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The soundtrack of the Greatest Generation

Glenn Miller and His Orchestra in 1941 (Photo: Public domain)
Glenn Miller and His Orchestra in 1941 (Photo: Public domain)

Alton Glenn Miller was born in Clarinda, Iowa on March 1, 1904. His family moved several times during his childhood. His first instrument was a mandolin bought by his father. In 1915, at the age of 11, he bought his first trombone with money he made by milking cows and joined the town orchestra. In high school, he became interested in then-new “dance band music” and formed his own band with his classmates. He decided to become a professional musician and eventually dropped out from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Miller’s birthplace home in Clarinda, Iowa (Photo: Richard Doody)
Miller’s birthplace home in Clarinda, Iowa (Photo: Richard Doody)

In the 1920s and early 1930s he played with many artists but failed to achieve a breakthrough. He recognized that his true strength lies not in his trombone skills but his talent at writing and arranging music. After moderate successes, Miller disbanded his first orchestra named Glenn Miller and His Orchestra in early 1938 and immediately assembled a new one. His motto was: “A band ought to have a sound all of its own; it ought to have a personality.” So, he set about inventing his own distinctive signature sound. This he achieved by pairing a clarinet playing a melodic line with a tenor saxophone holding the same note, while three other saxophones harmonize within the octave. This unique sound and his sensitivity to what the public would enjoy finally catapulted him to fame. In 1939, Time magazine wrote: “Of the twelve to 24 discs in each of today’s 300,000 U.S. jukeboxes, from two to six are usually Glenn Miller's.” Almost exactly 81 years ago, on February 10, 1941, the first gold record award for the iconic single Chattanooga Choo Choo from the movie Sun Valley Serenade was presented to him. This recognition marked a high point in his career. At the same time, with America having entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, more and more young musicians were drafted.

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In the Mood performed by the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1941 (Video: YouTube)

In 1942, Miller decided to give up his civilian career that made him 15,000-20,000 dollars (equivalent to around $240,000 to $320,000 today) a week and join the war effort. Thus, the Glenn Miller Orchestra was disbanded in September 1942. At 38, he was too old to be drafted, and the Navy rejected his application. Eventually he persuaded the Army to take him in so he could modernize the army band and “put a little more spring into the feet of our marching men.” He was appointed as a captain in the Army Specialist Corps and his mission was to raise the morale and modernize military music. Glenn was also a brilliant fund-raiser and helped the war bond drives raise millions of dollars.

Glenn Miller in uniform (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
Glenn Miller in uniform (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

After basic training, Miller established the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band, probably his best musical group and his biggest success. Despite resistance from old-fashioned officers (he called them “goddamn idiot officers”), he introduced new ideas, such as joining traditional marching music with jazz and blues in his arrangement of the St. Louis Blues March. The band kept an astonishing schedule: over the course of two years, they had 300 personal appearances and 500 broadcasts, moving to England in the process in 1944. Here, his Army Air Force Band became the American Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces with a mission to broadcast musical entertainment for the allied soldiers and the nations of Europe. Miller also hosted the popular weekly I Sustain the Wings radio program and made propaganda broadcasts with songs sung in German. Some of those broadcasts were recorded in the Abbey Road Studios which was made even more famous by the Beatles a couple of decades later. He composed 70 top ten hits in four years and gained enormous popularity with songs like In the Mood and Moonlight Serenade. Within the army, his efforts earned him the rank of major.

Glenn Miller and the Army Air Force Band playing for Allied soldiers in England, 1944 (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
Glenn Miller and the Army Air Force Band playing for Allied soldiers in England, 1944 (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Even as a celebrated bandleader, he and his band were not completely safe from harm in London, which was regularly attacked by German V-1 flying bombs (Read our earlier article - Germany's V-1 vengeance weapon). Upon arriving in London, they stayed at Sloane Court in a BBC office. Miller was concerned about the bombs and had the band moved to Bedford to the BBC radio production center on July 2. The day after, on July 3, Sloane Court and the office got hit by a V-1, killing at least 74 American soldiers and several civilians. It constituted the single greatest loss of life for American servicemen due to a V-1 blast and was the second worst V-1 incident in London. He was lucky this time but, unfortunately, he ran out of luck when he made an irresponsible decision some months later.

