Boy, the way Glenn Miller played
Songs that made the hit parade
Guys like us we had it made
Those were the days. . .
Unlike Amelia Earhart, Big Band leader Glenn Miller’s mysterious disappearance has not generated the lasting fame necessary to have made his last flight the object of book after book, theory after theory. His disappearance was final, unlike that of famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart. Twenty years after her disappearance claims arose that Earhart had been taken to the island of Saipan and eventually executed by the Japanese. Others jumped onto this hit parade and created Earhart into both the first victim of WWII and the center of a living conspiracy theory. Glenn Miller vanished and, while questions remain, he was never given a sensational epilogue. He was subject to an assumption, and that was all.
Glenn Miller had forsaken his role as the King of Swing in 1942 and joined the Army. Some of his men came with him, the rest he organized from Army men. The Big Band era had joined the army. By 1944 he was a major, and a huge influence on army morale. He vanished on a dull December day in 1944 while enroute from the south of England to Paris, France, in reparation to bring his band across the Channel to entertain the troops.
Despite the foggy, cold weather, it was perhaps the best time to travel. The war was in a lull. The Ardennes Offensive had not yet begun. Soldiers lazily sang Christmas carols along the Belgian border. There was no real Luftwaffe anymore to worry about. Yet despite the first real respite since the Normandy invasions, there was no search for the famed band musician after his plane failed to arrive at Paris. This would later become a source of embarrassment for the Army Air Force. One of the most famous civilians in the AAF simply vanished without trace or reason, and to this day no one knows what happened.
This post will touch the possibility that Miller did not go down over the Channel, as is often thought. Hitherto this has merely been an assumption.
It was December 15, 1944. Though Glenn Miller did not like to fly, he decided he would go to Paris to arrange for the band to follow and prepare its tour for the men in the war zone. The best plane available was a relatively small aircraft– a Norseman. It was, in fact, quite a large high wing aircraft, but it was not a particularly heavily built aircraft. The pilot was to be John Morgan. Joining him for the flight was a “groundpounder” colonel, Norman Baessell. They drove from Milton Earnest Hall, where Miller was billeted, to RAF field Twinwood. They were escorted to the plane by Don Haynes, the band’s administrative officer. “Where are the parachutes?” Haynes recalls Miller asking. To this Baessell replied: “What’s the matter, Miller? You want to live forever?”
The Norseman cleared the fog and sailed on overhead.
Glenn Miller and his companions never arrived in Paris, and it seems no real alert was raised for days that they were missing.
By this time the “Battle of the Bulge” was underway. It was the last and greatest Nazi counteroffensive of the war since the Normandy invasions. US troops were falling back. The Germans were driving to the coast to cut the American advance in half and force an evacuation. They were ultimately trying to reverse the Normandy invasion. The Allies knew it, and they knew this was serious.
The result was that America’s most famous band leader– the man who truly defined the Big Band sound and the entertainment of a generation– vanished and was never searched for. When the Allies could take a breather after the Battle of the Bulge, it had to be deduced that Miller’s Norseman went down in the Channel, probably having iced-up and plunged like a rock. They obviously never had time to send a mayday. No one was questioned about the loss. Miller’s things were gathered up to be shipped back to his family.
Blaming the Battle of the Bulge can only go so far, however, for this oversight. This battle began the next day on December 16, 1944. The December 15 was a lazy day. The Channel was rung with radar. It had been since the Battle of Britain. Spotters lined the coast. Ships were out over the Channel acting like radar pickets. The allied coast of France was a radar web. This was a war zone. Why no reports of Miller’s plane falling from radar? Or even reports of an unidentified aircraft? Or was no one asked? Could it be the plane never got that far?
A report, you’d think, would contain any reference to radar commands reporting an unidentified aircraft. Yet in any true sense of the word there was no report. It seems the Air Force wasn’t really sure about the flight. A report of downed aviators was to be made within 48 hours, and yet Miller’s plane was not listed as missing until 20th of December and a report was made on the 23rd that didn’t contain much. A physical search was not made. The Battle of the Bulge was raging now. But why had nothing been done that lazy day of December 15?
