It’s December 15, 1944, and a light plane takes off from RAF Twinwood Farm in Bedfordshire, England. Aboard is Glenn Miller – big band maestro and one of America’s best-known musicians – with the pilot and one other passenger. The star is flying to liberated France to arrange a gig for the troops. But he will never reach France or play another concert.
You see, Miller’s plane was never found, and it’s a puzzle that’s resonated through the decades right up until the present. His disappearance has also generated various theories ranging from the outlandish to the plausible. We’ll come back to the details of this macabre mystery later, though. First, let’s find out more about Miller – a musician who was a legend in his own lifetime.
Alton Glen Miller was born on the first day of March, 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa. His father, Lewis Elmer Miller, had married Glenn’s mother, Mattie Lou Cavender, in 1898, and the future musician was the second of four children – three boys and a girl. And for some reason, Miller added an extra “n” to make “Glenn” later in life.
Meanwhile, the family moved to Grant City, Missouri in 1915. And Miller’s first taste of music came when his father gave him a mandolin. But that obviously wasn’t the instrument for him. Indeed, Miller used the money that he earned from a job milking cows to buy his first trombone – the instrument that would be his trademark throughout his musical career.
Miller and his family then made another move to Fort Morgan, Colorado, in 1918, and it was there that he went to high school. Something of an athlete, Miller played for his school football team, the Maroons. And he performed well enough on the gridiron to win the accolade of “Best Left End in Colorado.”
It was in Miller’s senior year in school, however, when he became interested in dance music. Subsequently, he got together with some of his school friends to start up a band. And by the time Miller left school and went to attend the University of Colorado in Boulder, the idea of becoming a full-time musician was already firmly planted in his mind.
This ambition became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy for Miller, too. That’s because instead of attending college classes, all too often the aspiring musician would go to auditions and play gigs when the opportunity arose. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, Miller flunked various courses – and academia lost him to the world of music.
Miller now spent some time studying with the great composer and teacher, Joseph Schillinger. Indeed, the latter also worked with such famous music names as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and George Gershwin. And it was under Schillinger’s tutelage that Miller wrote one of his most famous signature tunes, “Moonlight Serenade.”
And by 1926 Miller had been established as a touring musician, playing for the likes of Ben Pollack in Los Angeles and band leader Victor Young – both respected and popular figures of their day. In fact, Miller actually took the spot of principal trombonist with Young’s outfit. But in 1928 the well-known trombonist Jack Teagarden joined Young, and Miller noticed that his own solo spots were becoming rarer and shorter.
This reduction of his role in Young’s band was a disappointment for Miller, but it was also a wake-up call for him. Miller decided that his real future was not as a solo musician – but rather in composition and arrangement. And his first songbook, Glenn Miller’s 125 Jazz Breaks for Trombone, was published in Chicago in 1928.
So for the next few years, Miller worked as a jobbing trombonist with various bands while also perfecting his craft as a composer and arranger. Then, in 1937, Miller formed his own band. But with a multitude of swing and dance bands providing fierce competition at the time, Miller’s band failed to really take off. And the ensemble’s last gig was in January 1938 at the Ritz Ballroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
This failure must have been a bitter pill for Miller to swallow, too, coming as it did some 15 years after he’d become a professional musician. In fact, Miller reportedly said as much at the time to one of his more successful musical peers, Benny Goodman.
Indeed, the conversation between the musical pair was reported in The Chicago Sun-Times in 1984. Goodman told the newspaper, “In late 1937, before his band became popular, we were both playing in Dallas. [Miller] 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… You just stay with it.’” It’s probably fair to say, then, that this was a low point for Miller.
But it seems that Miller took Goodman’s advice, and he didn’t throw in the towel. That proved to be a wise decision, too, since success was just around the corner – but it would take more work. Miller now concentrated on blending instruments to come up with a unique and distinctive sound. And in this, he succeeded.
