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Mysteries & Secrets - Glenn Miller

[- Glenn Miller -]
0n December 15, 1944, Major Glenn Miller climbed into a single-engine Norseman aircraft at a military airstrip near Bedford, some 40 miles north of London. He was scheduled to lead his acclaimed United States Army Air Forces Band in a Christmas concert for Allied troops the next week in liberated Paris. At the last moment he had asked for a change in his orders so that he could precede the band to France. A chance encounter at an officers' club the previous evening had earned Miller space on the small plane that was defying the rain and fog to make this hop across the English Channel.
Always nervous about flying, Miller expressed doubt about the single-engine plane. His fellow passenger, Colonel Norman Baesell, reminded him that Lindbergh made it across the Atlantic Ocean on one engine; they were flying only to Paris. "Hey, where the hell are the parachutes," Miller asked. "What's the matter, Miller, do you want to live forever?" the colonel joked in reply. Shortly thereafter, the Norseman took off in the dense fog and disappeared forever.
Not until December 24 - after Miller's wife back home in New Jersey had been notified was it announced that the famous bandleader was missing. Preoccupied with far larger problems in this decisive phase of the war in Europe, the American high command assumed that the Norseman had crashed into the Channel when its wings iced over or its engine failed. There was no search or inquiry into the tragedy.
Friends and fans of the popular swing musician were not satisfied with the official explanation. Wild rumors were soon circulating: Miller's plane had been shot down by the Germans and the horribly crippled and disfigured bandleader was hidden in a hospital somewhere; he had been killed in a brawl in a Parisian brothel; Colonel Baesell, involved in a black-market delivery, had shot both Miller and the pilot and landed the plane in France; the high command had terminate Miller as a German spy. Despite the absurdity of such stories, the disappearance has never been fully explained, and legends about the lost musician who entranced millions with his smooth rhythms continue to thrive.

Glenn Miller at the Top

Glenn Miller 1939. Success had come to Glenn Miller in 1939 at the age of 35. A college dropout, he had joined Ben Pollack's band as a trombonist and arranger 15 years earlier on the West Coast. He later performed with such well-known bands of the 1920's and 1930's as those of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Red Nichols, Smith Ballew, and Benny Goodman, the "King of Swing," who called Miller "a dedicated musician."
The slender, serious looking young man with rimless glasses brought a meticulous perfectionism to music-making as he worked on developing a distinct sound: velvety soft, smooth, supple, independent of soloists. After failing to make the big time with his first orchestra, Miller formed a second group in 1938 and early the next year got prized bookings at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York, and the Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove, New Jersey.
In the autumn of 1939 the new Glenn Miller band went on national radio, and before long young people from New York to San Francisco were dancing cheek to cheek to such hit tunes as "In the Mood," "Pennsylvania 6-5000, "Tuxedo Junction," "String of Pearls," and the Miller theme song, "Moonlight Serenade." In 1940 his gross income was $800,000, and the next year his band made the first of two movie appearances in Sun Valley Serenade, starring Sonja Henie. Miller's recording of the film's hit song, "Chattanooga Choo Choo," sold a million copies and earned him a gold disc from RCA Victor. Humorously modest about his success, he once joked, "It's an inspiring sight to look down from the balcony on the heads of 7,000 people swaying on a dance floor - especially when you are getting $600 for every thousand of them." Asked if he wanted to be the new "King of Swing," he said, "I'd rather have a reputation as one of the best all-round bands. Versatility, more than anything else, is what I want to accomplish."

Swing Goes to War

Eight months after America entered World War 11, Glenn Miller gave up his phenomenally successful career to volunteer his services to the military; in the autumn of 1942, he was commissioned a captain in the U.S. Army. Seeking out other musicians drafted or volunteering for service, Miller formed the U.S. Army Air Forces Band, which by the next year was playing for cadets training at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. But when he introduced swing music into marches, a senior officer reminded him that John Philip Sousa's music had been good enough for World War 1. "Are you still flying the same planes you flew in the last war too?" he asked. The military accepted swing.
This single engine Norseman vanished with Glenn Miller aboard. On cross-country tours, the AAF Band raised millions for the war-bond drives, but nonetheless Miller felt that he was not doing enough. Finally, in June 1944, he got approval to take his band overseas to play for the troops stationed in England. In the next five and a half months, the band played 71 concerts - the biggest morale booster for his men, one general commented, "next to a letter from home." The concerts were broadcast over the Allied Expeditionary Forces Network, beamed at troops in Britain and on the European continent. Programs on the British Broadcasting Company quickly ended, however, when a director insisted that the band play at a constant volume; listeners in remote areas weren't hearing the softer music. Nonetheless, Glenn Miller gained some "civilian" fans as well. Presented to the queen of England, Miller learned that the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose listened to his broadcasts almost nightly.
In December came the orders to take the show to France. Sitting up almost all night on the 14th, Glenn Miller discussed with a friend his plans for a postwar band and eventual retirement on a ranch he had bought in California.

