News, WW2

The Mysterious Disappearance of Major Glenn Miller

On December 15th, 1944, Major Glenn Miller geared up for a morale boosting performance in Paris in time for Christmas Day with his Army Air Forces Band. The Battle of the Bulge was well on its way and Miller had spent months of constant recording and performing in England.

Alongside his friend Lieutenant Colonel Norman Baessell, the two men hitched a ride on a UC-64A Norseman that had landed a few minutes before at 2PM that day. The Norseman flew over the foggy skies of Twinwood Farm Airfield in England, bound for Paris by the next day.

By the 18th December, Miller’s Army Air Forces Band had arrived ahead, but there was no sign of Major Miller, Lieutenant Colonel Baessell or the Norseman in sight.

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What happened to the two men and their plane? Ever since December 1944, neither men have ever been found, nor has the Norseman and its pilot. Since then, conspiracies have ranged from Miller dying at a Paris brothel to the plane crashing into the cold English Channel.

Before the War: Big Band Sound

Long before 1944, trombonist Glenn Miller was one of America’s big band leaders that brought the swinging sounds of the late 1930s to the American mainstream. With hits like “Moonlight Serenade”, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, “In the Mood”, and “Pennsylvania 6-5000”, Glenn Miller had made a name for himself as a respected big band leader from 1938 to 1942.

Despite some failures back in the 1920s and early 1930s, his name had become mentioned alongside other great contemporaries such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, and the Dorsey brothers to name a few.

Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller (centre) recording of one of his radio broadcasts for the Army Air Forces Band . (US Air Force photograph)

Once Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, men across America fervently joined the armed forces to fight in the Pacific and Europe. That included Glenn Miller, though a successful musician at the height of his fame, Miller wanted to use the power of music to boost morale for the fighting men in Europe.

By the summer of 1942, Miller had made the call to his band that he would disband the orchestra and join the U.S. Army Air Forces just as they rehearsed for a Chesterfield cigarettes program.

That program would be given, under Miller’s blessing, to another fellow bandleader: trumpeter Harry James. Miller’s decision shocked not only his orchestra, but the whole world of jazz and big band.

Joining the U.S. Army Air Forces

Miller originally looked to join the U.S. Navy first, but his application was rejected because the Navy “could not use [his] bandleader services”, according to the Arlington National Cemetery. The U.S. Army did accept his application, and Miller was soon transferred to the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force.

From October 1942 to the summer of 1943, Captain Glenn Miller began by recruiting his former band members and getting them to join the U.S. Army Air Force Band. As the Band Director he went through training and rehearsals in Alabama and New York.

But it was not only former band members and musically gifted military men that were permitted into Miller’s USAAF band. Civilians were allowed to join if they placed an audition, a tradition that still goes on today with the U.S. Air Force Band, after basic training of course!

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By the time Miller recorded his “Uncle Sam Presents”, he still wanted to head to the front and play with the USAAF band. Miller was still as popular as ever even in military uniform. He would get his request when General Dwight D. Eisenhower called on Captain Miller to boost morale in Europe on the eve of D-Day.

Going to Continental Europe

Eisenhower needed Miller to join the new American Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (ABAEF), this plan required the nod from Miller’s superior General Harry “Hap” Arnold. Miller was more than happy to oblige.

Eisenhower’s plan for the ABAEF was to collaborate with Allied forces to allow American, British, and French music to play on the radios to boost morale as the invasion of Normandy came nearer.

Ironically, Miller would arrive safely in late June 1944 as one of the most intense battles of World War II was well under way. Miller, alongside his band, now rebranded as the American Band of the AEF (American Expeditionary Forces), recorded and played for the British, bringing more fans to Miller’s big band sound.

The grueling schedule rolled on throughout the summer and fall of 1944. In August 1944, he would be promoted to Major Glenn Miller for his contributions for morale boosting.

Miller in 1942
Glenn Miller in 1942. His disappearance during WW2 is still a mystery.

By 1944, the Miller band would collaborate with contemporary musicians such as Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore. Jimmy Desmond even sang some German versions of Miller’s biggest songs; they would be a smash hit for the Germans even during the war for both soldiers and civilians alike. As Paris fell into Allied hands in the autumn, Miller became desperate to play in Paris to boost morale for the men fighting there, but first Miller and his band would have to survive another intensive recording schedule.

Once Glenn Miller and his band got the green light to play in Paris, they recorded an amazing 84 hours of material in November and December 1944. That’s not including the dozens of hours they spent recording in the summer before Paris fell to the Allies.

What Might Have Happened in the Final Flight

On that December day, before Miller and Baessell jumped on the Norseman, they had vetoed the pre-flight check ups for the plane, as Miller was too anxious about missing the Parisian Christmas concert. As a result, there was no record of the flight nor of the two men before flying away, leaving little evidence since the disappearance.

