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Records offer glimpse at celebrity GIs' treatment, performance

WASHINGTON—Actor Steve McQueen made several great escapes in movie roles, but Marine Pfc. Terrance Steven McQueen went AWOL ignominiously while assigned to Camp Lejeune, N.C., in November 1949.

Raleigh police picked McQueen up and jailed him. He got a month in the brig and a $90 fine.

The story's among the records for 1.2 million military personnel that the National Archives will open up to the public Saturday. Archives officials on Thursday gave reporters a sneak peek at the records, which included excerpts from the files of a number of celebrity GIs.

All were public figures when alive and now are at least 10 years dead, so they've no right to privacy, archives and Defense Department officials agreed. Other veterans get 62 years of privacy before their files are released. The clock starts running when they're discharged.

Elvis Presley, who got his sideburns cut to something like Army length in January 1957, is among the celebrities whose military careers are getting new publicity.

Pfc. Presley's records show that while he was the most celebrated GI in peacetime, the Army bent over backward to treat him like a regular soldier. For example, Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. James F. Collins, in a 1959 memo, nixed a request that Presley be flown back to the United States for interviews from his assignment in Germany.

Any suggestion of favorable treatment, Collins argued, would undo the Army's successful public relations work in creating "the public impression of a good soldier serving his military obligation."

He added: "Many teenagers who look up to and emulate Private First Class Presley will, to a varied degree, follow his example in the performance of their military service."

During World War II, flyboy movie star Clark Gable got strikingly different treatment from the Army Air Corps. The service's commanding general decreed that Maj. Gable's cameraman be trained as an aerial gunner so that the star's adventures in bomber combat could be used in promotional films.

Boxer Joe Louis also got special treatment in World War II, but it wasn't all good.

Army Sgt. Joe Louis Barrow, then heavyweight champion of the world, won a Legion of Merit citation for his many voluntary boxing exhibitions for the troops in Europe and North Africa.

This "entertainment and inter-racial relations morale mission," the Army's Special Services Division put it, left Louis' hands battered and "endangered his entire boxing future, valued at millions."

And yet, "he risked it all willingly," wrote division Capt. Fred Maly in recommending the 1944 citation.

To review such famous records, or just ordinary ones, in person, it's best to phone ahead to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo., at (314) 801-0850 and make a date to visit.

Option two: Request copies of archival records in a letter to: National Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63132-5100. Copies cost 50 cents a page and take an average of 90 days to arrive.

For non-celebrity veterans, available records cover those who served between 1885 and 1939 as enlisted Navy personnel. Records for Marine Corps enlisted personnel who served between 1906 and 1939 are also available.

Records for Marine Corps officers will be available in 2036 and for Navy officers in 2040.

Army and Air Force records will start coming out in 2022.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Elvis Presley, Clark Gable

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