To this day, it remains one of the great mysteries of American music: Exactly how and why did bandleader Glenn Miller vanish during World War II?
Just 40 years old and near the height of his fame as leader of the Army Air Force band, Major Glenn Miller disappeared on Dec. 15, 1944, though the United States military didn’t announce the news until Dec. 24.
That delay, plus the absence of the body, led to a range of conspiracy theories: He was found dead in a Paris brothel; he was secretly returned to the U.S. sick but alive; he succumbed in a secret plot to overthrow Hitler.
Even members of Miller’s family questioned whether he really had died in a plane crash over the English Channel, as the military contended.
"History Detectives Special Investigations: The Disappearance of Glenn Miller," airing 9 p.m. Tuesday on WTTW-Ch. 11, takes on the enigma of Miller’s disappearance and arrives at a compelling and persuasive resolution. Though a bit hokey in presentation, with a trio of investigators tromping across the U.S. and Britain like a modern-day Mod Squad, the hour-long program nonetheless beautifully illuminates an important chapter of American cultural history.
First, the detectives – whose conversations show an unfortunate love of cliche – demolish wild speculation, fact by fact. No, a corpse was not found in a Parisian den of vice. No, Miller’s wartime work with movie star David Niven, who rejoined the British Army during the fighting, had nothing to do with spying – both simply were lending their celebrity to a noble cause. And, no, Miller was not a victim of "friendly fire" from British air power: Newly discovered information places him at the wrong time and place for him to have been accidentally killed by the Royal Air Force.
As the program strips away these fictions, it movingly tells the story of Miller, an extraordinarily successful jazzman who walked away from a lucrative career to put his music at the service of his country. By volunteering to lead the Army Air Force Band across Europe, Miller not only lifted the spirits of Allied troops but worked to win over hearts and minds on the enemy side, as well. As German Luftwaffe pilots prepared to drop bombs on London, the program reports, they sometimes tuned in their radios to catch a few moments of the great Miller band on the air.
So what exactly happened? Spoiler alert: Here comes a detailed description of a tragic confluence of circumstances.
Miller had been anxious to leave Britain for France, in order to present a major concert for the troops who had liberated Paris. Lt. Col. Norman Baessell, an important figure in managing America’s war effort, also needed to get to France fast and offered Miller a ride.
Unfortunately, weather conditions were deteriorating, with fog thickening and cloud ceiling dropping rapidly from 3,000 to 2,000 to 1,500 feet. Paris officials denied Baessell’s pilot, John Morgan, permission to undertake the flight, because the city was engulfed in fog. But Baessell ordered Morgan to go ahead anyway, a disastrous decision, because the pilot was not certified for flying without visuals and by instruments alone.
What’s more, defective carburetors on U.S. military aircraft of the period – including the single-engine plane Miller, Baessell and Morgan were boarding – were known to freeze up. These malfunctioning carburetors prevented fuel from getting to the engine and caused many U.S. military planes to crash.
Given the terrible weather, faulty machinery and the pilot’s limited skills, the chances that the three men would reach their destination were not good.
"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," says researcher Dennis Spragg in the program, citing newly discovered documents he’s incorporating into a forthcoming book.
"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."
But why didn’t the army explain that scenario to Miller’s fans around the world?
For starters, the program shows, Miller boarded an unauthorized flight, so military operations didn’t know for days that he was even on the fallen plane. In addition, Miller’s failure to appear for the Paris concert had been overshadowed by news of the colossal Battle of the Bulge. Furthermore, U.S. military policy at the time precluded releasing such information.
"In a presumed fatal accident, or where there was no evidence," Spragg says in the show, "they did not send messages back to relatives, or next of kin, saying, ‘Johnny or Freddy, your son, made a mistake, got lost or killed himself. You have a perfect storm of human error, mechanical failure and weather. Not independent of one another – all three. And the plane goes down."
Though Miller was known to fear flying, he had no idea he was stepping into a faulty plane operated by a pilot not qualified to fly it under such dire conditions. Yet Miller obviously saw the dreadful weather and, despite his long-standing apprehensions about flying, stepped into the plane anyway.
That he did so surely attests to his devotion to his band and to the troops he sought to inspire with his music – which only heightens one’s admiration for the sacrifice he made.
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