The Mysterious Disappearance of One of the Most Successful Recording Artists of All Time
If I were to ask you which 20th Century recording artist had the most top-ten hits in their lifetime, you might be tempted to guess Elvis Presley, or maybe a member of the Beatles. But no: that honour belongs to Glenn Miller, the trombonist and band leader whose recordings of such classics as “In the Mood,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” and “Moonlight Serenade” defined the 40s Big-Band era. In addition to scoring an incredible 16 number one records and 69 top-ten hits in only four years, Miller is notable for being the first in a long line of musical superstars to die tragically in a plane crash, a list that includes such greats as Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Jim Croce, John Denver, and Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines from Lynyrd Skynyrd. But while the circumstances of these artists’ deaths are largely known, the cause of Miller’s disappearance over the English Channel in December 1944 remains a mystery, and has inspired endless speculation and conspiracy theories.
When the United States entered the Second World War in December 1941, Miller and his orchestra were at the height of their popularity, with Miller earning the modern equivalent of $300,000 per week. But Miller, an ardent patriot, decided to give all this up in order to serve his country. Though at 38 Miller was too old to be drafted, he nonetheless offered his services to the Navy, who promptly turned him down. Undeterred, he wrote to Army Brigadier General Charles Young and proposed the formation a modernized Army band to raise civilian and troop morale. Young accepted his offer, and on September 27, 1942, the Glenn Miller Orchestra played its last civilian concert in Passaic, New Jersey. A week later Miller reported to the headquarters of the Seventh Service Command in Omaha, Nebraska, where he was commissioned as a Captain in the Army Specialist Corps. After being transferred to the Army Air Corps, Miller was posted to Maxwell Field outside Montgomery, Alabama, where he was placed in charge of the base’s band, the Rhythmaires. Over the next two years Miller and his Army Air Force Band performed hundreds of morale-concerts for both servicemen and civilians and made dozens of recordings with some of the era’s top musical talents. Though some purists balked at Miller’s blending of swing rhythms into traditional martial music, his orchestra’s effect on morale was undeniable, leading Army Air Force General Jimmy Doolittle to declare:
“Next to a letter from home, that organization was the greatest morale builder in the European Theatre of Operations.”
By 1944 Miller had been promoted to the rank of Major, and he and his orchestra had crossed the Atlantic to England. There they set up shop in the BBC radio office at Sloane Court in London, performing in radio broadcasts to entertain Allied troops fighting in mainland Europe. During this time, Miller narrowly escaped death twice, the first time when a German V-1 flying bomb struck three blocks away, prompting Miller to decamp to Bedford. The day after he left, another V-1 destroyed the BBC radio office, killing 70 of his former colleagues.
Following the Allied capture of Paris in August 1944, the BBC planned for Miller and his orchestra to travel to the newly-liberated city to perform a special concert on Christmas day. Miller was anxious to fly over to finalize travel arrangements for his bandmates, but unfortunately thick fog and cloud cover made travel inadvisable. As luck would have it, American Lieutenant Colonel Norman Baessell was also in a hurry to get to Paris and offered Miller a ride in his chartered UC-64 Norseman light aircraft. Miller accepted, and on December 15, 1944 he, Baessell, and pilot Flight Officer John Morgan took off from RAF Trinwood Farm outside Bedford and headed out over the English Channel. They were never seen again.
Strangely, it took some time for Miller’s absence to be noticed. Because of the foggy conditions Baessell’s flight had been unauthorized, and few in Allied headquarters even knew that Miller was aboard. It was not until December 24th that Miller’s disappearance was publicly announced, his role in the planned Christmas concert being filled by deputy bandleader Sergeant Jerry Gray. But even this tragic news was soon overshadowed by the launching of a massive German offensive in the Ardennes in Belgium, which became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Almost immediately, Miller’s mysterious disappearance inspired all manner of wild conspiracy theories. Some claimed that Miller had been sent by Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower on a secret mission to negotiate peace with the Nazis, and had been assassinated in the process. This theory was apparently supported by Miller’s collaboration at the BBC with film star David Niven, who as a Colonel in the British Army was involved in several top-secret military operations. Other stories claimed that Miller had been found dead in a Paris brothel, and that the plane crash had been invented to cover up his indiscretion. None of these rumours has ever been substantiated, the latter likely being a black propaganda story concocted by the Germans. The official Army Air Force report on the incident concluded that Miller’s aircraft had most likely suffered engine failure and plunged into the English Channel. For his contributions to the war effort, Miller was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, presented to his widow, Helen, on March 24, 1945.
