It was a cold day on 15 December 1944, when Major Glenn Miller boarded a Noorduyn ‘Norseman’ C-64 aeroplane. Since joining the war, the great American bandleader’s Army Air Force Band had been performing for Allied troops all over England; now he was flying to Paris to make final arrangements to bring his musicians in for a Christmas concert for the Allied troops there.
Alas, the plane never made it to its destination. Its passengers were never seen again.
Glenn Miller’s Final Hours
Glenn Miller was a national darling. His famous Glenn Miller Orchestra, formed in 1938, had soared out of nowhere to incredible success, raking over 70 Top 10 records in four years and selling over a million records, and dominating the American airwaves. When America became dragged into the war at the end of 1941, Miller decided that he would best serve his country by being in uniform and promptly enlisted. There he was transferred to the Army Air Corps, promoted to the rank of Captain1, and given free rein to set up his own wartime band.
Miller’s Army Air Force Band would prove to be every bit as successful as his civilian one, despite all the close shaves that had almost wiped them out of Air Force history. Now that Christmas was approaching and the Allied troops needed every bit of morale boost they could get, Miller was preparing a concert for them at the ‘Olympia’.
The original plan was for manager Don Haynes to fly with Miller to Paris; however, fate interceded and sent a Lt. Col. Norman Baessell his way. Miller had bumped into him at an Officers mess at Milton East near Northampton on 14 December and had struck up a conversation with the officer. Baessell happened to mention that he would be departing for Paris the next day from an RAF airfield at Twinwood Farm2, and upon hearing of Miller’s plans, offered him a seat on the plane. Miller gladly accepted, and whiled away the night eating dinner and playing poker with Haynes and Baessell.
The morning of 15 December found Bedford heavily fogged in. A concerned Haynes called up Baessell to find out if the flight was still on; Baessell assured him that by the time they took off after lunch the fog would be gone.
It was bitterly cold outside when Baessell contacted Pilot John Morgan, who confirmed that he would be arriving soon. Miller, who had been waiting in the car with Haynes, quipped that Morgan would fail to locate the field as it was 24ºF and ‘even the birds were grounded’; he was forced to eat his words minutes later when an aircraft appeared through the dense fog and landed on the airstrip.
The trio left the control tower and drove to the Noordwyn ‘Norseman’ C-64 on the tarmac where Morgan, waiting for them, apologized for being late. Miller must have had some last minute doubts about flying into the fog in the single-engine plane when he muttered, ‘Where the hell are the parachutes.’ In a twist of irony Baessell replied, ‘What’s a matter with you Miller, do you want to live forever?’ Charles Lindbergh had made it across the whole Atlantic on one engine; their C-64 would only be going as far as Paris. Miller had no further comment.
Don Haynes watched as the Norseman sped down the runway and took to flight. He was the last person to see them alive.
Theories concerning Glenn Miller’s Disappearance
What had exactly happened to the passengers of the Norseman has been the subject of much speculation for the past half a century. The official report was that the Norseman aircraft had crashed into the Channel due to either iced-over wings or engine failure; however, this explanation would prove dissatisfactory for the majority of the populace, thus causing multiple theories and speculations to mushroom over the years.
In 1985 British diver Clive Ward found what seemed to be the remains of the ill-fated Norseman off the coast of France. Aside from the regular corrosive effects of the sea, Ward found no damage to the plane and, more interestingly, no signs of the plane’s registration number or human remains. This inevitably led to unanswered questions regarding the fates of Miller and the two other officers, and encouraging even more speculation to spread.
These theories, ranging from the somewhat plausible to spectacularly ridiculous, are:
Theory 1: That Miller had survived, and later died in a bordello
The most preposterous claim in this collection of tales is that Glenn Miller (and the two officers) had safely crossed the Channel to Paris, and had later died under somewhat compromising conditions.
