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Today in Military History: December 15, 1944:Plane Carrying «Big Band» Leader Maj. Glenn Miller to Paris Disappears

Plane Carrying "Big Band" Leader Maj. Glenn Miller to Paris Disappears

Captain (later Major) Glenn Miller, U.S. Army Air Forces, c. 1942
Photograph courtesy of U.S. Air Force, and http://www.usatoday.com
(Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)


Today’s history story comes from the time period of the Second World War. It involved a popular musician, whose music brought pleasure to everyone who heard it, especially the soldiers of the American armed forces fighting for democracy around the world.


Glenn Miller was born in Clarinda, Iowa in 1904. His family moved twice, to Missouri in 1915 and the second time ending up in Fort Morgan, Colorado in 1918. Miller learned to play the trombone – after already mastering the cornet and the mandolin – believing the trombone would make him more money. He played end on his high school football team, but became more interested in the new «big band music,» forming a band with several classmates. After graduating from high school in 1921, Miller had made the decision to become a professional musician.

In 1923, Miller enrolled in the University of Colorado. However, he spent a great deal of time attending auditions and playing any gigs he could find. He eventually flunked out, and decided to concentrate on playing and composing music. Miller took courses to learn composition. During the 1920s and 1930s he made a marginal living as a solo trombonist, playing with a number of well-known groups of the time. In those groups, Miller played alongside a number of well-known musicians, including Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, the Dorsey Brothers, and Coleman Hawkins.

The Glenn Miller Orchestra

Miller decided it was time to be on his own. He formed his first «big band» bearing his name in 1937. However, the band failed to distinguish itself from the dozens of other groups touring the country. After a gig at the Ritz Ballroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut in January of 1938, the band broke up. In a 1976 interview, Benny Goodman related a conversation with Miller: «In late 1937, before his band became popular, we were both playing in Dallas. Glenn was pretty dejected and came to see me. He asked, ‘What do you do? How do you make it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, Glenn. You just stay with it.'»

The Glenn Miller Orchestra, c. 1940s, with Miller at the fore
The Glenn Miller Orchestra, c. 1940s, with Miller at the fore

Miller hired new personnel, and rearranged some of his compositions to highlight certain instruments – such as the clarinet leading the band’s other reeds and muted trumpets – which became know as «the Glenn Miller Sound.» Miller’s band – with him as the leader and lead trombonist – played to packed ballrooms and even concert halls for the next four years. From 1939 to 1942, his band appeared three times a week on a national radio show. Miller and his orchestra even appeared in two Hollywood films: Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942). Miller’s sound was widely admired by such musical stars as Louis Armstrong, Mel Torme, and Frank Sinatra.

Some of the signature tunes associated with the Glenn Miller Band include: «Moonlight Serenade,» «Chattanooga Choo Choo,» «Pennsylvania 6-5000,» «In the Mood,» «String of Pearls,» «Tuxedo Junction,» and «American Patrol.»

Second World War

In 1942, Miller made the decision to give up his $15,000-20,000 per week civilian job to join the war effort. He eventually joined the U.S. Army Air Forces, and formed a large marching band which was the core of a number of military bands. Miller first played at various air bases in the American South, before he formed his 50-piece Army Air Force Band. The band was send to England in the summer of 1944, where the Band gave over 800 performances.

His attempts at modernizing military music were met with some resistance from tradition-minded career officers, but Miller’s fame and support from other senior leaders allowed him to continue. For example, Miller’s arrangement of «St. Louis Blues March,» combined blues and jazz with the traditional military march.

Miller’s music was used during World War II by the Armed Forces Radio Service (now the Armed Forces Network [AFN]) for entertainment and morale as well as counter-propaganda to denounce fascist oppression in Europe. During one broadcast, Miller stated on radio: «America means freedom and there’s no expression of freedom quite so sincere as music.» In summarizing Miller’s military career, General Jimmy Doolittle said, «Next to a letter from home, that organization was the greatest morale builder in the European Theater of Operations.»