And there the matter rested for more than a decade, until in 1956 a shocking new theory emerged as the to true cause of Miller’s demise. Upon watching the 1954 film The Glenn Miller Story starring Jimmy Stewart, former RAF navigator Fred Shaw recalled a strange detail from one of his wartime bombing missions. In December 1944, Shaw’s flight of 138 Lancaster heavy bombers took off from RAF Methwold on a raid over Siegen in Germany. However, their fighter escorts failed to get airborne, and the flight was forced to turn back. As it was too dangerous for the aircraft to land fully laden with bombs, the flight headed for a ten-mile wide area of the English Channel known as the South Jettison Zone in order to dump their bomb loads. As Shaw later recalled in an interview:
“I had never seen a bombing before, so I crawled from my navigator seat and put my head in the observation blister. I saw a small high-wing monoplane, a Noorduyn Norseman, underneath. It was obvious to me that the aeroplane below was in trouble, so I watched intently. Then, just before it went out of sight under the leading edge of the wing, I saw it flick over to port in what looked like an incipient spin. And eventually I saw it disappear into the English Channel.
‘There’s a kite down there’, I told the rear gunner. ‘There’s a kite gone in’.
He said, ‘Yes, I saw it’.”
As the raid was aborted, the crews were not debriefed and no official report was filed, so Shaw’s sighting went unreported for more than a decade. After making the connection between the aircraft he saw and Miller’s flight, Shaw checked his old logbooks and confirmed the date of the mission: December 15, 1944. To Shaw, there was only one, chilling conclusion: Glenn Miller had been the tragic victim of friendly fire, his plane knocked out of the sky by a hail of British bombs.
At first Shaw was dismissed as a mere attention-seeker, and critics pointed to several holes in his story. First, there was a one-hour difference between the takeoff time logged by Miller’s pilot and the time of the sighting noted in Shaw’s logbook. And second, it seemed unlikely that Shaw would have recognized the Canadian-built Norseman aircraft, of which there were only a dozen or so in the UK at the time. Nonetheless, the theory was compelling enough to warrant further investigation. One of the first to look into Shaw’s story was Alan Ross, a member of the Glenn Miller Appreciation Society, who tracked down Victor Gregory, the Commander of Shaw’s Lancaster on that particular mission. Gregory confirmed the incident, explaining that while he did not see the aircraft himself, he recalled hearing the bombardier and navigator spot it over the intercom. When asked why he had not come forward before, Gregory replied:
“When we got back from that raid, it was an aborted raid, so we didn’t go in for our normal debriefing. 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. My own concern was getting my own aeroplane home safely. We were fighting a war, and we lost thousands of planes. We had some pretty grim raids after that, and they didn’t announce Miller’s death until later. It had gone completely from my mind.”
The sighting was further corroborated by the logbook of the Lancaster’s flight engineer, Derek Thurman, which surfaced in 2000.
The next person to investigate Shaw’s claims was aviation historian Roy Nesbit, working on behalf the British Defence Ministry’s Air Historical Branch. Looking through official RAF records, Nesbit confirmed that Miller’s plane would have had no option but to fly along the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force or SHAEF Shuttle Route, a flight corridor to France specially cleared of antiaircraft guns. This route ran perilously close to the South Jettison Zone, into which Miller’s pilot could have easily strayed given the foggy conditions. Furthermore, the combination of low cloud cover and Flight Officer Morgan’s inexperience with instrument flying would have forced him to follow Visual Flight Rules and fly at only 1,500 feet over the water, placing him under the RAF’s standard bomb-jettison altitude. The one-hour time discrepancy was also easily accounted for by the fact that American pilots navigated according to local time while RAF navigators used Greenwich Mean Time. And as for being able to recognize a rare aircraft, Fred Shaw answered this himself: he had undergone navigation training in Canada, where the Norseman was in common use. All these overlapping factors seemed to confirm Shaw’s suspicions about Miller’s unfortunate demise.
But some experts aren’t buying it. Among these is Howard Roth, a former B-17 bomber pilot who in 2003 pointed out numerous flaws in Shaw and Nesbit’s theory. To begin with, Shaw’s story seemed to change over time in order to fit the theory, with the navigator initially claiming that the plane merely “looked like a Norseman” but later explicitly confirming the plane’s identity. Furthermore, various accounts claiming the plane was knocked down as the jettisoned bombs exploded do not line up with reality, as standard RAF bombs were not designed to explode on contact with water. Furthermore, according to Roth’s calculations, Flight Officer Morgan would have had to have been more than 20 degrees off-course in order to stray into the Jettison Zone – an unlikely occurrence for even an inexperienced pilot.
Another major skeptic of the bombing theory is Dennis Spragg of the University of Colorado Boulder’s American Music Research Centre, who in 2009 was hired by the Miller family to put an end to the wild speculation surrounding Glenn Miller’s death. Spragg not only confirmed Howard Roth’s conclusion that Miller’s plane would have had to have strayed 20 degrees off course, but discovered that a flight of Stinson L-1 Vigilant observation aircraft had also been in the area at the same time, and had reported having bombs dropped on them by a flight of Lancasters.