The theory was first put forth in 1997 by the German journalist Udo Ulfkotte, who had trawled through American and German intelligence wartime efforts for a book on German intelligence agencies. According to the German tabloid magazine Bild, Ulfkotte had supposedly found, among the many documents he had procured from the American government under the Freedom of Information Act, evidence of a steamy cover-up: that Miller had actually arrived safely in Paris on December 14, but had unfortunately met his end while in the dubious company of a French prostitute.
This eye-opening story suggested massive conspiracy and outstanding military idiocy. It implied that (1) the US military had planted a plane in the English Channel as ‘evidence’, but had somehow managed to make the glaring mistake of (2) forgetting to plant dead bodies in it, and yet had pulled off the incredible feat of (3) silencing everybody who might have offered contradictory statements, from Miller’s manager (who’d been bumped off the flight) to all the people who’d seen Miller depart from Twinwood on the ‘doomed’ plane, to Miller’s band (who would have known if their bandleader had gotten to Paris) to everybody involved in removing Miller’s body and guarding the scene at the French brothel. And then of course, being very proud of themselves, they had proceeded to leak the information to their German enemies!
Disputing this absurd claim, however, is retired Lt. Col. Robert Baker, who reported to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that there was no way Miller could possibly have reached Paris by December 15 except on his flight, because the two of them had been drinking together in England the night before.
An interesting twist to the story – Ulfkotte later claimed that he’d been the victim of misquotation. He asserted that he had never found evidence of Miller dying in a brothel; the story had apparently come from German intelligence specialists in an off-the-record conversation.
Theory 2: That Miller had died of medical conditions in a hospital
There are two different claims made that Miller had in fact gone over the Channel and back, but later died in an American hospital. One of the claims was put forth by the New Jersey Department of Health, which stated that Miller had died in Ohio in 1945 as a result of injuries. Dr. Chris Valenti, notorious for his Glenn Miller conspiracy theories, had put out notices on his radio program for people with information pertaining to this matter to come forward. Within the next week, an anonymous letter had arrived from an unnamed doctor, who’d claimed that Miller had been flown in with gunshot wounds in 1945, and had later died under his care.
Miller’s younger brother Herb, however, had a different story for the press. Breaking a nearly 40-year silence in 1983, Herb Miller claimed that ‘Glenn Miller did not die in a plane crash over the Channel but from lung cancer in a hospital.’ Miller had apparently been shuttled off to a military hospital upon arrival, where cancer took his life the very next day3.
To support his story, Herb Miller had pointed out a passage in a letter written by his chain-smoking brother in the summer of 1944: ‘I am totally emaciated, although I am eating enough. I have trouble breathing. I think I am very ill.’ Miller’s depression, irritability and exhaustion during the few months prior to his untimely demise, Herb Miller asserted, further proved that Miller had an underlying medical condition. To further corroborate this story, Don Haynes, Miller’s XO and band manager, had claimed that the bandleader had lost a lot of weight and that his tailor-made uniforms ‘didn't fit him well at all. They merely hung on him.’ Miller must have been aware of his impending doom, for late one night he told George Voustas, the director of his military programs, ‘You know, George, I have an awful feeling you guys are going to go home without me....’ Furthermore, according to the weather report for 15 December the daytime temperature had been 5°C (41°F, and not the previously claimed 24°F) – too warm for aeroplane wings to have iced over and crashed into the English Channel.
Herb Miller was unable to furnish information about his brother’s final resting place, claiming that Miller had probably been buried in a mass grave at some British military cemetery. True to his brother’s heart, however, Herb had allegedly fabricated the crash story because his brother had wanted to ‘die as a hero and not in a lousy bed.’
Theory 3: That Miller’s plane had crashed due to bad weather
"Why Glenn, who had a real fear of planes, decided to risk a trip under such adverse conditions has never been determined,"
- George Simon, The Big Band Era and The Glenn Miller Story.
The official report issued by the US military on 24 December was that Miller’s plane had nose-dived into the English Channel, either because its wings had iced-over, or that its engine had failed. Supporting this claim is Fred W Atkinson, Jr who, in 1944, had been at Le Bourget Airport at Paris.