A Desperately ill Man

"Glenn Miller did not die in a plane crash over the Channel but from lung cancer in a hospital." With this startling statement the bandleader's younger brother, Herb Miller, broke a nearly 40year silence in 1983. Miller had indeed boarded the Norseman at the airstrip outside of London on December 15, 1944. But when the airplane landed a half hour later, he was taken to a military hospital where he died the following day. It was Herb Miller who fabricated the story about the crash because his brother had wanted to die as a hero and not "in a lousy bed."
Herb Miller tried to substantiate his story with a letter that the chain-smoking musician had written in the summer of 1944: "1 am totally emaciated, although I am eating enough. I have trouble breathing. I think I am very ill."
Because there was no crash, the younger Miller claimed, there was no need for a search or an inquiry. Moreover, the official weather report for December 15 listed a temperature of 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit) - not cold enough to have caused the wings to ice over. Both the pilot of the Norseman and Glenn Miller's fellow passenger, Colonel Baesell, had died later in battle with the Germans. His brother was probably buried in a mass grave at some military cemetery in Britain.
Supporting this story is the fact that Glenn Miller seemed to be depressed, irritable, and exhausted during the last few months of his life, suffering from what he described as repeated sinus attacks. According to Don Haynes, Glenn Miller's executive officer and manager of the AAF Band, the bandleader had lost a lot of weight and his tailor-made uniforms "didn't fit him well at all. They merely hung on him." George Voutsas, the director of his military radio programs, remembered a late-night discussion of postwar plans. "I don't know why I spend time making plans like this," Miller sighed. "You know, George, I have an awful feeling you guys are going to go home without me....."

Getting at the Truth

Herb Miller's version of his brother's death has not been substantiated by U.S. military authorities, but former British airmen have come up with a more plausible explanation for the famous musician's disappearance. A 30-year-old movie prompted the revelation.In 1955 James Stewart and June Allyson costarred as Glenn Miller and his wife, Helen, in the film The Glenn Miller Story. After seeing it, a former Royal Air Force navigator, Fred Shaw, tried to present his own theory about the fate of the Norseman to the press but was rebuffed. Not until 1984 did Shaw, then living in South Africa, see the movie again. This time he succeeded in getting his story published.
On December 15, 1944, Shaw was aboard a Lancaster bomber returning from an aborted raid on Germany. Approaching the south coast of England, the bombardier jettisoned his payload including a 4,000-pound bomb called a "cookie," which exploded several feet above the surface of the sea. As Shaw looked out to see the explosion, he spotted a Norseman flying below. A moment later, the rear gunner called over the intercom: "Did you see that kite [slang for plane] go in?" Shock waves from the explosion, Shaw explained, could have knocked the small aircraft out of the sky.
...Three days before he vanished. In England a member of the Glenn Miller Appreciation Society wrote the British Defense Ministry and placed an advertisement in the R.A.F. Association Journal for information that would confirm Shaw's story. The Lancaster's pilot, Victor Gregory, answered the ad.
Although he himself had seen nothing, Gregory confirmed that his navigator, Shaw, had seen a Norseman flying below and that the rear gunner, since deceased, had reported it falling into the sea. Since his mission had been aborted, there was no debriefing, and Gregory never nientioned the incident to his superiors. "Don't think me unsympathetic or callous, but when I heard of the plane going down, I would have said that he shouldn't have been there - forget him."His concern was getting home safely from the raid.
Shaw's story led to an investigation by the British Defense Ministry's Air Historical Branch. Up until that time, the R.A.F. had considered Miller's disappearance strictly an American matter. Yet the Norseman in which Miller had vanished took off from a British airfield and was known to be headed for France - although no flight plan was filed. The Norseman and the bombers could have crossed in flight, the report concluded, or they could have been miles apart.

The Melody Lingers On

The true story of Glenn Miller's disappearance will probably never be known - and perhaps, after all these years, it may not really matter. What is important is his music. On January 17, 1946, only 5 months after the end of World 11 and 13 months after the Norseman vanished, the Glenn Miller Orchestra under the direction of Tex Beneke made its successful debut at New York's Capitol Theater. For the next five years it continued to delight audiences with the familiar and well-loved songs of the Swing Era. Later, the success of The Glenn Miller Story led to a reissue of many old recordings and a revived Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1956. What most delighted the band members playing into the 1970's were audiences too young to have heard Glenn Miller himself but who clearly wanted to continue hearing the smooth Glenn Miller-sound.







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