How Glenn Miller got the world ‘In the Mood’ – and then disappeared forever during WWII

Glenn Miller and a plane

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Glenn Miller (and his orchestra) was one of the best-selling recording acts between 1939 to 1943.

Truly, it’s almost impossible to swing a… trombone… without hitting one of Miller’s classic hits — “Moonlight Serenade,” “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “(I’ve Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo,” “Little Brown Jug” — and perhaps his most well-known and loved, “In the Mood.”

At the height of his musical success, in 1942, Miller felt it was his duty to help with the US effort in WWII. Too old to be drafted, at the age of 38, he was accepted into the Army and went on to create, in his words, “a modernized Army band.”

Glenn Miller - In the Mood

He eventually went on to give over 800 performances in England by the summer of 1944, and even went so far as to make recordings in German to be used as anti-Nazi propaganda.

Sadly, while not a combatant, Miller would be claimed by his desire to serve his country.

On December 15, 1944, Miller departed on a US Army Air Force UC-64 plane, to fly from the UK to Paris to play for soldiers there. The plane disappeared over the English Channel, and no trace of the plane, crew, or Miller was ever found.

Alton Glenn Miller was gone at the peak of his musical genius, at only 40 years of age.

While Miller himself disappeared, his music has done rather the opposite — reaching and speaking to generations well beyond his death, more than 70 years later. – AJW

Glenn Miller missing on air trip to Paris (1944)

News story from the New York Daily News (NYC) – December 25, 1944

Major Glenn Miller, director of the US Air Force band and a former orchestra leader, is missing on a flight from England to Paris, it was announced today.

Miller, one of the outstanding orchestra leaders of the United States, left England on December 15 as a passenger aboard a plane. No trace of the plane has been found since.

His Air Force band had been playing in Paris. No members of the band were with him on the plane.

Glenn Miller missing on air trip to Paris (1944)

Major Miller’s wife lives at Tenafly, New Jersey, with a three-month-old adopted daughter and a two-year-old-adopted son. 

The band leader, famed as a trombonist, was sworn into the Army as a captain on Sept. 10, 1942, and had been in England about a year. He was head of the “American Flying Band of the Supreme Allied Command.”

In civilian life, Miller was the biggest money-maker in the dance band business, grossing some $1,500,000 a year.

In a letter he wrote to his wife on December 14, he said he planned to leave for France the next day — the day he was reported missing, according to the War Department notification received by Mrs. Miller.

Glenn Miller wife and son
Glenn Miller with his wife and baby son

Glenn Miller: In the Mood

A performance from Sun Valley Serenade (1941)

YouTube video

A memorial for Glenn Miller (1945)

The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) June 5, 1945

New York, June 5 — The Paramount Theater, where Glenn Miller marked his greatest success when he was the most idolized bandleader among America’s many “name” orchestras, will jump with the most torrid music available in Manhattan today, as swing fans mark “Glenn Miller Day,” Part of the entertainment world’s portion of the Seventh War Loan.

It will not be a sad memorial. Nothing like it. The fans who will beat their palms and jounce their bobby socks about the Paramount’s Premises still are full of hope that their trombone-playing idol, missing since last December, will yet turn up.

Major Glenn Miller has been missing since he boarded a plane headed from England to France. No word has been announced since. But the youngsters, in their admiring exuberance, and his wife in her faith in his ultimate return, have their spirit far from submerged as they wait.

Glenn Miller in military uniform

Top swing bandleader

Glenn Miller’s orchestra and his orchestrating ideas changed an entire style of hot jazz history. He turned many of his followers from mere surface enthusiasm for orgiastic noise to an understanding of orchestral voicings, tonal balance and restrained ensemble style in a business which until Miller happened along, had seemed to pay off best to the person with the biggest lungs.

Miller was the first, at least he is so credited, to use full saxophone choirs of five and six instrumentalists playing behind the lead notes of a clarinet in all arrangements. It added brilliance and color which had been lacking in the musical arrangements of almost every other top bandleader tip to that point.

