Big Band Legend: Glenn Miller’s Disappearance

Glenn Miller Band

Alton “Glenn” Miller (March 1, 1904 – disappeared December 15, 1944) was an American big-band trombonist, arranger, composer, and bandleader in the swing era. He was the best-selling recording artist from 1939 to 1942, leading one of the best-known big bands. Miller’s recordings include “In the Mood”, “Moonlight Serenade”, “Pennsylvania 6-5000”, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, “A String of Pearls”, “At Last”, “Kalamazoo”, “American Patrol”, “Tuxedo Junction”, “Elmer’s Tune”, and “Little Brown Jug”. In just four years, Glenn Miller scored 16 number-one records and 69 top ten hits; that’s more than Elvis Presley (38 top 10s) and the Beatles (33 top 10s) did across their careers.

Miller began professionally recording in New York City as a sideman in the Hot jazz era of the late 1920s. With the arrival of virtuoso trombonists Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey, Miller focused more on developing his arrangement skills. Writing for contemporaries and future stars such as Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, Miller gained prowess as an arranger by working in a variety of settings. Later, Miller largely improved his arranging and writing skills by studying under music theorist Joseph Schillinger.

In February 1937, Miller started an orchestra that briefly made records for Decca. With this group, Miller used an arrangement he wrote for British bandleader Ray Noble’s American band in an attempt to form a clarinet-reed sound. This style developed over time, and eventually became known as the “Glenn Miller sound”, which to many and on reflection, now seems so evocative for that period today.

Glenn Miller and His Orchestra was the swing dance band formed by Miller in 1938. Arranged around a clarinet and tenor saxophone playing melody, and three other saxophones playing harmony, the band arguably became the most popular and commercially successful dance orchestra of the Swing era during the early 1940s and across the years of the Second World War.

War Service

From late 1939 to mid-1942, Miller was the number-one band in the US, with few true rivals. Only Harry James’ band began to equal Miller’s in popularity as he wound down his career in the wake of the Second World War. In 1942, Miller volunteered to join the U.S. military to entertain troops during World War II, ending up with the U.S. Army Air Forces.

In 1944, after the Allies recaptured Paris from the Germans, Eisenhower asked Miller to head up a joint British-American radio production team, to perform for troops and to record for a broadcast back home in the USA. Miller was agitated by complications in Paris and when weather grounded normal transport flights, he hitched a ride on a small C64 Norseman with his friend Lt. Col. Norman Baessell and a 20-year-old pilot.

His Disappearance

Major Glenn Miller left RAF Twinwood on the early evening of December 15, 1944 and while flying to Paris his aircraft disappeared over the English Channel. No trace was ever found of him or the two other people on board or the aircraft itself; but conspiracy theories have raged ever since. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star by the USA.

Contrary to popular myth however, the flight was not unauthorized, and conditions were not foggy, as depicted in the film “The Glenn Miller Story.” It was a casual flight in a plane whose model had been recalled due to defective carburettor heaters; but it was at the end of the triage line behind combat planes and bombers. Heavy clouds aloft had the pilot flying on “visual flight rules” relatively close to the water and the temperature was below freezing.

And according to Dennis Spragg of the College of Music’s American Music Research Centre, “The guy flew right into freezing conditions,” which he strongly believes led to fuel-line freezing, engine overheating and circumstances that simply doomed the plane.

The mystery arose in part because the Germans launched the counter-offensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge the next morning, and nobody knew Miller was missing for 72 hours. As soon as Orville A. Anderson of the U.S. 8th Air Force—coincidentally Miller’s cousin by marriage—was notified of the missing aircraft on Monday, he said, “They’ve had it. I can mount a search but it won’t matter.”

“This was a non-survivable accident with immediate trauma,” Spragg says. “Anybody who thinks this plane could have been ditched has rocks in his head, but even if it could, they would have survived just 20 minutes in the water because of the temperature.”

So what of the other yarns told and repeated over the decades? All easily disproven by clear documentary evidence, again according to Spragg.

  • More than a dozen witnesses saw Miller board the plane on the 15th with Baessell.
  • Those titillating rumors of a heart attack in a French bordello were concocted by Nazi propaganda chief Hermann Goering and broadcast only after the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force announced Miller’s death on 24th Dec 1944.
  • Using flight logs, relative to the theory that another plane accidentally bombed the Norseman, Spragg has shot holes in the friendly-fire theory. In order for Miller’s plane to have been taken down by the flight of Lancaster bombers, time would have had to shift by an hour and the small plane would have had to be 20 degrees off course. This theory grew out of a tall tale told by one of the Lancaster pilots in a bar in South Africa in 1984, Spragg says “So why not tell the story in 1944?”

Spragg is absolutely confident about his conclusions, “Nobody else has gone to the documents” but not at all sure it will lay the myths to rest.

“I went through a logical process of elimination,” Spragg says. “I went through all the possibilities and knocked them down or verified them. Of course, there is always a segment of the public that will never be convinced by logic.”

What really happened on that fateful evening on a wintery night in December 1944 over the Channel, I guess will remain an eternal conundrum but one thing is for sure; Miller’s short-term chart successes have seldom been duplicated and his group’s unprecedented dominance of early Your Hit Parade and Billboard singles charts, including 16 number-one singles and 69 Top Ten hits, will go down in history, as will that haunting “Glenn Miller Sound”.

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