Baessell had allowed the pre-check-up and flight record to be voided, leaving the two men with the pilot, Flight Officer John R. Stuart Morgan, to fly amidst the fog. Despite unfavourable conditions, the plane flew and left the coast with some Royal Air Force personnel reporting a small plane fly away by 2:37PM.

Due to foggy weather, when Flight Officer Morgan was off of England’s coast, he became disoriented with distance and the horizon line. Without any reference, the plane likely crashed in the English Channel.

This was also because the plane was flying far too low along the SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) corridor, the transport path between England and France that had been prepared for the daring invasion of Normandy.

Another possibility besides human error was mechanical failure; according to the World War II museum, the Norseman plane was notorious for freezing carburetors. December 1944 was a notoriously brutal winter for the Allied powers as the Germans attempted one final counteroffensive toward Antwerp.

A U.S.A.A.F Noorduyn UC-64A Norseman
A U.S.A.A.F Noorduyn UC-64A Norseman. The plane was similar to the one that Miller was flying in when he disappeared.

So, what likely happened to Miller’s plane? It seems that once the Norseman flew away from the English coast, the thick fog had disorientated Flight Officer Morgan for some time, and with the cold to consider, their carburetor probably failed, causing the plane to crash in the freezing English Channel. In addition, the Norseman may have had its wings iced due to the cold weather, reducing any chance of effective maneuverability.

The likelihood of a surviving such a trip would have been very low. Rumors had it that there were no parachutes on that plane. On the other hand, if the carburetor hadn’t failed, it was likely the fog would have caused the plane to crash.

Nevertheless, there has been some new evidence to prove that Major Miller, Lieutenant Colonel Baessell, and Flight Officer Morgan crashed on the English Channel.

In 2019, 75 years after Miller’s disappearance, Ric Gillespie, a representative from the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, claimed that in 1987, a fisherman off the coast of the English Channel found a few remnants of a plane similar to a Norseman that Miller and Baessell flew that December day. The plane was generally kept in its resting place, and since, there has been no update regarding the new discovery because of a large logistical challenge. Since the English Channel is a busy lane for ships, there has been little attempt to officially call an investigation as it would cause a logistical nightmare.

Lasting Theories

Aside from his death at a brothel, which has since been debunked because of a lack of evidence, there have been claims that Miller’s likely death was kept silent by the U.S. War Department to avoid the deterioration of morale.

When Glenn Miller disappeared, the Germans and Allies were engaged in the fierce Battle of the Bulge. Despite Miller’s disappearance, the Army Air Forces Band still played away with all their might at the Christmas concert. Miller was officially declared dead in December 1945.

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Another theory that existed for sometime before the Gillespie claim was by RAF navigator Fred Shaw, on a Lancaster that had returned from a failed bombing campaign in Germany due to poor weather. Shaw claimed that the Lancaster bombed the Norseman as it crossed the English Channel. Shaw originally thought that it was a kite, but made the connection to Miller decades later.

How could Shaw pinpoint the Norseman? Since the Norseman was a Canadian made plane, he was trained as a navigator out in Manitoba, Canada. Plus, the Norseman was only allowed to fly along the SHAEF corridor, as it was the only path to cross safely.

The theory hasn’t been debunked, but the only way to fully answer the mystery of Major Miller’s disappearance, would be finding the engine block. As of 2023, there has been no effort to find the rest of Miller’s plane in the Channel.

If there were remnants of the plane, any evidence to prove Shaw’s claim would be lost, unless the engine block showed signs of shots. In addition, there would have been some sort of official investigation had the Lancasters encountered a Norseman with one of the biggest bandleaders in the war effort strapped in. Yet, no investigation seemed to have been done.

Miller in his USAAF uniform and a 1939 Baltimore Hippodrome Ballroom poster.

The Lasting Legacy of Glenn Miller’s Music

Even if Glenn Miller’s disappearance is yet to be solved, there is no denying that Miller was unique in the big band era. Instead of sitting at home, he decided to join the war effort to boost morale, even enduring harsh schedules in the summer of 1944.

Glenn Miller’s music left a lasting legacy beyond World War II. With hits “In the Mood” and “Moonlight Serenade”, Miller left a sound that harkens back to the war effort as millions of Americans went to fight in the brutal European and Pacific theatres. Though Major Miller was gone before the war’s end, his big band style has continued with the U.S. Air Force Band, founded in 1950.

In 1954, fellow World War II veteran and actor James Stewart starred as Glenn Miller in the film The Glenn Miller Story, which was a smash hit for its time.

So, the next time you hear “Moonlight Serenade”, think of the trombonist who sacrificed his comfort back in America to boost morale for the soldiers on the front line.