Atkinson had been a member of the 320th Air Transport Squadron, which was a unit of Col. Arnold’s Air Transport Wing, and served as an experimental air evacuation squadron specializing in the removal of wounded soldiers from field hospitals and transportation of these men back to Paris. The aircraft assigned to them were Norseman aeroplanes similar to the doomed one, chosen because they were small enough to land on roadways, fields or even open spaces. There were, however, two drawbacks to the plane: they had no navigation instruments4, and were grounded in bad wheather conditions – information that would later be crucial to explaining the fate of Miller’s plane.
According to Atkinson, two of the C-64 Norsemans were scheduled to return to Paris on the day Miller departed London; however, the flights were cancelled on account of bad weather. In spite of the risk involved, an unnamed Brigadier General ordered that two pilots fly Miller into Paris to re-group with his band, who had arrived earlier. When Atkinson’s unit left for Paris several days later, they were notified of a crashed aircraft on the coast of France that might belong to the unit, and whose occupants were dead. A plane was dispatched, and its crew identified the bodies as those of Miller and the two pilots, based on identification papers and dogtags as well as visual identification. The second crew in London further verified that Miller and the two pilots had been seen to depart in the crashed aircraft several days earlier.
Papers detailing the salvage of the crashed aircraft were processed, as were the report of the deaths of the pilots on the squadron morning report, which was updated on a daily basis to keep track of the status of all personnel. Because of the loss of the pilots and the Army’s Number 1 morale man, there were rumours that officers in the 320th squadron had sworn to bring manslaughter charges against the Brigadier General who had issued the order; however, as Miller had not yet been officially pronounced dead, they could do little but wait in frustration until the announcement was made.
Unfortunately for Atkinson’s unit, there was never a conclusion to all this, despite the surplus of witnesses to confirm the events.
Theory 4: That Miller’s plane had been downed by friendly fire
Currently, the most highly debated theory regarding the disappearance of Glenn Miller was that his plane had been the victim of friendly fire.
The late Fred Shaw was the navigator of a Lancaster (serial number NF973) based in Methwold. On the day Miller’s plane disappeared, 138 Lancaster bombers – one of them Shaw’s – were returning from an aborted bombing raid on Siegen in Germany because their fighter escorts had failed to get off the ground. Because the squadron could not possibly land with their staggering bomb load5, their combined total of 100,000 incendiary bombs had to be jettisoned. The bomb jettison zone was known as the South Jettison Area (a 10-mile circle 50 miles south of Beachy Head over the English Channel), and was officially dangerous grounds to be avoided by all aeroplanes and ships.
When the bombs were jettisoned from a safety height of 4000 feet, Shaw, who had never seen a bombing before, was driven by curiosity to look out the window. As the bombs exploded several feet above the surface of the sea, he saw a plane 2500 feet below, flying south. Years later he would say, ‘It was obvious to me that the aeroplane below was in trouble, so I watched intently. Then, just before it went out of sight under the leading edge of the wing, I saw it flick over to port in what looked like an incipient spin. And eventually I saw it disappear into the English Channel.’ The bomb aimer had reported the same sighting a moment before; now a rear gunner called over the intercom that ‘There’s a kite6 just gone in down under’.
Because they were technically not in enemy territory and the mission had been reported, the men were not debriefed, and the downed plane remained unreported.
Shaw never connected the downed plane with Glenn Miller’s mysterious disappearance until 1956 when he saw the movie The Glenn Miller Story. He had decided on impulse to check his old log book – and realised that the Norseman he’d seen plunging into the sea could very well have been Miller’s.
When Shaw’s first came out with his story, the public’s initial response – especially that of the Glenn Miller Appreciation Society – was to dismiss him as a publicity seeker. A hail of awkward questions descended: How could it be proven that Miller’s plane had strayed into the path of Lancasters when John Morgan had even failed to register a flight path? How was Shaw able to recognize a Norseman, when there were only a half-dozen of these Canadian planes in Britain, all of them in American air bases? What about the one-hour discrepancy.
The British Defense Ministry’s Air Historical Branch decided to investigate the claim, and recruited Roy Nesbit, an aviation historian and (now) RAF editor at the public record office, who spent years researching the problem. The findings revealed were:
1. How could Miller’s plane have strayed into a jettison zone?
The Norseman had no option but to take the SHAEF shuttle path (the route employed by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces) to France. Despite all the anti-aircraft emplacements on the south-east coast, a route had been cleared for flights. Unfortunately, this brought Miller’s plane perilously close to the jettison area, which was only a few miles away from the SHAEF path. Because John Morgan was inexperienced by flying by instruments, he would very likely have used a compass - which was notoriously unreliable especially if the pilot was navigating an area without landmarks, and in this case, fatal.
2. Why was there a one-hour discrepancy in flight time?
The official report was that the bomb group had jettisoned their bombs at 1.40pm on 15 December; Morgan’s flight log put the plane one hour ahead of the bomb group, thereby raising questions as to the validity of the claim. However, by comparing logs written in the air with operations in the ground, Nesbit was able to determine that the Americans had used local time, which was an hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, thereby explaining the discrepancy.
3. How could Shaw have recognized such a rare aeroplane?
In fact, Shaw had answered this question himself – his navigator training had taken place in Manitoba, Canada, where the Norseman aeroplanes were aplenty.
Although the Glenn Miller Appreciation Society dismissed the story because they believed that no plane could have possibly flown that day owing to bad weather, one member, Alan Ross, took it seriously and independently investigated the matter. He wrote in to Air Mail, the RAF Association Journal, asking for other members of the Lancaster’s crew to come forward. Victor Gregory, who had captained Shaw’s plane, responded to the mail, believing it to be for some sort of reunion. When asked about the sighting, Gregory confirmed the story. He himself had not witnessed the bombing of the plane; however, he recalled that the bombardier had spotted the plane, and had called the navigator over to have a look; soon after, Fred Shaw had identified the plane as a Norseman.
When asked why he had not come forward until now, Gregory replied,
"When we got back from that raid, it was an aborted raid, so we didn't go in for our normal debriefing. Don't think me unsympathetic or callous, but when I heard of the plane going down, I would have said that he shouldn't have been there - forget him. My own concern was getting my own aeroplane home safely. We were fighting a war, and we lost thousands of planes. We had some pretty grim raids after that, and they didn't announce Miller's death until later. It had gone completely from my mind."
A separate investigation carried out by EA Munday of the Air Historical Branch at the Ministry of Defence revealed records confirming that a squadron had taken off at noon on 15 December 1944 to attack the railway yards at Steigen. The records further confirmed that the force had to be recalled before they even entered German-controlled airspace, and that the planes were ordered to jettison their bombs in the South Jettison Area.
A Ministry of Defence letter was eventually issued by Munday to Fred Shaw in 1985, stating that:
"Until your story appeared in the South African press in 1984, the R.A.F. had always regarded Miller's death as a strictly U.S.A.A.F. matter, as the result of some sort of flying accident, probably as a result of poor weather conditions. We have received letters at various times asking about it, some of which put forth theories, some feasible, and some not so feasible.
"Up until 1984, the only R.A.F. connection was that Miller's plane had taken off from the R.A.F. airfield at Twinwood Farms, Bedfordshire in weather conditions which could be described as marginal, or at least marginal for that type of aircraft.
"Your story, to a greater extent, changed this, and we carried out an investigation earlier this year into the aborted bomber operation of 15 Dec.1944. Because the operation was aborted, there is no raid report on B(omber) C(ommand) records, as would have been customary with a completed operation. We did find reference to the intended course."
Shaw’s documents were eventually sold by Mrs Shaw, who, according to her daughter Cheryl Fillmore of Southhampton, believed that the material should not rot in a drawer but be made available to those who were interested in the matter. The documents were sold by Sotheby’s on April 13, 1999 for a grand sum of £22,000.
