On this day in 1944, big band leader Glenn Miller disappears over the English Channel. He and his plane were never found.
Miller was a much-loved and successful musician of the era. He had a string of big hits, such as “Moonlight Serenade” and “In the Mood.” He’d worked on a few successful movies. He was married to his college sweetheart! He had two kids.
In short, he was a man with A LOT to lose. But that didn’t stop him from putting everything on the line for his country.
Miller was in his late 30s when World War II began. Because of his age, he didn’t have to volunteer. He could have simply stayed home in America throughout the war. Nevertheless, Miller tried to sign up for the Navy. When the Navy rejected him, he tried the Army. He ultimately persuaded the Army to take him so he could “put a little more spring into the feet of our marching men and a little more joy in their hearts.”
As a Captain in the U.S. Army Air Force, he had a special task. He would use his talent and fame to boost morale.
Miller put together his Army Air Force Band, which traveled and performed for the troops. Many of these performances were even broadcast back home. Miller had a weekly radio show and was in high demand for much of the long war.
In December 1944, Miller was in England, planning for a Christmas concert in Paris. It was time to celebrate! The French capital had been liberated a few months earlier. He’d arranged to hitch a ride with Lt. Col. Norman Baessell, who was taking a small plane to Paris on December 15. When Miller arrived at the airfield, the weather was less than stellar. Reportedly, Miller expressed concern about the lack of parachutes in the plane. “What’s the matter with you, Miller?” Baessell asked. “Do you want to live forever?”
No one knows exactly what happened next. Miller never arrived in Paris, but his disappearance wasn’t immediately noticed. (The Battle of the Bulge began at about the same time, so attention was focused elsewhere.) Miller’s disappearance finally came to light after a 72-hour delay
Unfortunately, the long delay hindered the investigation. Rumors took root and grew. Was he assassinated? Was he the victim of friendly fire? On the night of his disappearance, an aerial attack had been planned into Germany. The weather had forced the Allies to abort the mission. Some of their bombs had to be jettisoned over the English Channel. Had one of these bombs inadvertently landed on Miller’s plane?
Other stories flew around, too, including one in which he made it to Paris but had a heart attack in somewhat unsavory circumstances.
The truth is probably much more simple, according to researcher Dennis Spragg of the Glenn Miller Archive. In all likelihood, Miller’s disappearance can be attributed to simple mechanical failure. Miller was on a plane that was known to have problems with its carburetor heater. The weather conditions that evening were the sort that could have prompted a mechanical issue related to that problem. The plane most likely crashed into the ocean, killing its passengers quickly.
Miller was a man who could have stayed safely at home in America. Instead he risked—and lost—everything.
George T. Simon, Glenn Miller & His Orchestra (1980)
Leo Walker, The Big Band Almanac (1989)
Robert White & Jack L. Summers, Higher and Faster: Memoir of a Pioneering Air Force Test Pilot (2010)
Steven A. Ruffin, Flights of No Return: Aviation History’s Most Infamous One-Way Tickets to Immortality (2015)