His ideas rapidly were imitated, occasionally aped note for note. They made Major Miller the top swing bandleader in the world for five years prior to entering the U.S. Army Air Forces as a captain.

ALSO SEE: The Lindy Hop & Jitterbug: See the hep swing dances from 1938-1945

He was the top recording orchestra, the highest-paid radio bandleader, and the most sought-after by Hollywood, then discovering, for the first time, that a swing band could make a movie profitable almost without other aid.

Major Miller entered the Army at a point in his career when his income was greatest. He is married with two children, and selective service then was passing over such eases.

He chose, however, to join up in the position he fitted best. He organized, rehearsed, and sent out dozens of orchestras to entertain their fellow soldiers. He worked harder than he ever had as a civilian, and even then he had been known as a severe musical disciplinarian.

After training so many other bands, he took one overseas himself, undoubtedly the best he had ever lead.

Born in Clarinda, Iowa, the trombonist-bandleader later lived in North Platte. Neb.. and in Grant City. Mo., where, as a butcher’s helper, he first pumped a trombone. The butcher had an old battered horn which intrigued Glenn with such impact that he never abandoned the instrument subsequently to make him so wealthy and famous.

Later he moved in succession to Fort Morgan, Colorado, Laramie, Wyoming, where he had his first paid band job to the University of Colorado, where he met Helen Dorothy Burger, the girl he was to marry on October 26, 1931.

Glenn Miller in the 1940s

Discs still popular

From 1926 on, Glenn Miller was considered a fine instrumentalist, making records with some of the finest ”hot” musicians of America.

His talents as an arranger became famous in the trade, and when Ray Noble came over from England in 1935, Glenn was hired as the organizing genius behind what was considered a “dream band.” He formed his own orchestra in 1937.

Although he has not recorded anything since he entered service. Miller’s discs still are extremely popular. His “Chattanooga Choo Choo” alone has sold well over a million records. RCA-Victor gave Glenn a solid gold recording or the jump tune when it passed the million mark.

Theaters all over the nation will join in honoring this modest, brilliant young musician whose trombone led many a youngster into a fuller realization that music is not merely noise and rhythm.

And they’ll still be hoping, along with his wife and youngsters, that he’ll turn up one of these days to take over again as their number one orchestra leader.

People share their memories of Glenn Miller and his orchestra (1975)

From the Santa Maria Times (California) October 3, 1975

The Around Town column thought it would be interesting to hear local memories of the great band leader… A letter writing contest was held… some of them are reprinted here so that you may share in the memories.

Penny Parker Gossett is a retired professional musician who played in many, many clubs in California with Harry Parker. Their stage farewell was in the Piano Bar, in Nipomo, which they operated until his death.

Penny, who fell in love with Nipomo, and retired there, writes about the music and the man — Glenn Miller: “Glenn Miller band? Yes! Yes!

“I remember in the early 1940s, every jukebox played his records, and they had to be replaced at regular intervals because they were so worn, and they still were the most popular going.

“My late musician husband, Charlie Parker, owned a bar in Taft. It was a popular meeting place for the men and women from Gardner Field, the Air Force base 10 miles from Taft.

“Soon after Glenn Miller was lost ‘in the wild blue yonder,’ a soldier came into the bar and gave Charlie [a] photo. He said it was one of the last pictures ever taken of Glenn Miller.

“Charlie and I played clubs from San Jose, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Salinas, Pismo to Santa Maria. Seldom did a night pass without someone requesting a Glenn Miller tune, such as In The Mood, A String of Pearls. etc.

“Yes! I remember Glenn Miller!”

Vintage Glenn Miller and His Orchestra poster

Robert Sheidow of Tallyho Road is another diehard Miller fan. He writes, “Yes, I too remember the Glenn Miller Band very well. The old pieces are still favorites in my music collection. Before the ‘big war,’ I listened to the Miller band broadcast from places like Meadowbrook, Glen Island Casino. etc.

