Revealed: Military careers of the American icons

When they were soldiers, Steve McQueen was a bad boy and Jack Kerouac was a mad boy. That at least is the suggestion of long-archived military records of some of America's best known stars of music, film and literature to be released tomorrow.

Revealed, for instance, is the quandary faced by the Army when it received into its ranks a young inductee who was already famous, Elvis Presley. On the one hand fans were furious that he should be diverted from his entertainment calling. On the other, there were claims he would receive preferential treatment.

"Dear Mamie," a California couple wrote to then-first lady, Mamie Eisenhower, "will you please, please be so sweet and kind as to ask Ike [President Dwight Eisenhower] to please bring Elvis Presley back to us from the Army. We need him in our entertainment world to make us all laugh."

But in time the Army learned to reap a rich public relations harvest from having Presley in its ranks.

When Private First Class Presley was first inducted, there was considerable adverse public reaction, alleging that he would receive preferential treatment in the Army. According to an army memo: "This impression has been largely replaced by a public impression of a good soldier serving his military obligation. ... Many teenagers who look up to and emulate Private First Class Presley will ... follow his example."

The Army saw a similar opportunity when Clark Gable enlisted to serve in 1942, six months after his wife, Carole Lombard, was killed in a car crash. He was joined by his cameraman, who was given the same training to ensure that he could film any heroics that Lt Gable might perform as an airborne gunner.

All these and other glimpses of the military service of actors, musicians, writers and politicians - all deceased for 10 years of more - will be available in a mass of documents to be made public tomorrow by The National Personnel Records Centre in St Louis.

If McQueen is remembered from his acting career in films such as The Great Escape and Bullitt as a man prone to rebellion, speed and cars, the same traits seem to be on display from his real-life military career, where he trained as tank driver and mechanic. Most notably, however, he was confined by officers for 30 days and fined $90 for being absent without leave from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Kerouac, meanwhile, who later became the author of On the Road, was once referred to an army psychologist in 1943 to determine a possible mental impairment - better known now as a bad temper. As one memo notes: "Patient's father, Leo A Kerouac, states that his son has been 'boiling' for a long time."

Other American icons mentioned in the records include the actor Humphrey Bogart, the former president John F Kennedy, the aviator Charles Lindbergh and the heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis.