Throughout the Second World War, one of the world’s most popular musicians was the American big band leader Glenn Miller.
He had a string of hits over a very short period of time, and his music is so synonymous with that period that it can be heard in almost every movie and documentary about the war.
However, just before Christmas 1944, just a few months before the war in Europe would be over, Glenn Miller disappeared in a flight over the English Channel.
Learn more about Glenn Miller and his disappearance on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
I have a very wide range of people who listen to this podcast, and that includes people not only from different parts of the world but also from a wide range of ages.
So, while some of you might know who Glenn Miller is, there is a good chance that many of you don’t know who he is or at least only know of him vaguely.
The generation of people who might have listened to Glenn Miller when he was alive has either passed away or are now well into their 90s. Glenn Miller would have been the music listened to, depending on your age, by your parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents, assuming they were listening to popular music at all.
Glenn Miller was born Alton Glen Miller on March 1, 1904, in Clarinda, Iowa. At birth, his name Glen only had one “n,” and he added a second “n’ when he was in high school. Like everyone else in his family, he always went by his middle name of Glenn and only used Alton for official documents.
His family moved around. They lived in Nebraska and then moved to Granite City, Missouri. It was there that Glenn made money from odd jobs milking cows to earn enough money to buy a trombone so he could play in the town orchestra.
His father played the mandolin, and his mother was a schoolteacher who encouraged his musical pursuits.
In 1918, his family moved once again to Fort Morgan, Colorado, where he attended high school. He was an accomplished football player, earning all-state honors, and was the editor of the school yearbook.
However, his real love was music. In particular, dance band music. He started his own band and decided to pursue a career as a professional musician. He actually skipped his high school graduation because his band had a gig.
He enrolled at the University of Colorado but eventually dropped out. He skipped most of his classes because he would be away performing.
He then went to New York to study under the music theorist and composition teacher Joseph Schillinger. While he was there, he composed a song titled “Miller’s Tune.” The music was later re-arranged and renamed Moonlight Serenade, and it became his signature song.
He began playing trombone for other successful band leaders during the latter half of the 1920s but soon realized that his future lay in composition.
In 1928, he released his first composition, “Room 1411,” with Benny Goodman, another major musical figure of the era.
Throughout the 1930s, Miller worked composing for bands, creating arrangements, and working as a trombonist in bands and orchestras where needed. This led him to cross paths with most of the major American musical figures of the period, including Bing Crosby, Gene Krupa, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Condon, and many others.
In 1937, he finally started his own band, but they never found success. There was nothing about his band that set themselves apart from the other bands of the era.
He went back to the drawing table and developed a unique sound for his band.
The sound that he created and which defined his band was that of a clarinet as the lead instrument, with several saxophones providing harmony. This became known as the “Miller Sound.”
The new sound proved to be a massive hit.
In 1938, the band began recording for RCA Records. In 1939, they began setting attendance records at concert venues.
By November, Time Magazine did a story on Miller and his band and noted, “Of the 12 to 24 discs in each of today’s 300,000 U.S. jukeboxes, from two to six are usually Glenn Miller’s.”
In December 1939, the band began making regular national radio appearances on CBS.
In 1940, the band’s version of Tuxedo Junction became one of the fastest-selling records in history up to that point, selling 115,000 copies in the first week.
He also began appearing in movies, including Sun Valley Serenade in 1941 and Orchestra Wives in 1942.
In February 1942, he became the first recording artist in history to be awarded a gold record for “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” which sold over a million copies.
The point of all of this is that in early 1942, just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into World War II, Glenn Miller was on top of the world.
He was making $20,000 a week, which, adjusted for inflation, would today be about $300,000 per week.
He was 38 years old, married with children, and had poor eyesight. He was unlikely to be drafted and would have been rejected if he had enlisted.
However, Glen Miller wanted to serve and to do his part, whatever that might be.
He applied for an officer commission to the Navy and was, in fact, rejected.
He then set up a meeting with the Army Bureau of Public Relations and sent a lengthy letter to the head of the Army Service Forces. They relented and granted his commission on September 8, 1942.
He had 30 days to finalize his business before joining the army. He ended his radio program and disbanded the Glenn Miller Orchestra, one of the most popular music acts in the world.
On October 7, he arrived in Omaha, Nebraska, and began duty as Captain Glenn Miller in the Army Specialist Corps. The specialist corps was a unit of skilled civilians who otherwise were not eligible to enlist during the war.
He was eventually assigned to the U.S. Army Air Force, where he created the Glenn Miller Army Band.
The creation of a band to play modern music in the army wasn’t without its detractors. Many thought that the Army should stick to marching music, from the likes of John Philip Sousa.
However, Miller and his army band were a hit. They traveled around the United States and Europe, entertaining troops and putting on performances. They also made radio appearances to keep up civilian support for the war effort.
Much of what he did was exactly the same as what he did in civilian life, just doing it on a soldier’s salary.
In addition to his duties, he also organized marching bands. The marching bands organized by Glenn Miller often featured jeeps with full drum sets and large string bases.
On May 24, 1944, as the Allies were preparing for the invasion of Normandy, General Dwight Eisenhower personally requested the transfer of Miller to help create an Allied radio service. Eisenhower said that Miller and his group were the “only organization capable of performing the mission required.”
In July, Miller and his group began performing over the new Allied Expeditionary Forces Programme, which was managed by the BBC.
They also began broadcasting radio signals into German-occupied Europe. One of their shows was “Music for the Wehrmacht,” and Miller would read scripts phonetically written in German, even though he didn’t know the language.
For months, they performed in England and toured various air bases.
By November, Miller requested that the radio operations be moved from England to France, which was approved.
The band had to record 80 hours of music that could be played while the operation was being moved, in addition to the live broadcasts they were doing.
On December 12, they had completed everything, and Miller was to fly to Paris before the rest of his band.
He was scheduled to fly standby on December 13, but it was canceled due to weather. On December 14, another flight was canceled due to weather.
Miller became anxious and found out that a small single-engine bush plane, a Noorduyn UC-64A Norseman, was scheduled to fly to Paris on the 15th carrying Lieutenant Colonel Norman Baessell.
Baessell invited Miller to join him, and the two, along with pilot John Stuart Morgan, took off from the RAF Twinwood Field near Bedford, England, at 1:55 pm.
The plane and its passengers were never seen again.
The next morning, the Battle of the Bulge started, and the military became preoccupied with stopping the German counter-offensive.
No one realized that Glenn Miller was missing until December 18.
A search and rescue operation was conducted, but they found nothing.
Miller’s wife was notified of his disappearance on December 23, and the public was informed on December 24.
Miller was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star, and there is a memorial for him at the Cambridge American Cemetery in England and at Arlington National Cemetary.
The Glenn Miller Army Band continued to play until 1946 when its members were discharged. That same year, his family authorized the creation of a new Glenn Miller Orchestra, which would operate under his name.
In 1945 and 1947, albums of his music were released, which topped the charts.
In 1954, a movie titled The Glenn Miller Story was released with Jimmy Stewart in the starring role. The Glenn Miller Orchestra reformed in 1956, and it is still playing today.
The question of what happened to Glenn Miller and the plane he was on has remained.
Something I’ve noticed, and I’m sure many of you have as well, is that when a well-known person dies unexpectedly, there are always conspiracy theories that will appear soon after.
The disappearance of Glenn Miller was one of the first cases of celebrity death conspiracies.
One of the first rumors to spread was that Miller didn’t, in fact, die in the plane crash. He died in Paris while visiting a bordello and died of a heart attack. The Army, not wanting the embarrassment of this fact to become public, simply said that he disappeared.
There was, of course, no evidence to support this.
Another conspiracy theory that spread was that Glenn Miller was on a secret mission to Germany to negotiate the surrender of Hitler. Supposedly, Hitler had heard his radio broadcasts and enjoyed them and would only negotiate with Glenn Miller. While in Germany, he was imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis.
Again, there is absolutely no evidence for this either.
A 2001 documentary claimed that Miller’s plane was the victim of friendly fire. A group of bombers returning from Germany dumped their payload over the English Channel and accidentally hit Miller’s plane. This was based on the testimony of one of the navigators in one of the bombers who claimed to have witnessed it.
Beyond this one witness, who never said anything until decades later, there is no other proof. Moreover, the Army records of the timing of the flights don’t match up, and other crew members from that mission claimed visibility was so bad they could barely see their wings, which is why the mission was scrubbed in the first place.
So, what really happened?
In 2017, a historian by the name of Dennis Spragg released the results of a multiyear study into the disappearance of Glenn Miller. One of the key pieces of evidence he found was the diary of a 17-year-old plane spotter near Reading, England, by the name of Richard Anderton.
He identified Miller’s UC-64A Norseman and the direction it was flying, which made the friendly fire theory impossible.
The route was not a typical route to Paris, which may have indicated that the pilot was off course. The pilot, John Stuart Morgan, wasn’t certified to fly using just instruments which would have been necessary given the low visibility that day.
Spragg concluded that the most likely explanation was one of or a combination of two things. The first was simply that of pilot error. The pilot was lost, couldn’t see, and flew the plane into the sea.
The other is that the cold conditions that day may have caused the wings to ice over and possibly the engine to free up. The UC-64A had a known problem with its carburetor in icy conditions.
It isn’t nearly as scandalous as the other theories, but it at least fits the known facts.
The remains of Glenn Miller and the aircraft he disappeared in have never been found and, at this point, probably never will be.
The disappearance of Glenn Miller was just the first of several tragedies involving airplanes and musicians. A list that includes Buddy Holly, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Patsy Cline, Otis Redding, Richie Valens, Aaliyah, Ricky Nelson, Jim Croce, John Denver, and three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The music of Glenn Miller may not be listened to today like it was in the past, but his disappearance was still a significant event in its time.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.
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