When Elvis Performed On an Aircraft Carrier
By Nick Keppler
The USS Hancock was built in 1943 and was almost immediately put to work in the Pacific Theater of World War II. When Japanese foreign affairs minister Mamoru Shigemitsu formally surrendered on board the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, the Hancock’s planes circled overhead.
A decade later, she bore witness to another, much different moment in history: one of Elvis Presley's first national TV appearances.
It was 1956—Elvis’s breakout year. By the second week in April, the 21-year-old had recorded several hit songs (including “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Blue Suede Shoes”), released his first album, and signed a film contract with Paramount Studios. He also made his national TV debut on January 28 on CBS’s Stage Show. He went on to guest five more times through February and March.
On April 3, he made his NBC debut on The Milton Berle Show, hosted by the man dubbed “Mr. Television.” That night, the show made the unorthodox move of broadcasting from the deck of a U.S. Navy ship docked in San Diego, with sailors and their dates as the show's audience. That ship was the Hancock, which had been decommissioned, renovated, and then recommissioned.
Berle hosted the show in an oversized admiral’s uniform. “This is the first time the Hancock is going to rock and roll while still anchored,” he punned while introducing Elvis. “Here is a young man who, in a few short months, has gained tremendous popularity in the music business.”
Elvis and his three-man backup band ripped through “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Blue Suede Shoes” and a snippet of “Shake Rattle & Roll.” (The website of his guitarist, Scotty Moore, has extensive documentation of the Hancock gig.) Berle also enlisted Elvis in a sketch. “Now, I got a little surprise for you,” the singer joked, “Here, for his very first public appearance, I’d like you to meet, my twin brother, Melvin Presley!” Berle appeared in a suit to match Elvis’s, playing a bumbling Southerner who misreads the name of the ship and takes credit for Elvis’s trademark dance moves.
Unbeknownst to Berle, Elvis’s actual twin brother died at birth, which always haunted him. However, he never objected during the planning of the bit, writes Wilborn Hampton in his biography Elvis Presley. “If Elvis felt any resentment over the skit, he never showed it.”
On June 5, Elvis returned to The Milton Berle Show to play his new single, “Hound Dog.” At Berle’s suggestion, he sang it without his guitar (“Let ’em see you, son,” Berle reportedly said), exposing 40 million viewers to an unimpeded look at Elvis's gyrating hips in a scandalizing performance.
As for the Hancock, she went back on duty. In 1962, she first appeared in the waters off Vietnam and dedicated the rest of her years to that war effort, before her final decommission and scrapping in 1976.
Banner images via vsbonvenutoep, YouTube.