So, what caused Glenn Miller’s disappearance? According to Spragg, the culprit is disappointingly mundane: the weather. Miller’s plane had been recalled on account of carburetor icing, but was placed at the end of the maintenance queue behind more vital combat aircraft. In the cold, foggy conditions on that fatal day, it would have taken mere minutes for the carburetor to ice up and the engine fail, as Spragg vividly describes:
“The airplane got out over the water, the cloud ceiling was dropping, the temperature was at freezing, the engine ices up, and all of a sudden, as they’re flying along, more than halfway across the Channel, there’s a loud noise, like a bang, like a backfire. The engine stops, the airplane turns nose down, and in eight seconds it’s in the water. That’s exactly what the United States Army Air Force concluded three weeks after the accident. You have a perfect storm of human error, mechanical failure, and weather. Not independent of one another – all three. And the plane goes down.”
Even if the three occupants survived the crash, in the freezing waters of the English Channel they would have lasted barely 20 minutes before succumbing to hypothermia. Indeed, when Orville Anderson of the U.S. Eighth Air Force – coincidentally Miller’s cousin by marriage – was informed of the disappearance, he grimly replied:
“They’ve had it. I can mount a search but it won’t matter.”
But all this is mere speculation unless the remains of Miller’s aircraft can be found and examined. Tantalizingly, such a discovery may actually be close at hand. In 1987, a UK squid fisherman was trawling off the coast of Dorset when his net dragged up the remains of a small aircraft. Though the fisherman eventually cut the wreckage loose to preserve his net, he did take a few moments to note his position and sketch the aircraft, which he described as a high-wing strut-braced monoplane painted silver, with American star insignia on the wings and a bent, three-bladed propeller. In 2014, when the story of Glenn Miller’s disappearance resurfaced in the UK press, the fisherman realized that the aircraft he had dredged up exactly matched that of the famous bandleader. The fisherman’s story eventually came to the attention of Ric Gillespie, director of Philadelphia-based organization The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery or TIGHAR, a group most well-known for their investigations into the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. In 2017 Gillespie flew to Dorset to confirm the fisherman’s story and plan a potential search expedition. As of yet no physical search of the seafloor has taken place, as TIGHAR is still conducting preliminary research. Among the questions that must first be answered is whether the fisherman’s reported position – determined using an outdated navigation system called ‘Decca’ – can be trusted – and whether the Norseman could have survived four decades in the condition the fisherman reported finding it. More than likely the aircraft’s fabric-covered aluminium structure would have rotted and been broken up by currents, leaving only the heavy engine block behind – a tiny needle in a gigantic haystack. But if against all odds TIGHAR succeeds in locating the wreck, it may finally lay to rest the enduring mystery of one of the greats of American music.
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Glenn Miller was not the only superstar to die tragically in the air during the Second World War. At 7 AM on June 1, 1943, actor Leslie Howard – most famous for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind – boarded BOAC Flight 777 bound from Lisbon, Portugal, to Bristol, England. Three hours into the flight, the Douglas DC-3 was attacked by eight German Junkers Ju-88 night fighters. The aircraft burst into flames and plunged into the Bay of Biscay, killing all 17 passengers and crews aboard. Over the years various theories have emerged to explain the attack. At the time, neutral Portugal was a hotbed of Allied and Axis spies, and the Germans may have suspected the Allies of smuggling out secret agents or escaped prisoners of war using the supposedly peaceful civilian flights. Another theory posits that German military intelligence believed that Prime Minister Winston Churchill was aboard Flight 777. Yet another possibility is that the airliner was simply mistaken for a military aircraft. However, the case remains unsolved to this day.Expand for References
Reich, Howard, ‘History Detectives’ Explains by Bandleader Glenn Miller Vanished, Chicago Tribune, July 7, 2014, https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-glenn-miller-tv-review-20140708-column.html
Lennon, Peter, Glenn Miller “Died Under a Hail of British Bombs,” The Guardian, December 15, 2001, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/dec/15/humanities.research
Glenn Miller: Possible Crash Site Investigated by US Team, BBC, January 14, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-dorset-46863606
Revealed: What really Happened When Glenn Miller Disappeared in 1944, University of Colorado Boulder, July 8, 2014, https://www.colorado.edu/music/2014/07/08/revealed-what-really-happened-when-glenn-miller-disappeared-1944
Glenn Miller 1904-1944: The Mysterious Disappearance, Methwold History Group, http://www.methwoldhistorygroup.org.uk/mhg_raf_miller.html
The Glenn Miller Project, TIGHAR, https://tighar.org/Projects/GlennMiller/glennmiller.html
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