The logbook of Derek Thurman, the flight engineer on board Shaw’s Lancaster, surfaced in 2000, corroborating Shaw’s testimonial. Thurman had written that when the bombs were away, three crew members on board the plane had spotted a light aircraft below, which seemed to have been downed by the hail of explosives. The bomb aimer saw it first from the nose and commented on it, whereupon the navigator shot out of his seat to the side blister (window) to have a look. He saw the plane whip by. Seconds later, the rear gunner called in to say ‘It’s gone in, flipped over and gone in.’ Thurman’s logbook was also sold by Sothesby’s, fetching a paltry sum of $880.
Arguments against Shaw's Testimonial and Nesbit's Report
1. The Dubious Nature of Shaw's Public Testimonial
The first discrepancy he pointed out was the testimonial Shaw had given to both The History Channel (THC) and the Public PBS. Shaw had initially identified the downed plane as 'a sort of Norseman' while giving the THC interview; later, when he was on PBS he'd changed it and stated explicitly that the plane had been a 'Noorduyn Norseman'. He had never mentioned bombs during the THC interview; it had only surfaced during the PBS one. Furthermore, Roth pointed out, with a combined speed of about 300 mph, very low visibility, and the fact that the plane downed was a small one, how could Shaw have seen the Norseman flip over? The plane would more likely have disintegrated.
Roth also pointed out that Shaw's initial reluctance to come forward to report the crash because 'he didn't want to get involved in a long drawn-out hearing', and his connection of the plane with Miller only 12 years later made no sense. Because of the incredibly high Air Force casualty rates, an average of 1 in 4 planes would not return from any given mission; the debriefing would surely have taken less than 30 minutes. And then there was the question of Shaw's logbook, which had two different handwritings - when Roth had pointed it out to Victor Gregory, the pilot had claimed, 'that's my handwriting - I often filled in log books if the lazy buggers hadn't done it', therefore casting further doubt upon the veracity of Shaw's claim. And of course - why had it taken Shaw so long to make the connection? The bombing had been broadcast all over England, as had the mysterious disappearance of Glenn Miller. Moreover, failure to report a plane - especially a friendly - going down was nothing short of unforgivable7.
2. The mystery bomb jettison area
And then there was the deal with the jettison of bombs, and where it happened. Nesbit and Shaw had both asserted that it was in the South Jettison Area; however, RCAF pilot Ken Blythe, who had flown Halifax bombers during the war stated that the jettison zone had been in the north sea; he'd never so much as heard of the south one. Ron Brown, who had served on one of the Lancasters, had confirmed this, and had added that visibility was so bad that on occasions they could only see as far as their Lancaster's wing tips.
Furthermore, the allegation that a bomb had exploded upon jettison, Roth argued, was a serious one. The bombs were not designed to detonate on water impact; had they done so, there would not have been a bomb group to speak of, let alone Glenn Miller's aeroplane!.
3. The undetermined flight route
And then there was the flight path to consider. Apparently Nesbit and Shaw had detailed different routes - Nesbit had claimed the plane took the SHAEF shuttle path; Shaw had put Miller's plane on a straight path from England to Paris; neither the RAF nor Miller's flight path was actually known. Anyway, the flight path Shaw stated made no sense - flying straight to Paris from Twinwood would have taken the plane right over London, which was playing host to an onslaught of V1s and V2s as well as barrage balloons. Furthermore, when Roth had scrutinised Shaw's flight map, he'd noticed that the jettison zone was nowhere near Miller's alleged route.
While the SHAEF shuttle might very well have caused Miller's plane to stray into the bomb drop zone had a pilot used an inaccurate magnetic compass, the fact was that, despite its supposed equipment deficiencies8, the Norseman had a highly accurate gyro compass as almost enough blind flying instruments to match those of the B-17's. With competent navigation instrumentation, it was highly unlikely that Miller's plane would have strayed from its flight path.
