Book Review-The Glenn Miller Mystery Solved

Wednesday, 28 March 2018 01:50 PM Written by 


On a freezing, foggy December 15, 1944, Major Glenn Miller (1904-1944) boarded a tiny single-engine "Norseman" plane at the British Royal Air Force (RAF) base at Twinwood Farm. Enroute to France, he was finalizing arrangements to move his enormously popular Army Air Force (AAF) band to Paris from England to entertain Allied troops in the European Theater of Operations (ETO), pushing toward Germany. He tagged along with AAF Lt. Colonel Norman Baessell, who ordered the flight despite the pilot, Lt. Stuart Morgan being ordered not to fly due to the weather. The plane reached the English Channel, was never seen again and Miller, one of America's most renowned bandleaders, became its first celebrity MIA.

With no wreckage, conspiracy theories ran rampant. Miller died on a spy mission to kill Hitler. He perished in a Paris brothel or secretly expired of lung cancer in a British facility. Years later, an elderly former navigator of an RAF bomber claimed his plane, returning from an aborted bombing run, jettisoned unused bombs into the Channel and struck a tiny plane far below

Miller's widow Helen died in 1966. The couple's adopted children, Steven and daughter Jonnie wanted the crackpot theorizing put to rest. With their support, historian Dennis Spragg dug into official records of the AAF, RAF and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and wrote Glenn Miller Declassified. It not only solves the mystery, it chronicles the story of Miller's AAF Band, its broadcast activities in America and England, and the politics behind it all. The narrative's sole weakness is the way Spragg's constant use of military acronyms (AEF, SHAEF, APSIE, etc.), slows things down. He uses so many the book has a two-page glossary.

 miller book cover


A trombonist and arranger, Miller climbed to fame during the Big Band Era with a highly commercial orchestra. Million-selling hits like "In The Mood" and "Moonlight Serenade" captivated a vast swath of American youth. Wealthy, comfortable and too old to be drafted, he nonetheless wanted to give back after Pearl Harbor and in fact would serve his country with honor.

Leveraging his celebrity, he received an Army Captain's commission in 1942 and official approval to organize what he called "a modernized Army band" to boost morale. Using his power, he transferred virtuoso musicians who'd been drafted into his 50-piece AAF Band. They played hits by Miller and others and clever new military tunes like "St. Louis Blues March." The official jazz, pop, rock and country bands in most branches of today's military all began with Miller.  Today, the Air Force's jazz orchestra, the Airmen of Note, are considered the official successors to the Miller AAF organization.

From the 1992 documentary Glenn Miller: America's Musical Hero--surviving AAF Band members reflect on the experience, with music from the band.

Shipped to England after D-Day, the musicians dodged German V-1 buzz bombs in London before relocating to a safer compound 50 miles north. From there, they entertained troops at concerts, over radio, some shows pre-recorded and successfully fulfilled Miller's goal of bringing what he called "a hunk o' home" to the troops fighting and dying to liberate Europe. Spragg probes the dicey politics of American and British musicians battling the hidebound BBC to create a new, combined radio network for Allied troops. Miller's death notwithstanding, the AAF band, led by Sgt. Ray McKinley, a drummer and successful prewar bandleader, remained intact until the end of 1945.

Not only do Spragg's solid facts obliterate the conspiracy theories, his analysis of the Army Air Force's investigative report on the disappearance, whith included testimony, offers a simpler, more plausible conclusion. All Norsemen planes had faulty carburetor heaters. Over the Channel, freezing, foggy weather likely froze the carburetor. The engine stalled and the plane crashed in seconds. Since the flight was unauthorized, time elapsed before it was apparent Miller had disappeared. The author also reveals Miller's prescience: his openly expressed fears he'd never get home due to a buzz bomb or plane crash.

Spragg's account offers depth and closure to this long debated matter. In any case, history has been kind to Glenn Miller and his AAF band, Miller's guileless patriotism is unversally admired. And the band itself considered by experts musically superior to his prewar orchestra, no surprise given the caliber of players in its ranks. Since he held his civilian and military musicians to high standards and expected them to follow his directives, it's no small irony the final report revealed he and his companions flouted AAF protocol. Baesell had ordered an unauthorized flight. Morgan violated orders not to fly that day. Miller ignored his VIP status, which required him to officially authorize his flights through channels. Spragg speculates Baesell would have been court martialed and Morgan grounded, but Miller, with his importance to military morale, would have squeaked by with a reprimand.


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