Sunday, 28 December 2014

Remembering Major Alton Glenn Miller

The mystery surrounding the disappearance of one of the most famous Big Band Leaders, Major Alton Glenn Miller, continues to confound people still today. Major Miller disappeared whilst on a flight from England to Paris in December 1944. There have been numerous conspiracy theories surrounding his disappearance, some of which seem quite bizarre. It has been said that he was killed whilst trying to overthrow Hitler and another theory mentions a Paris brothel! However, there has been much research into his disappearance and in 2017, Colorado University Historian, Dennis Spragg is due to release a book that may finally shine the light on this mystery.

Almost seventy two years ago, the world was still reeling from the tragic and mysterious loss of Major Alton Glenn Miller. Born in March 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa, Glenn had a typical childhood, went to college, played football and became hooked on music. He once milked cows to raise enough money to buy a trombone. His father inspired and encouraged his musical talent and Glenn joined his first orchestra in 1921 after graduating from high school. In 1928, Glenn married his college sweetheart, Helen Burger. After a succession of bands, Glenn finally found success with his own, calling it the Glenn Miller Orchestra, in 1938.
Glenn Miller Orchestra
Glenn and his orchestra had a string of hits between 1939 and 1942, with songs that included In the Mood, A String of Pearls, Moonlight Serenade and Little Brown Jug.
Having searched for some time for his own unique sound, Glenn had finally found it with his orchestra. They had their own distinctive sound, their own personality.

In 1942, after making two successful movies, Glenn made the decision to enlist in the United States Army Air Force. He was 38 years old. Eventually, Glenn was given the responsibility for the band at the Technical Training Command at Yale University. Whilst there, he hand picked some of the finest musicians from the big bands who were coming into Military service. An interesting fact is that at this time, Glenn rejected a 19 year old pianist called Henry Mancini. In 1946 he went on to join the newly reformed Glenn Miller orchestra. Ten years later, Mancini wrote and arranged the music for the film The Glenn Miller Story, starring James Stewart and June Allyson.
Major Miller with a couple of American Servicemen

In June 1944, the entire band was shipped across to England. Stationed in Bedford, they embarked upon a gruelling schedule of concerts, parties, recordings and broadcasts, all in a major effort to boost troop morale. A Christmas day concert was planned for the American troops in the recently liberated capital of Paris. Whilst the band were scheduled to fly out shortly before the big day, Glenn decided that he should arrive early and ensure that all the necessary arrangements were in place such as accommodation.

On the 15th December, Miller was preparing to board a single-engine UC-64 Norseman plane at Twinwood Farm airfield, England, bound for Paris. The weather was foul and an earlier flight had been cancelled. The American Officer who had arranged the flight also accompanied Glenn on that fateful journey. Glenn was reported to have asked if there were any parachutes on board. The Officer reportedly quipped, "What the hell, Miller, you want to live forever?"
C-64 Norseman Aircraft courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Miller boarded the aircraft, no doubt harbouring grave reservations, especially as he was known to have a fear of flying. The weather was deteriorating, visibility was poor and the American pilot, John Morgan, was not yet qualified to fly by instruments alone. But the fact is that Miller had been trying to get a flight to Paris for several days. This flight had been arranged last minute - Don Haynes, the band's manager had an acquaintance, Norman Baesell, who was also trying to get a flight to Paris. Lt. Colonel Norman Baesell had the flight arranged for the 15th and offered Miller a ride.

Norman Baesell was a top official and responsible for setting up advance bases for aircraft repairs in Europe. He had deadlines to meet and much responsibility in the Air Force. Official reports have shown that earlier that morning, the Pilot, John Morgan had been denied clearance to fly to Paris due to bad weather - Paris was fogged in. However, Baesell gave Morgan a direct order to take him to Paris, despite the fact that he did not have the authority to order this. Morgan, being a junior officer, was not in a position to reject the order.
Twinwood Airfield
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
At 13:55 on the 15th December, they took off and that was the last time they were seen. It was not until the 18th December that officials realised that Miller was missing, after the band had arrived safely in Paris.

The headlines were dominated by news of The Battle of the Bulge, which had begun on December 16th.  A quarter of a million German soldiers battled against American forces in the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg. Bad weather had kept the American bombers grounded. Finally, on the 23rd December, the weather cleared and the bombers were once again airborne, providing support to the ground troops.
American troops in defence positions in the Ardennes
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
It was not until December 24th that the public announcement was made that Glenn Miller was missing. Whilst Miller's disappearance would have been of grave concern, the Battle of the Bulge had taken obvious priority and this most likely explains the nine day delay in announcing Miller's disappearance. Of course the family would have been informed first.

If Norseman aircraft were subjected to icy weather, there was a distinct possibility that the fuel lines would freeze up, thus cutting the engine. There were also official reports that stated at the time that the Norseman aircraft in service might have had faulty carburettors and so it was that they were all set to be replaced. However, the bombers and other essential aircraft took priority for repairs and spares and so not all Norseman aircraft had replacement parts fitted. The aircraft Miller was in was one of those that had not received a replacement part.

Another theory was that a squadron of Lancaster Bombers returning home, having been recalled due to bad weather, were jettisoning their bombs over a designated area of the Channel. An airman on board one of the Lancaster's came forward in the 1980's, claiming to have spotted what he believed to be a Norseman aircraft at the time of the jettisoning. Having learned of Miller's disappearance in 1944, he assumed that the Norseman must have taken a direct hit by one of the bombs. However, the timing of the Lancaster's jettisoning their bombs does not quite tally to the time the Norseman would have been in that area, according to very recent research, utilising flight paths, take off time and airspeed calculations.

And so, having just about ruled out all other theories, Spragg suggests that mechanical failure, bad weather and a pilot who was not instrument trained all made for a recipe for disaster on that fateful day. It is reported that this was also the findings of the United States Army Air Force, a conclusion they reached a few weeks after the incident.

Whilst it was a tragedy, like so many that occur in wartime, Major Glenn Miller left a legacy that continues to play on today. The distinctive sound of the Glenn Miller Orchestra resonates universally and it seems will never fade.

Major Alton Glenn Miller, 1904 - 1944. R.I.P.
Memorial in Arlington Cemetery

Memorial at RAF Kingscliffe - site of Glenn Miller's last hangar concert.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Watchtower at RAF Twinwood restored in 2002: contains a memorial to Glenn Miller
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons