Was Glenn Miller's airplane hit by friendly fire, did they hit bad weather, or did the bandleader meet his demise in a Parisian bordello?

By Jordan Runtagh
January 18, 2019 05:45 PM
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Glenn Miller.
| Credit: Felix Man/Getty

Glenn Miller is second to Amelia Earhart as the most famous missing person in aviation history. His fame in life as the hit-making big band leader behind swing classics like “In the Mood” is matched by the mysterious nature of his disappearance more than 74 years ago during a wartime flight from England to Paris. No one is sure why the UC-64A Norseman carrying Miller, pilot John Morgan and Lt. Col. Norman F. Baessell plunged into the English Channel on the afternoon of Dec. 15, 1944, but numerous theories have taken root over the decades.

The official explanation is the most obvious: Miller and the crew fell victim to bad weather. Flights from Twinwood Farm, the British airfield where Miller departed, had been grounded for several days prior due to fog, and the cloud ceiling had fallen to 1,500 feet on the day in question. Conditions in Paris were just as poor, with local French air controllers formally denying Morgan’s request to undertake the flight. But according to a 2014 episode of History Detectives, commanding officer Baessell ordered Morgan to make the trip anyway so that Miller could meet up with the rest of his band and perform a concert for the troops.

The haze was bad enough to prompt the notoriously plane-phobic Miller to quip, “Where the hell are the parachutes?” Baessell, according to legend, replied, “What’s a matter with you Miller, do you want to live forever?”

Morgan was reportedly not certified to fly using instruments alone, and it’s likely that he lost his bearings and succumbed to spatial disorientation — a common problem that remains one of the leading causes of pilot death. Once this occurs, simulator testing has revealed that pilots have an average of just 178 seconds to correct their course before a crash is imminent.

In addition to low visibility, military planes of the era — including the UC-64A Norseman — were known to have defective engine carburetors. This, mixed with wings that became iced over in the sub-freezing temperatures, likely doomed the aircraft.

“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,” researcher Dennis Spragg explains on History Detectives. “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.”

However, the official version of events was cast into doubt by a British airman named Fred Shaw, who claimed that Miller’s plane was downed by friendly fire. Shaw was part of a fleet of 138 British Lancaster planes en route to Germany that day for a planned bombing raid, but their mission was aborted due to poor weather. Landing an aircraft laden with live explosives was deemed prohibitively risky, so the flights were ordered to a 10-mile circle of the English channel to safely jettison their collective 100,000-bomb payload.

“I’d never seen bombs exploding from a plane before,” Shaw recalled. “I put my head in a little observation blister where I could look vertically down. There, sure enough, 4000 lb. cookies were exploding and I could see the blast waves were radiating outward. As I was watching, the bomb aimer said, ‘There is a kite down there,’ and I looked down and saw a small tiny high wing monoplane… I saw him flip over to port. He looked like he was going into a spin, he dived in and splash. Then he disappeared under the wing.”

After viewing a Glenn Miller biopic a decade later, Shaw felt compelled to check his log book to see if the date of the bomb dump corresponded to the day Miller went missing. It did — down to the hour. Shaw’s flight captain Victor Gregory, also recalled that Shaw and two others on the flight had reported a downed plane over the intercom.

A logbook belonging to RAF flight engineer Derek Thurman, which was put up for auction in 2000, contained similar notes of an unexpected plane in the area. “Nobody anticipated there being an aircraft there at all,” Thurman told the BBC. “There was a shout that there was someone there. The navigator shot out of his seat to look and saw it whip by, then the rear gunner said, ‘It’s gone in, flipped over and gone in.'” Though the portion of the Channel, known as the South Jettison Zone, was deemed a no-fly zone for unauthorized flights, Thurman theorized that the pilot had become lost in the same fog that foiled their German bombing raid. “Whether it was brought down by the blast from a bomb or was hit is anyone’s guess.”

Yet this theory is contested by Roy Brown, another veteran of the same bombing raid, who says that it would have been impossible for Shaw or anyone else to have witnessed the crash of a light aircraft like the Norseman. “Over 100 aircraft were involved and an extremely dicey action in 9/10’s cloud when we could hardly see our own wing-tips!” Brown wrote in a 2008 op-ed in the U.K. Telegraph. “Considering that we were jettisoning from an altitude of 3,000 feet with almost nil visibility, in my opinion it’s a ridiculous claim from any observer.”

Investigator Dennis Spragg, who also wrote the book Glenn Miller Declassified, further rejected the friendly fire theory. “The lowest altitude any Lancaster reported for a jettison was 5,000 feet,” he told the Guardian in 2017. “The recommended jettison altitude was 6,000 feet. One mile is 5,280 feet. A Norseman flying almost one mile below would have looked like an indistinct flyspeck.”

Glenn Miller.

Most controversially, there are some who believe Miller wasn’t on that fateful flight at all. German journalist and conspiracy theorist Udo Ulfkotte claimed in 1997 that he uncovered secret government documents that indicated Miller died not in a plane crash but in a brothel after arriving in Paris. In an interview with the German tabloid Bild (and later picked up by UPI) he explained that he came across his alleged discovery while doing research for a book on the Bundesnachrichtendienst (or BDN, the German intelligence agency). According to Ulfkotte, Miller died of a heart attack in the arms of a prostitute, but the manner of his death was kept secret in order to preserve both his reputation and the morale of Allied troops.

However, in the aftermath of the initial report, Ulfkotte walked back his claims, saying that he had been misquoted in the Bild story. Instead, he said that he never possessed documents proving his version of Miller’s death, but had received the information from German intelligence specialists during an off the record conversation. Though it’s interesting to note that Miller was not reported missing for nine days after the Norseman crashed, there is no credible evidence to disprove that Miller went down with his flight.

Don Haynes, Miller’s military aide during the period, strongly denied Ulfkotte’s tale when asked about it in 1997, dismissing it as “perverted” and a “16th-hand” rumor. “I guess it’s much more exciting to hear that he had a heart attack while he was [having sex] than that he died in a plane crash,” he told the New York Daily News.

Perhaps even stranger, Miller’s own brother (and fellow musician) Herb reportedly claimed in 1985 that he died in a different kind of bed — a hospital bed. “My own theory for years was that he never even left England, but died somewhere of cancer,” Herb allegedly told the Weekly World News. “I have never believed in the story that my brother died in a plane crash.” The accident, he claimed, was concocted to provide the swing star with a hero’s death, rather than one “in a lousy bed.”

In Herb’s version of events, Miller — a heavy smoker — allegedly wrote to him in the summer of 1944 complaining of poor health. “I am totally emaciated, although I am eating enough,” he allegedly said. “I have trouble breathing. I think I am very ill.” There is circumstantial evidence that Miller was indeed unwell during this period. Don Haynes later admitted that Miller had lost a great deal of weight, and his British radio director recalls him saying, “You know, George, I have an awful feeling you guys are going to go home without me …” Herb died in 1987 before he could clear up some holes in his story.

The decades have given rise to numerous other theories that push the limits of believability. Some have claimed that Miller faked his death and fled to South America, while others believed that he was found guilty of espionage and assassinated by Germans — or even by gangsters. But in truth, the most likely explanation is that he was killed in an accidental plane crash. “You have a perfect storm of human error, mechanical failure and weather,” Dennis Spragg concluded on History Detectives. “Not independent of one another — all three.”