Glenn Miller: Military's Music Man
By Samantha L. Quigley
The somber message aired the day before a program featuring the American Band of the Allied Expeditionary Force to be led by Major Glenn Miller. Though the show went on, Sergeant Jerry Gray led the band that day. The program concluded with notice of Miller’s disappearance, news that sent shockwaves across the nation.
Alton Glenn Miller was born March 1, 1904, in Clarinda, Iowa, to Lewis Elmer and Mattie Lou Miller. He graduated from Fort Morgan (Colorado) High School in 1921. While an accomplished football player, his sports career didn’t stand a chance. “Dance band music,” all the rage then, seized his imagination and directed his future.
It shouldn’t have come as a tremendous surprise to his parents. He’d played trombone from a young age, practicing so much his mother was quoted as saying, “It got to where Pop and I used to wonder if he’d ever amount to anything.”
They shouldn’t have worried. His first break came in 1926. Two years later he married his college sweetheart, Helen Burger, moved to New York where he worked for the Dorsey Brothers, organized a band for Ray Noble and studied music theory and composition with Joseph Schillinger.
Twelve years passed before Miller formed his namesake orchestra. Still touring today, the Glenn Miller Orchestra got its big break with a gig at the prestigious Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York. Soon it—and its distinctive sound—was a household name.
“A band ought to have a sound all of its own. It ought to have personality,” Miller said.
He’d found that sound—a clarinet in place of the lead trumpet—while arranging for Noble, who didn’t like the “personality.” The approach eventually made Miller’s orchestra one of the most popular bands of the era.
Shortly after United States’ entry into World War II, Miller left behind civilian success to join the war effort and was commissioned a captain in the Army Air Force in 1942.
As a military band leader, Miller entertained many a troop at home, often at USOs. He also ardently supported war bond sales, often playing for troops at rallies to sell the bonds.
He didn’t realize his goal of playing for troops overseas until mid-1944 when he and his 50-piece band arrived in England. They played 800 shows—some live, some recorded for later broadcast. He acknowledged how the sounds of home could impact troops so far from all they knew in a 1944 letter to his future biographer, George Simon. “We didn’t come here to set any fashions in music. We merely came to bring a much-needed touch of home to some lads who have been here a couple of years.”
On December 15, 1944, despite dicey weather, Miller—anxious to get to Paris and frustrated by delays—boarded a Norseman aircraft, bound for France.
The small plane disappeared over the English Channel on December 15. Officially, the wreckage was never recovered, though conspiracy theories, including a report that friendly fire downed the plane, abound.
At the request of his adopted daughter, Jonnie Miller, a headstone dedicated to Miller stands in Memorial Section H of Arlington National Cemetery. He is still officially listed as MIA.
–Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of On Patrol.
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