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Cleaning up after the Sloane Court bombing (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
Cleaning up after the Sloane Court bombing (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

On December 15, 1944, Miller boarded a small C-64 “Norseman” aircraft to fly to liberated Paris (Read our earlier article – The liberation of Paris) from Bedford and prepare for a Christmas concert and for moving his band there. He was supposed to take the regularly scheduled passenger transports of the military, but the flight for December 14 was cancelled due to bad weather and was delayed until December 17. Instead, the impatient Miller accepted the invitation from Lt. Col. Norman Francis Baessell, who wanted to get to Paris quickly with his pilot, Flight Officer John R.S. Morgan. The weather was still terrible, they were flying at a low altitude because of poor visibility, and on top of that the pilot had no clearance for flying in such a weather. The plane disappeared without a trace over the English Channel and the three passengers were never seen again. Since Miller was officially not on the plane, the investigation started slowly. To make things worse, the Germans launched their unexpected counterattack on the Western Front on December 16, which overshadowed the process.

Morgan, Miller and Baessel, they disappeared on December 15, 1944 (Photo: Dennis Spragg)
Morgan, Miller and Baessel, they disappeared on December 15, 1944 (Photo: Dennis Spragg)

Miller was 40 years old when he disappeared and remains listed as missing in action. His wife was notified only on December 23. On Christmas Eve, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces released the following statement: “Major Alton Glenn Miller, director of the famous United States Army Air Forces Band, which has been playing in Paris, is reported missing while on a flight from England to Paris. The plane in which he was a passenger left England on December 15 and no trace of it has been found since takeoff. Major Miller, one of the outstanding orchestra leaders of the United States, lived at Tenafly, New Jersey, where his wife presently resides. No members of Major Miller’s band were with him on the missing airplane.”

A C-64 Norseman aircraft similar to Miller’s plane (Photo: dennismspragg.com)
A C-64 Norseman aircraft similar to Miller’s plane (Photo: dennismspragg.com)

Conspiracy theories emerged almost immediately after the release of the statement. Some believed that he was a spy and got assassinated, while others said that his plane was downed by the explosion from a bomb that was jettisoned into the English Channel by a British Lancaster bomber which was returning from an aborted mission. In 2017, an old diary of a plane spotter proved that it was impossible for Miller’s plane to have been in the same zone with the bombers since it took a diversion on its way to Paris. According to the research of Dennis Spragg, a senior consultant to the Glenn Miller Archive at the University of Colorado Boulder tasked by Miller’s son, Steven, it is much more likely that the plane’s carburetor froze over and failed, a problem that was associated with the C-64 Norseman. This mechanical failure most probably resulted in the crashing of the plane into the English Channel. Spragg presented his findings in his book Glenn Miller Declassified. He also assisted the non-profit foundation called the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) to investigate a claim from a fisherman who said he snagged a plane in his nets around 30 miles (48 km) from Portland Bill in 1987. He and his crew informed the coast guard and let the wreck back to the seabed, but he noted the coordinates of the site. When the fisherman saw photos of Miller's plane, he realized it was a similar type (it matched with his sketch of the plane). He contacted the American researchers in 2017. TIGHAR is now trying to raise funds to investigate the three-square mile location where the plane is believed to rest. There are still many open questions (the color of the plane and whether it was disintegrated upon impact, etc.). As long as we do not know the truth, the exact cause of Miller’s death remains one of the unsolved mysteries of WWII.

The sketch of the plane the fisherman found in the 80s (Photo: TIGHAR)
The sketch of the plane the fisherman found in the 80s (Photo: TIGHAR)

The Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band continued playing in Europe even after the death of its leader until the end of the war. On November 13, 1945, the National Press Club hosted a dinner honoring President Harry Truman with Washington’s political elite and with the Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King. General Eisenhower thanked them for their efforts during the war and told the band that they were being discharged only at the end of the show. The band was replaced by the United States Air Force Airmen of Note. Since 1956, in addition to their U.S. counterpart, several official civilian Glenn Miller Bands exist covering licensed territories such as Europe, the United Kingdom and Scandinavia.

General Eisenhower congratulating the band at the National Press Club dinner on November 13, 1945 (Photo: dennismspragg.com)
General Eisenhower congratulating the band at the National Press Club dinner on November 13, 1945 (Photo: dennismspragg.com)

Regardless of the real cause of his death, with his era-defining musical style and his patriotism, Miller left behind an immensely rich legacy which still lives on today. Many say that his music was the “soundtrack of the Greatest Generation.” Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle, Commander of the U.S. Eighth Air Force, once told Miller, “Next to a letter from home, your band is the greatest morale booster in the European Theater of Operations.”
 
Among the nearly 5,130 names, one can find the name of Glenn Miller on the Walls of the Missing at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial. There is also a headstone for him in the Arlington National Cemetery. In his hometown, Clarinda, Iowa, the Glenn Miller Birthplace Museum has opened its gates in 2010 and also organizes the Glenn Miller Festival each year.

Miller’s trombone on display at the Glenn Miller Birthplace Museum (Photo: Sioux City Journal, Terry Turner)
Miller’s trombone on display at the Glenn Miller Birthplace Museum (Photo: Sioux City Journal, Terry Turner)
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