75 years ago, Glenn Miller vanished on a flight over the English Channel
By MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: December 24, 2019
The news broke most places on Christmas Day 1944, crammed onto front pages amid the blaring war headlines: Glenn Miller was missing.
The famed American big band leader, whose music cheered the war-weary and thrilled a generation, had vanished over the English Channel while flying from Britain to France.
Indeed, he had been missing for 10 days, and for part of that time, no one realized he was overdue.
Seventy-five years ago this month, in one of the strangest episodes of World War II, the U.S. military “lost” Maj. Glenn Miller, the king of swing and one of the biggest stars of his era.
It took four days before top officers discovered that Miller, without authorization, had hitched a ride on a small plane with a friend and a 22-year-old pilot, had flown into foul weather and probably crashed, according to historian Dennis Spragg.
Based in England, Miller was going to France to arrange for his Army Air Force band’s move to Paris, now that the allies had shoved the Germans back during World War II.
A missing-aircrew report was filed for the plane on Dec. 16 when it did not radio its arrival, Spragg said. But military officials did not know that Miller was aboard and considered the report routine. “Nobody connects it with Miller,” he said.
Plus, the report was eclipsed by the gigantic German attack the same day that began the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and France.
It was only when Miller failed to meet his band in Paris a few days later that people realized he might be missing.
“When Glenn wasn’t there to meet us, I knew something was wrong,” recalled Carmen Mastrin, a guitarist in Miller’s band, according to Geoffrey Butcher’s history of the band’s war years. “He had gone on ahead to make arrangements for us and I knew he would accomplish what he started to do.”
Spragg said after one top U.S. staff officer was briefed, he exploded, “How the hell did we lose Glenn Miller?”
It was a monumental embarrassment, as well as a tragedy.
Miller had been the top bandleader in the U.S. for years, and the Army Air Forces band he put together abroad in 1944 might have been the best big band ever assembled, Spragg said.
Staffed with the best musicians in the service, it was “a juggernaut entertainment machine,” he said.
Miller’s recordings of pieces such as the jazzy, foot-stomping “In the Mood” and the romantic “Moonlight Serenade,” along with “American Patrol,” “A String of Pearls” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” made up the soundtrack for a generation and became embedded in the American music psyche.
“Between ’38 and ’42 he had … more charted stuff than anybody in history,” Spragg said.
His music “clings relentlessly to the collective memory,” jazz critic and author Gary Giddins has written. “Miller exuded little warmth on or off the bandstand, but once the band struck up its theme, audiences were done for.”
The single-engine aircraft in which he was a passenger had left an air base near Bedford, England, on Dec. 15 about 1:45 p.m. Miller was accompanied by an acquaintance, Lt. Col. Norman Francis Baessell, and the pilot, Flight Officer John R.S. Morgan, according to Spragg’s 2017 book “Glenn Miller Declassified.”
Morgan had filed a flight plan but probably didn’t know he would have the famous Miller as a passenger, Spragg said in a telephone interview. Miller, for his part, was a VIP. He was supposed to stick to the military’s regularly scheduled passenger transports, and to keep the brass informed of his whereabouts.
But the English weather had grounded scheduled flights, and Miller was in a hurry to get to Paris. Baessell had a plane and a pilot and also was in a hurry to get to France. He offered Miller a ride.
The War Department, after realizing that Miller was missing, investigated for six days and notified Miller’s wife, Helen, in Tenafly, N.J., on Dec. 23.
An official announcement on Christmas Eve made most papers on Christmas.
Alton Glenn Miller was a musical giant of his day, with a status like that of the Beatles for a later generation. (Some of his wartime radio broadcasts were made in the Abbey Road studios, later made famous by the Beatles, Spragg said.)
And his loss was akin to the sudden deaths of John Lennon, Michael Jackson or Prince.
His music was embraced by the youthful cohort of the late 1930s and early ’40s — the kids who packed dance halls, fed jukeboxes and then went off to World II.
Miller, 40, setting aside a lucrative civilian music career, went with them, joining the Army in 1942.
He formed a 50-piece Army Air Forces Band, took it to England in the summer of 1944 and gave hundreds of performances, according to author Jeffrey Benton. He was often joined by other stars of the time, including Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore.
The band was a sensation, playing in packed airplane hangars, hospitals and on airstrips across England, according to Butcher, the historian.
“Next to a letter from home, [that] organization was the greatest morale builder in the” European theater of operations, the American general James Doolittle said.
Miller, speaking in phonetic German, also did broadcasts aimed at listeners in Germany. And some American planes were decorated with the titles of Miller’s tunes. “In the Mood” became a popular subject of aircraft nose art.
Miller had performed his last radio broadcast on Dec. 12, according to an Associated Press report at the time. He was supposed to do a BBC concert on Christmas. His wife had received several letters from him on Dec. 23, in which he said flights had been grounded by heavy fog.
He had told his brother, Herb, in a Dec. 12 letter, “Barring a nosedive into the Channel, I’ll be in Paris in a few days,” according to an article Spragg wrote last month in Smithsonian Magazine.
Spragg said investigators think the plane crashed because its engine was crippled by ice, or the pilot became disoriented in poor visibility.
Miller was born in Clarinda, Iowa, played the trombone and worked his way through the crowded big-band ranks until he had his own band and his own sound.
“At first Miller’s was rated as just another good swing band,” a columnist wrote in a South Carolina newspaper in December 1939. “But last summer when it moved to Westchester’s Glen Island Casino [in New York] things began to happen. Within five months Glenn Miller’s band was causing more rug dust to fly” than any other.
Miller and his orchestra became so popular that they appeared in the 1941 movie “Sun Valley Serenade” and 1942′s “Orchestra Wives,” and he was the subject of a 1954 film, “The Glenn Miller Story,” starring Jimmy Stewart.
“He was a phenomenon,” Spragg said.
As Miller’s doomed plane prepared to take off that overcast day in 1944, Don Haynes, a close friend and band manager, saw him off, according to Butcher. “Happy landings and good luck! I’ll see you in Paris tomorrow,” Haynes called out.
“Thanks, Haynsie,” Miller replied. “We may need it.”