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The Story of Jimi Hendrix’s Time in the Army

Jimi Hendrix playing guitar in full military uniform, 1961.

Jimi Hendrix is perhaps one of the greatest guitarists to ever walk the earth, but few know that he also did a short stint of military service when he was just 19 years old. It’s true, the famous Woodstock performer and upside-down guitar player served in the U.S. Army from 1961-1962, and in fact it was in the army where the seeds for Jimi Hendrix’s highly-influential career in rock music were first sown.

While he did pick up the guitar at the young age of 15, Hendrix was known for getting into trouble during his time spent growing up in Seattle. By the time he was 19 years old he had already been caught twice joyriding in stolen cars. According to his brother Leon Hendrix’s account in the 2012 biography Jimi Hendrix: A Brother’s Story, Jimi was given the option of serving two years in prison or enlisting in the army, and he chose to enlist.

So on May 31st, 1961, Jimi Hendrix officially enlisted in the army and was sent to Fort Ord, California to complete 8 weeks of basic training. When he completed training he was placed in the 101st Airborne Division and stationed at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

Hendrix in the army, 1961.

As expected, Hendrix hated being in the army from the moment he arrived. When he got to Fort Campbell on November 8th, he wrote a letter to his father detailing his frustration. An excerpt of this letter is printed in Roby & Schreiber’s 2010 biography Becoming Jimi Hendrix:

“There’s nothing but physical training and harassment here for two weeks, then when you go to jump school, you get hell. They work you to DEATH, fussing and fighting.”

Jimi Hendrix on being in the army, 1961.

Hendrix did not enjoy being in the army, but he did receive a decoration that he sought after during his time there. After graduation from 8 months of jump school he was awarded the 101st Division’s famous Screaming Eagles patch, which is was certainly proud of.

However, it was soon after that when he wrote home expressing that he was homesick, and asked his then-beloved girlfriend Betty Jean Morgan (whom he planned to marry when he got out) to send his guitar to the base. Betty obliged, and soon Jimi was playing his guitar whenever he could while on base, honing his experimental playing style by trying to capture the sounds produced by the air horns at Fort Campbell.

This guitar was a red Danelectric Silvertone that had the words “Betty Jean” painted on the body, which Hendrix played throughout his time in the army and during his earliest gigs with fellow solider and musician Billy Cox after getting out.

Hendrix with Billy Cox in the army, 1961.

According to that same Becoming Jimi Hendrix book, Cox and Hendrix met one night when Cox was walking through the base on his way home from seeing a John Wayne film, and heard Hendrix playing guitar through an open window.

Reporting that it sounded like John Lee Hooker meets Beethoven, Cox went up and introduced himself to Jimi and soon the pair began jamming together frequently, with Jimi on guitar and cox on the bass.

They formed a band called the Kasuals along with another servicemen, saxophonist Major Charles Washington and soon started playing regular gigs around Clarksville, TN whenever they could. This soon led to Cox cutting back his service hours, and Jimi skipping out on his, so that the pair could write and rehearse together during the day.

Hendrix got away with shirking his responsibilities in the army for a while, but eventually his superiors became frustrated with his absent-mindedness and napping on duty, and began to crack down on him. Since Hendrix was conscripted into the army, this behavior was perhaps his way of trying to get out so that he would have time to focus on the music.

In February of 1962, Captain Bachman from his division requested that Hendrix be sent in for a physical and mental examination, considering that he was perhaps unfit for military service. In his official report, he noted:

Individual is unable to conform to military rules and regulations. Misses bed check; sleeps while supposed to be working; unsatisfactory duty performance. Requires excessive supervision at all times. Was caught masturbating by a member of the platoon.

Capt. Gilbert Bachman’s report on Jimi Hendrix in 1962.

Yes, you did read that correctly. Apparently there had been several occasions where Hendrix snuck off to masturbate in the army and was caught and reported by members of his platoon. This was a result of Hendrix’s fellow soldiers being annoyed by his constant guitar playing and the mounting frustrations of his superiors, who encouraged others to report his behavior.

Private Hendrix, U.S. Army, 1961.

The disciplinary reports on Hendrix continued to stack up, and by May of 1962 his superiors were calling for his immediate discharge from the armed forces. By the time he was honorably discharged on June 29, 1962, he had racked up an official file that was 98 pages long.

There are other reports, even coming from Hendrix himself, that he had broken his ankle during a jump and that was the final event that got him out of the army. While the official document states “unsuitability” as the reason for his discharge, drummer Alphonso Young remembers the broken ankle story and offers some insight:

His friend Billy Cox was getting out soon, and Jimi didn’t want to stay in the army alone, so Jimi said he broke his ankle to get out. Jimi wore a cast for about two weeks after he was out, and then it came off. He faked that one. I used to ask him how it was doing, and he said, “Oh, just fine.” He knew I was teasing him. He’d figured out a way to get out and be with Billy.

Alphonso Young on Jimi Hendrix’s discharge from the army.

It was a good thing that Hendrix had gotten out of the military when he did, too, because the Vietnam War was looming over the United States, and the countercultural movement that caused an explosion in the music scene was just starting to heat up.

Hendrix had originally planned on marrying Betty Jean when he got out of the army, but by the time he was actually discharged he had other plans. He had sold the “Betty Jean” guitar, and rather than return home to Seattle he hung around in Clarksville until Cox was discharged in October, and then the two became roommates.

This is just the beginning of the Jimi Hendrix story, and it would be several more years until Hendrix rose to fame with the Jimi Hendrix Experience after lighting his guitar on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival. His friendship and collaborations with Billy Cox proved foundational for him, and things came full circle in 1969 when Cox joined Hendrix at Woodstock following the breakup of the Experience.

But that, my friends, is a story for another day.

Private Hendrix, U.S. Army, 1961.