Decades later those who felt they should have been contacted had finally been heard to speak about it. A couple of them, including Dixie Clerk, the radio operator at Twinwood, appeared on In Search of in 1979. She expressed her surprise that the plane did not clear the circuit, that is, the pilot did not report that he was airborne and finally heading south. There were only two reasons why a plane would not respond to a call, she said. Its radio wasn’t working or it had gone down. She did not believe that the pilot would head over the Channel with such an important person as Glenn Miller without a working radio. She later called Coastal Command to inquire and they replied they had no report of such an aircraft (and apparently no radar ever picked up the flight). Consequently, she believed the flight had gone down in the nearby Chiltern Hills.
The Chiltern Hills were an aircraft graveyard. Many aircraft had crashed during wartime maneuvers or fell out of dog fights overhead. To the time of that show (1979), there had been over 100 aircraft wrecks found in those hills and many more aircraft had been known to vanish there.
However, over 2 decades later there would be another discovery– the log of an aircraft spotter. In it for that day he lists seeing a Norseman heading east southeast. This seems to be Miller’s plane. The location, however, near Reading, proves the Norseman was already south of the Chiltern Hills.
It would seem that Glenn Miller could only have vanished over the Channel . . . unless the Norseman went down in some forest south of where the spotter reported seeing the plane. One thing bears on this. It seems that Morgan did not have a working radio. But when did he realize this, if ever? If it was before the Channel he might have diverted to another base, crashing in the foggy wilderness before they arrived. He may have braved the Channel with a famous band leader and a huffy colonel, but would he have done so without radio? He would be an unidentified target on radar, with no means of identifying himself. If Coastal Command couldn’t identify him, they would contact spotters and have them look at the flight. For radar commands in France, I can’t imagine they wouldn’t vector interceptors. Would Morgan risk flying into a war zone without being able to identify himself? To believe this one must assume Morgan didn’t know his radio wasn’t working.
The maintenance man, Arnold Bruhns, also spoke on camera, saying that the Norseman did have de-icing aboard, but this contradicts what was thought about the plane.
So did Morgan head over the Channel without a functioning radio, without anti-icing, and simply plunge them into the cold Channel? That is the only alternative that we have unless the Norseman crashed in the forests in the south of England or in the north of France.
Unknown to her, Dixie Clerk’s call to Coastal Command was probably a major portion of the search. The rest must have been various routing commands calling airfields to see if they had landed and failed to report in, and this may have been days later. But it seems to be true that no radar command had ever picked up the Norseman over the Channel, and due to the war the Channel was scoured by radar waves.
Did Glenn Miller vanish in the south of England?
My mother had me later in life than most moms. She was 20 years old when Miller had vanished. As I grew up in the nostalgic 1970s I remember listening to her Big Band Glenn Miller records. We still have them. It’s been forever since I’ve listened to them. But Glenn Miller still touched the 1970s. His era became a part of my generations’ life. We saw the nostalgia of our parents and grandparents. We looked back and viewed the era of the 1930s-50s as a special time, a time before the dark world of the 1970s and post counterculture drug culture. Our childhood was a time that saw middle age men go back in time and visit significant areas where they had fought or had been stationed during the great WW two. The beginning and ending of Twelve O’clock High rather captures it the best.
When we were kids in the 1970s, our uncles and aunts were graying 50+. Their youth was preserved for us in old black and white photographs, often in uniform. WWII seemed so long ago, but in the 1970s they were the age we are now, and we don’t feel so old. Their youth truly wasn’t that far from them. In their lives since they were 20 they fought WWII and saw the world change to the morality and technology of the 1970s. That was 30 years of a lot of change, sudden change and drastic change. No wonder there was so much nostalgia.
In Search of ended in like manner. To the s0ft tune of Moonlight Serenade we saw a decrepit Twinwood Field. “Once this field echoed with the roar of spitfire fighters and the cadence of marching troops,” narrated Nimoy. “Thousands of men departed from here for the battlefields of Europe.” In a barrack’s command room, roof now gone and rafters crawling with vines, there was a plaque commemorating Glenn Miller amidst the neglect. “Many of these men were touched by the music and the memory of a fellow soldier who never returned.” Only for a brief moment did the camera look out again at a seedy, empty field that was once an active, bustling airfield chocked with aircraft.
Glenn Miller and his era were certainly gone, but his music and his mystery remained.
* * *
Since 1990 Gian J. Quasar has investigated a broad range of mysterious subjects, from strange disappearances to serial murders, earning in that time the unique distinction of being likened to “the real life Kolchak.” However, he is much more at home with being called The Quester. “He’s bloody eccentric, an historian with no qualifications who sticks his nose into affairs and gets results.” He is the author of several books, one of which inspired a Resolution in Congress.