Friday, December 15, 1944

In September of 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 broadcast back home. Miller’s Air Force Band was scheduled to give a concert in Paris – and it was to be recorded for later re-broadcast to the United States. Miller was agitated by complications in Paris and when weather grounded normal transport flights, he hitched a ride on a small UC-64 Norseman with his friend Lt. Col. Norman Baessell and a 20-year-old pilot.

UC-64 Norseman, same model as plane in which Miller was riding when it disappeared
UC-64 Norseman, same model as plane in which Miller was riding when it disappeared

[The Norseman was a Canadian-manufactured airplane designed as a «bush plane» in Arctic climates. When the Allies needed a rugged utility plane for a transporting small numbers of passengers and smaller cargos, the Norseman was ordered in large numbers. However, it did have one design flaw that was not addressed: its carburetors had a tendency to freeze up.]

Contrary to popular myth, 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 carburetor 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.

The mystery arose in part because the Germans launched the counteroffensive 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.»

One modern-day investigator stated, «This was a non-survivable accident with immediate trauma. 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.»
And the other yarns told and repeated over the decades? All easily disproven by clear, documentary evidence.

  • More than a dozen witnesses saw Miller board the plane on the 15th with Baessell.
  • German propaganda claimed that Miller had suffered a heart attack in a Paris bordello one or two days after his plane disappeared.
  • A friendly-fire theory grew out of a tall tale told by a retired Lancaster pilot in a bar in South Africa in 1984. A flight of British bombers were returning to base after the weather aborted their bombing run. It was standard operating procedure at the time for the bomber to jettison their loads into the English Channel before landing at their bases. The pilot told the story of seeing a small plane being struck by the falling bombs and crashing into the Channel. Using flight logs and the discovery that another plane actually was accidentally bombed, investigators 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 Miller’s small plane would have had to be 20 degrees off course.

Footnote #1: There is a burial plot and headstone for Major Glenn Miller in Arlington National Cemetery, just outside of Washington, DC. A monument stone was also placed in the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut, next to the campus of Yale University. Miller was awarded a Star for Recording on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6915 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, CA. The headquarters of the United States Air Forces in Europe Band at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, is named Glenn Miller Hall.

James Stewart as Glenn Miller in 'The Glenn Miller Story' (1954); Image courtesy of www.doctormacro.com
James Stewart as Glenn Miller in The Glenn Miller Story (1954)
Image courtesy of www.doctormacro.com

Footnote #2: In 1954, the film The Glenn Miller Story was released. It starred James Stewart in the title role, June Allison as his wife Helen, and Harry Morgan (Col. Potter from the TV series M*A*S*H). Morgan was a personal friend of the Millers. Other noted musical stars making cameos in the movie included Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, the Modernaires, and Frances Langford.

Footnote #3: The Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band’s long-term legacy has carried on with the Airmen of Note, a band within the U.S. Air Force Band. This band was created in 1950 from smaller groups within the Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., and continues to play jazz music for the Air Force community and the general public. The legacy also continues through The United States Air Forces in Europe Band, stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

Current version of the Glenn Miller Orchestra; Image courtesy of http://glennmillerorchestra.com
Current version of the Glenn Miller Orchestra
Image courtesy of http://glennmillerorchestra.com/

Footnote #4: In 1946 the Miller estate formed a «ghost band» to continue the legacy of «big band» music performed by Glenn Miller. A newer band was formed in 1956, and its descendant «ghost band» continues playing across the country today. Interested readers can see their schedule over the next few months here: http://glennmillerorchestra.com/tour-schedule/.

Footnote #5: Every summer since 1996, the city of Fort Morgan, Colorado, has hosted a public event called the Glenn Miller SwingFest. Events include musical performances and swing dancing, community picnics, lectures and fundraising for scholarships to attend The School for the Performing Arts, a nonprofit dance, voice, piano, percussion, guitar, violin, and drama studio program in Fort Morgan.

Footnote #6: Three musical recordings by the original Glenn Miller Orchestra were placed in the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have «qualitative or historical significance.» The three songs are:

  • «In the Mood,» recorded in 1939, inducted in 1983;
  • «Moonlight Serenade,» recorded in 1939, inducted in 1993; and,
  • «Chattanooga Choo Choo,» recorded in 1941, inducted in 1996
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