What Really Happened to Glenn Miller?By: Terrance Lloyd
December 15, 1944: Army Air Force Band leader Major Glenn Miller’s aircraft disappeared, without a trace, on a flight from England to Paris France. Most likely the aircraft crashed into the North Sea or English Channel, adding to the list of famous people lost to us in the prime of their careers, and under mysterious circumstances.
Miller was headed to France, at the specific request of top allied general, and later U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, to coordinate a Christmas show and broadcast for Allied troops that had been fighting since landing on D-Day in June of that year.
Miller and his orchestra were arguably the top musical performers for the years 1939 through 1943, with 16 number-one records and 69 top-ten hits in that time. He was part of the musical phenomenon of “swing music”, a new genre wildly enjoyed by the young people of the time, with all of the same cultural ripples that surrounded later paradigm-breaking artists such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Pressley, the Beatles, and rap music.
Kids into swing caused consternation when they started dancing in the aisles at concerts. Associated dances such as the jitterbug were considered “degenerate, vulgar, and too sexual” by the older generation at the time and were prohibited in many locations and venues. Swing music and dancing were also officially prohibited by the Nazi Party when they came to power in Germany in the 1930s. As occurred in later years, the controversy only helped to propel the genre and the record sales of its top recording artists. While a popular commercial success, Miller also had the respect of leading-edge American musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra.
Miller, in his late 30s at the start of World War Two for America after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941, volunteered for the Navy but was rejected for his age. He was accepted into the Army and commissioned into the Army Air Forces as a captain. At the time he entered the military, he was making today’s equivalent of over $300,000 per week. Miller was asked by the Army brass to modernize the Army’s bands to focus on the entertainment of the millions of new citizen-soldiers filling the ranks.
Prior to World War Two, the official mission of military bands was to provide traditional military music for official functions. While these bands could occasionally branch out in informal concerts to perform current music to entertain the troops, it was the exception rather than the rule. Miller enlisted many of his orchestra members, along with popular current musicians and singers of the day. To a great extent, the recent hits of the Glenn Miller Orchestra became the soundtrack of the lives of the men and women living through the war. These songs contributed to popular culture. Prior to the popular Miller tune “In the Mood”, people might have asked “in the mood for what?”, but the singular meaning is now clear to this day. Many of these songs are still with us today, used in movie and television period pieces. The melody from the song” Chattanooga Choo Choo “has become the clichéd default for anything train related.
Speculation as to what happened to Miller’s aircraft falls into two categories. First, the aircraft used for the flight, a Noorduyn C-64 Norseman, was a rugged, single-engine Canadian aircraft, however, flying any distance over water in a single-engine plane is always a sporting proposition. Add in the often cloudy, misty, foggy, and unpredictable weather in northeastern Europe during winter and the odds are stacking up against you. Years later, reports surfaced of British flight crews of seeing an aircraft resembling a C-64 straying into restricted airspace reserved for bombers returning with their munitions load, or bombs hung up in the bomb bay to drop before landing at their home bases. Millers’ Norseman is the only one unaccounted for from the several losses of the type during the war. The aircraft was not reported as missing for 72 hours, and by that time the Battle of the Bulge, the juggernaut, last-ditch Nazi counteroffensive into Belgium had started. Part of the initial success of the attack was the poor flying weather over Europe that kept all Allied planes grounded in the first few days.