(And anyway, putting a VIP shuttle route right through a drop zone would have been nothing short of tactical suicide)
4. Daylight saving hours
Nesbit's explanation for the time discrepancy made no sense either. He had calculated that, what with the difference between local time and Greenwich Mean Time, Miller's plane could very well have strayed into the path of Lancasters. However, Nesbit had apparently neglected the fact that England, at the time, was on double daylight saving time9. Taking this adjustment into consideration, the Lancasters and Miller's plane would have been at least 250-300 miles apart, and the bombers should have landed even before the Norseman took to flight.
So might Shaw's crew have gotten it wrong? Is it possible that the plane they'd seen plunging into the English Channel was not the Norseman carrying Miller to Paris? The reader is advised to personally go over the pertaining data and arrive at his or her conclusion.
Miscellaneous Crackpot Theories
Other theories to be included under the Utterly Ridiculous heading are: that Miller had been a spy, and had subsequently been killed; that he had been the victim of black marketers; that US agents marked Miller for death because he was threatening to expose a cabal of gay US officers; that had accidentally been shot by an MP in Paris; that a German assassination squad had been sent to shoot down Miller’s plane; that Miller had been abducted by aliens who'd apparently been interested in studying/dissecting him10. All of these theories hinted at the US military performing an incredible cover-up to preserve morale.
Of all the conspiracy theorists, Dr. Chris Valenti of Bigband Radio was by far the most active. He’d harassed the Government for the same files they’d allegedly supplied to the German journalist Udo Ulfkotte through the Freedom of Information Act; however, the five documents that arrived on his doorstep two years later were nothing short of disappointing. The documents were: (1) a letter (dated 12 February 1945) notifying Helen Miller that her husband had been reported missing since 15 December 1944; (2) a letter from Major General Edward F Witsell to George Eyermen (dated 21 January 1946), requesting information concerning Major Miller, which Eyermen informed a Jimmie Fidler about at an earlier date; (3) a reply from Eyermen (dated 30 January 1946) stating that the said information was in fact an inquiry, and that Eyermen had been misrepresented; (4) a letter from Asst. Adjutant General JW Donnelly to Helen Miller (dated 6 September 1946), stating that there was no further information pertaining to her husband’s plane; and (5) a letter of inquiry (dated 30 September 1946) from Miller’s attorney David McKay, requesting that investigation be carried out upon the parts of a plane that had been found on Brittany beach, identified to be Miller’s.
Annoyed, Valenti had apparently hired an agency to dig up more dirt from military, FBI and CIA records. This apparently led to Valenti receiving a phone call from an unnamed government official who had threatened Valenti and his family’s lives if the ‘smoking gun’ findings he’d uncovered were ever revealed. Valenti had apparently kept quiet for two years until an unnamed doctor had come forward to corroborate his findings (see Theory 1). Supposedly, two days before Valenti’s public broadcast, the official had called again with another threat – this time, leaving his warning on Valenti’s voice mail, which Valenti audaciously aired for everybody to hear.
While romantic speculations of Miller having been the unfortunate victim of a vicious conspiracy may be appealing to those with rose-tinted glasses, the fact is that his death is far more likely attributed to a series of unfortunate accidents than it is to him having been silenced or the government having covered up an embarrassing situation.
However, we may never know for sure what happened in the final minutes of Miller’s life. All we know is that he and his companions had boarded a plane, never to be seen again, and the world of swing music is a much poorer place for his passing.
Online International Newspaper articles
- BBC News: Bomb Clue to Glenn Miller Mystery
- Guardian UK: Glenn Miller Died under 'Hail of British Bombs
- Netlondon.com:Does a wartime logbook solve the mystery of Glenn Miller disappearance?
- New York Times: R.A.F. Bombs May Have Downed Glenn Miller Plane
- The Doe Network: Case File 496DMDEU
- Glenn Miller Museum: Glenn Miller's Last Stop
- Howard Roth Summary: Correspondence
- Skygaze.com: Glenn Miller
- The Scotsman: It Did Mean a Thing
- Chris Valenti's Glenn Miller files
- Fred Shaw's flight map
- Glenn Miller Conspiracy Finally Exposed!
- The Glenn Miller Mystery
- Straight Dope Science Advisory Board Report