The Glenn Miller Orchestra subsequently started to cut discs with the Bluebird label, and by early 1939 the band was starting to sell out its gigs. Miller’s music was proving popular all across the country, too. Indeed, Time magazine wrote about Miller later that year, saying, “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 its first week of release in 1940, one of Miller’s most popular tunes, “Tuxedo Junction,” sold 115,000 copies. Meanwhile, Miller’s band performed thrice weekly in a Chesterfield cigarettes sponsored show on CBS Radio. And there were appearances in two Hollywood movies as well. Yes, success for Miller had arrived in spades.
However, some jazz writers thought that Miller was too commercial, pandering too readily to the popular tastes of the day. And that criticism lived on over the years. For instance, in 1997 one critic wrote on the JazzTimes website, “Miller was a businessman who discovered a popular formula from which he allowed little departure. A disproportionate ratio of nostalgia to substance keeps his music alive.”
Others were kinder to Miller, though. In a foreword to George T. Simon’s 1974 book Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, legendary crooner Bing Crosby gave a ringing endorsement. He wrote, “As the years go by, I am increasingly grateful that I was a tiny part of the era of the great swing bands. This was the golden age of popular music for me. They were all great, but I have to think that the Glenn Miller band was the greatest.”
What’s not in any doubt, though, was that Miller had great commercial success. In fact, by 1942 Miller was earning as much as $20,000 a week – a king’s ransom at the time and equivalent to more than $300,000 today. But then the big band star threw it all in. You see, the U.S. had entered the war against Germany and Japan, and Miller wanted to do his bit to defeat the forces of Hitler and Hirohito.
However, Miller was too old to join the regular army and take the fight to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Even so, he did try to sign up for service with the U.S. Navy, but he was turned down. Miller wasn’t going to give up that easily, though.
No, Miller then decided to write a personal letter to Brigadier General Charles Young of the U.S. Army. And somehow, the musician persuaded the army to accept him – not as an everyday G.I., though. That’s right: Miller had been given a very special capacity, ideally suited to his popularity and talents.
Yes, according to the Glenn Miller Birthplace Society’s website, Miller himself said that he would “put a little more spring into the feet of our marching men and a little more joy into their hearts and to be placed in charge of a modernized army band.” And that is more or less exactly what happened.
Indeed, Miller reported for duty with the Army Specialist Corps in October 1942 in Omaha, Nebraska. And there, he took a specially shortened officer training course before receiving the rank of captain the following month. Miller subsequently joined Army Air Forces at Maxwell Field, Alabama, where he stayed until January 1943.
Now serving with the Army Air Forces Technical Training Command, Miller received the grand title of Director of Bands, Training. And he set about recruiting some of America’s top jazz musicians – men who had either already joined the forces or were about to. Naturally, Miller picked many of the best musicians for his own band, while others were posted around the country to play with various Army Air Force groups.
As for Miller himself, his duties included organizing radio broadcasts as well as running his own band – the lengthily named “Band of the Training Command of the Army Air Forces under the direction of Captain Glenn Miller.” This outfit – with a core of 16 to 18 musicians and the option to call on others – played light classics as well as the big band jazz that was so familiar to Miller’s fans.
As 1943 rolled on, Miller also formed a marching band that became extremely popular. And by the following year, his time was taken up with concerts, radio broadcasts and recordings – the latter being sent to soldiers serving around the world. But Miller had even greater ambitions for his military musical mission.
What Miller really wanted to do, you see, was to take his orchestra to the U.S. soldiers who were stationed around the world – everywhere from the Far East to Europe. But in 1943 the military authorities were less than keen to let Miller leave the United States because of his value as a morale booster in the domestic setting. And at bond rallies – events staged to raise money for the war effort – the musician’s appearances could rake in up to $4 million in a single night.
There were also Miller’s own domestic considerations. That’s because the musician had new family commitments. He’d gotten married in 1928 to Helen Burger – a girl whom he’d first met at university in Colorado. The couple enjoyed a happy marriage, too, but tragically an illness in 1937 meant that Helen could not have children. However, in 1943 the couple adopted a boy before then taking on another child within a year.
