CAMP KENGUN, Japan -- While other Soldiers prepared for a two-week training exercise in Kumamoto, Japan, cramming piles of combat uniforms and Army-issued olive drab socks into their duffel bags, Maj. Manuel Sam Wong was making room for something else: an Elvis Presley costume and wig - sideburns and all.
It's the second time in Japan for Wong, a strategic intelligence officer with I Corps, Fort Lewis-McChord., Wash. He's one of more than 70 Soldiers chosen from I Corps to augment the U.S. Army Pacific's premier bilateral training exercise with Japan's Ground Self Defense Force, Yama Sakura 59 taking place this year in Kumamoto, Japan.
Since Wong's arrival, he's made a good impression on his counterparts not only with his military expertise. He's also been making them laugh.
"I'm here to assist the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force and to help them improve their intelligence capabilities, and also to provide special guest star Elvis impersonations," said Wong of his military duty and the celebrity alter ego he occasionally assumes in his free time to entertain U.S. and foreign troops at home and abroad.
Wong, a San Francisco, Calif., native, has been a diehard Elvis fan for as long as he can remember, from the purchase of his first greatest-hits Elvis record to the donning of his first Elvis suit in Iraq, just to make his Soldiers laugh.
"When I was 14, my dad took me to a record store, told me he was buying me a record, and then told me I could only pick Elvis," he said. "From there, the rest was history."
The history of cameo Elvis appearances, however, didn't start until 2003 when Wong, then a company commander in Iraq, ordered a bona fide Elvis suit to raise the morale of his troops.
"I wanted to entertain our troops," he said, "so on Halloween I rode around dressed in an Elvis costume in a Humvee for all to see, to get spirits high."
Getting spirits high is something near and dear to Wong's heart.
"I enjoy putting a smile on everyone's faces, when deployed or just during this exercise; for people who may be a little homesick," he said. "To have a little laughter goes a long way."
Laughter goes such a long way, in fact, that it's crossed the Pacific Ocean. It's doing things words sometimes can't - it bridges cultural gaps.
"Music and laughter can bring different people together, and especially with a symbol like Elvis, someone everyone recognizes," Wong said. "It makes that bonding a lot quicker and a lot stronger."
"Elvis is known throughout the world," said Spc. Gerard White, also with I Corps, who met Wong in Iraq in 2009. "So, if you have an American Soldier dressed as Elvis jumping in with the Japanese soldiers and mingling, it gets a rise out of the U.S. Soldiers and the Japanese soldiers as well."
White watched Wong's first Japan performance Jan. 21, when "Elvis" jumped on stage and joined a famous Japanese country music singer who was entertaining U.S. and Japanese troops a few days prior to the start of the training exercise.
Wong covered a few Elvis favorites, to include "Suspicious Minds," and even belted out an Elvis-inspired rendition of a song by contemporary pop artist Lady GaGa.
After his short gig, U.S. and Japanese soldiers alike were lining up to take a photo with Wong.
"The Japanese love to take pictures as keepsakes," Wong said. "Now, some of them can say they've had a photo with Elvis."
White admires the lengths to which Wong will go to entertain his troops.
"Major Wong can be a goofy guy to raise the spirits of others," White said. "I think it's awesome that there's an officer walking around making sure people are smiling and happy."
White said that in addition to providing first-rate entertainment, he works hard as a Soldier.
"He's proactive and he takes initiative," White said. "He's a high-speed guy."
Making others smile is so important to Wong that he even sacrifices some of the bare necessities to ensure he makes it in costume for them at least once. "I've already run out of undergarments," he said. "I had to make room for the suit."
Roughly 1,500 U.S. personnel and 4,500 Western Army soldiers will participate in the exercise. U.S. units include USARPAC, I Corps Forward, I Corps and U.S. Army Japan. U.S. Army Pacific is the largest Army Service Component Command and provides a cost-effective and powerful headquarters supporting Asia and Pacific forces.
Yama Sakura is designed to enhance U.S. and Japan combat readiness and interoperability while strengthening bilateral relationships and demonstrating U.S. resolve to support the security interests of friends and allies in the region. U.S. and Japanese forces exchange ideas, techniques, and military experiences during Yama Sakura.