role in helping build the memorial. With his 1961 benefit concert in Hawaii and the massive publicity it generated, Presley was one of the major impetuses in raising the funds needed to complete the memorial.
Without Presley’s concert, the USS Arizona memorial may have never been finished. As George Chaplin wrote in the Honolulu Advertiser in 1991: “His [Presley’s] Hawaii concert did more than raise money. It created national publicity and revived public sentiment for the memorial. That September, Congress was prodded into voting $150,000; then the Hawaii Legislature added $50,000 to a previous contribution.”
The next year on Memorial Day 1962, over 20 years after the “date which will live in infamy” of December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona memorial was dedicated.
This year, Presley will finally get the historical recognition he deserves with a new documentary by the World War II Foundation called Elvis and The USS Arizona. In addition, filmmaker Tim Gray, the president of the foundation, is organizing the creation of a memorial plaque to be displayed in Honolulu to bring awareness to Presley’s role. Funds for the plaque will rely on public donations.
The Elvis News Examiner was granted an exclusive interview with Gray to discuss the project:
Question: What inspired you to make a documentary about Elvis and the USS Arizona?
Tim Gray: We spend a lot of time filming at Pearl Harbor, especially on the Arizona Memorial. We have done several documentaries there (narrated by Tom Selleck, Matthew Broderick and Gary Sinise) and this story has always fascinated me as far as Elvis’ role in helping to get the USS Arizona Memorial project completed. Some people know about it, many do not. When you tell people about the story it grabs their attention immediately, which is what you want as a filmmaker.
It will be our 28th film focused on the stories of WWII and be narrated by CBS Sports’ Jim Nantz with actor Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights, Bloodline) also involved. It will air on roughly 280 Public Television/PBS stations beginning around Veterans Day of this year.
Question: Who will be interviewed for the documentary?
Tim Gray: We have interviewed many people who attended the March 25th, 1961 concert at Bloch Arena, as well as the British author of the book Rock Around the Bloch, which chronicles the event in words and amazing photos. We also have interviewed Daniel Martinez, Chief Historian for the USS Arizona Memorial, as well as many others connected to the concert and effort.
We also have a lot of great videos and interviews with Elvis around this time, both arriving in Hawaii and after the concert. Some of the people who attended the Elvis concert also witnessed the actual attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. We also have an interview with USS Arizona crewmen Ken Potts, one of just two remaining crewmen still alive from the USS Arizona.
Question: Why do you think Elvis has not gotten the recognition he deserves for his role in raising funds to build the USS Arizona memorial?
Tim Gray: Some details just get lost to history. There were many people involved in the effort. Elvis was certainly the most high-profile, but without his help it would have taken much longer for the Arizona Memorial project to come to fruition.
He was very patriotic, which I think is lost sometimes too. Just one of those stories that needs to be told in the larger picture of December 7, 1941 and all those who gave so much effort to see the men of Arizona memorialized properly.
Question: How did you get the idea to create a bronze bust of Elvis and accompanying plaque to recognize him, and what will it say?
Tim Gray: We are working with the people at the Hilton Hawaii Village on the verbiage now. It will recognize Elvis’ concert on March 25, 1961 at Bloch Arena, his press conference at the Hilton that same day and Elvis’ role in helping the Memorial project. The plaque will be roughly 12 x 18 with a bronze bust of young Elvis at the top.
Question: Why is the Hilton Hawaiian Village a good location for your proposed Elvis bust and plaque?
Tim Gray: That is where Elvis always stayed when on Oahu. He held his press conference there prior to the concert and the hotel has preserved his suite there today. It’s called the “King Suite” and is a shrine to Elvis staying there often and his role in the Memorial effort. We know it will be seen by tens of thousands of people each year who visit the hotel and maybe that will inspire them to want to know more about Elvis’ role in the project.
Question: How much will the Elvis bust and plaque cost, how can people donate, and what is the deadline?
Tim Gray: We have done similar projects in Normandy, France for memorials and the cost will be in the $3,500 range. The plaque is all bronze.
People can donate by visiting our website www.wwiifoundation.org and clicking on our Donate button and indicating in the memo line of their PayPal donation “Elvis Plaque.”
They can also send a check to:
The World War II Foundation
333 White Horn Drive
Kingston, RI 02881
Our non-profit tax ID is 27-4793304
All donations are tax-deductible. The deadline is August 25, 2021.
Note: The documentary is scheduled to air on PBS around November 11, 2021 (Veteran’s Day).
Details are still being worked out on the dedication of The Elvis plaque later this year at the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel.
Stay tuned to this website and follow the Elvis News Examiner for more updates.
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