But then in 1944 an unmissable opportunity to travel to Europe with his band came Miller’s way – and he decided to take it. In May that year General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, formally requested that Miller and his band should be transferred to Britain. What’s more, the orchestra was to consist of some 60 musicians.
So it was that Miller flew from New York to Scotland in June 1944, and his band sailed across the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth shortly after. The men now set up base in central London at 25 Sloane Court. But London was being heavily bombed by German V-1 flying bombs at the time, so the men were moved to the relative safety of Bedford, a town some 50 miles north of the British capital.
And the decision to relocate turned out to be a wise move. That’s because the very next day a V-1 detonated almost on the doorstep of 25 Sloane Court, killing nearly 100 people. Miller and his musicians were safe, though, and they now made weekly radio broadcasts and played concerts at a variety of venues. But a really exciting gig awaited the band – in newly liberated Paris, France.
Originally, Lieutenant Don Haynes – Miller’s former manager in civilian life and now his executive officer – had been scheduled to go to France to sort out the logistics for the band’s time there. But British actor and Hollywood star Lieutenant Colonel David Niven, who had taken part in the invasion of France, ordered Miller to come to Paris in person.
Miller was to fly to Paris Orly Airport aboard a special VIP service on December 13, 1944, then. However, bad weather saw the flight cancelled on that day and the next, and then no seat was available until December 17. But on December 14, Lieutenant Colonel Norman F. Baessell offered Miller a place on a flight aboard a light aircraft. And the musician accepted the offer.
On the afternoon of December 15, then, Miller and Baessell boarded a Noorduyn C-64 Norseman with the pilot, Flight Officer John R. S. Morgan. The plane took off from RAF Twinwood Farm, just a few miles from Bedford. But after take-off, no one saw the plane or any of those on board ever again.
Seemingly stunned by this tragic turn of events, the military authorities didn’t announce Miller’s disappearance until December 24. But their hand was forced by the fact that Miller was due to broadcast on Christmas Day. Meanwhile, what happened to the plane and its passengers has remained an unsolved mystery to this day. There have, however, been a variety of theories.
One idea is that British bombers might have brought down Miller’s plane. In fact, a Royal Air Force flight engineer’s log book seems to lend some credence to this theory. The record – kept by Derek Thurman – describes a mission to Germany on the very night Miller disappeared; and it’s apparent that during the hours of darkness, 138 Lancaster bombers had to fly back to base without dropping their bombs. On the return journey, though, the bombers dropped their deadly cargo into the sea so that they could land safely.
And Thurman’s log also said that three of the crew on the plane spotted a light aircraft below them and thought that the jettisoned bombs had hit it and brought it down. Meanwhile, in a February 2000 interview with BBC Radio 4, Thurman elaborated on what he saw. He said, “There was a shout that there was someone there. The navigator shot out of his seat to look and saw it whip by, then the rear gunner said, ‘It’s gone in, flipped over and gone in.’”
A less plausible theory, meanwhile, came from a German journalist and conspiracist, Udo Ulfkotte, in 1997. Ulfkotte claimed that Miller had made it to France, but he had died of a heart attack while cavorting with a prostitute in a Parisian brothel. The authorities covered up Miller’s undignified death to preserve his public reputation. Few besides Ulfkotte – who died in 2017 – took this tale seriously, though.
Meanwhile, the latest development in the puzzle of Miller’s disappearance came in January 2019. The story goes back to 1987, when off the south coast of England in the English Channel, a fisherman pulled up some plane wreckage in his net. At the time, he allowed the remains to sink back into the sea. However, in 2017 the man saw a picture of Miller’s plane and noted his belief that the wreckage he’d raised had been of a similar appearance.
As a result, Ric Gillespie of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery – based in Oxford, Pennsylvania – visited England in December 2018 and spoke to the unnamed fisherman. Gillespie told the BBC, “If his recollection is correct, there is a possibility the wreckage of the Glenn Miller aircraft could be located.” Are we about to receive a conclusive resolution to the mystery of the musician’s death, then? Well, only time will tell.