“As an aviation cadet, I danced and listened to the Miller band at Maxwell Field, Alabama. Miller was a major then. Later, I was on a C-47 (gooney bird) flying from France to England. The weather was so bad, it forced us to fly just above the water. When we arrived in England, I learned that Miller was lost going the other way to meet his band in Paris.

“Two years later, while riding a ferry boat from New Rochelle, NY, I heard the old familiar music as we passed the Glen Island Casino. Tex Beneke was then the head band leader.”

F. George Shumaker of Drake Drive has lots of memories about Glenn Miller and his music. He writes: “What did Glenn Miller mean to me? Well. I guess you could say that he set a way and a style of life.

“In ’42 the guns went bang, the cymbals clanged and the horns they blazed away… One day we wore saddle shoes. white sox and danced to the haunting sounds of I Got Rhythm. Blue Velvet and Pennsylvania 6-500 — vivid even today.

“Soon we were on our way to war. Parachute boots. O.D, sox, and now khaki was the dress. As we boarded the boat to get the Nazis, Miller was evident. The band played ‘Elmer’s Tune’ and ‘A String of Pearls.’

Normandie jump, Holland jump — the war passed quickly, and soon on furlough in Paris, I met Sgt. Ray McKinley — another sergeant but not just another drummer.

“This guy was the best, and with the smooth style of Glenn Miller’s band, we were finding how smooth French cognac was. An 18-year-old kid with a new trumpet in hand, I met the band.

“‘Sit in with the boys for two sets,’ Glenn said. And then it was over. I went back to the 501st and the war. Glenn Miller went, too.

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“Soon there was no more music in our ears and the guns were blazing away, but even so you could hear some GI whistle a tune and you knew Glenn Miller wasn’t dead — just gone.

“Today, years later, your feet get light and you and your wife dance like you did in 1942, to Glenn’s music. And then you hear Blue Velvet —smooth. Miller time and your still pretty wife looks 17 again…”

YouTube video

L. G. Egan of the Woodland St. Egans, writes: “You’ve been receiving so many interesting statements regarding Glenn Miller that I thought I’d pass along to you a particular incident that I remember.

“Prior to the early ’40s, Madison Square Garden was a yearly outing for many high schoolers, particularly for those of us who lived on Staten Island. Each Saturday in the fall there would be major college basketball games in the evenings in the Garden, and in the afternoon there would be high school games.

“Once a year our school — St. Peter’s High — would be invited to play an afternoon game. The student body, for the most part, would turn out for the day and– depending on the starting time of the game — many of us would go to New York City early in the morning and go to the famous Paramount Theatre (where all the major big bands played at one time or another).

“It was during the jitterbug era and famous for many of the younger set jitterbugging in the aisles of the Paramount. (Of course, I never did that.) However, I do recall at the end of one of the jam sessions going up-stage and asking for the bandleader’s autograph. He bent over from the height of the stage, took the paper, and wrote his name — GLENN MILLER.

“He was a leader of musicians and like all good leaders he was not too big to remember the little people … That’s how I remember Glenn Miller.”

Here’s how Georgette Russo of North Concepcion recalls it all: “I was a nurses’ aide at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital that December in 1942. I had purchased every one of the records Glenn Miller had made. Then I heard he was going to be at the Hollywood Palladium for one hour, midnight to one a.m. on this holiday weekend.

“I was lucky enough to be asked by one of the elevator operators to go with him that night. I shall never forget seeing, hearing and dancing to that wonderful band.

“Also in the audience that night were Harry James and Betty Grable, the Ritz Brothers, Martha Raye and many, many more — so many I can’t recall all the names. But I vividly remember seeing in service uniforms Ronald Reagan, Robert Young, and James Stewart… it was a magical and glamorous evening once-in-a-lifetime evening.

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Glenn Miller - Bandleader

A.W. Andrews, of East Newlove, has an unusual recollection of Glenn Miller: “During the early part of WW2, I was home in New Haven, Connecticut on recuperation leave from the 5th. Air Force in the Pacific.

“Glenn Miller was stationed with the Air Force Training Program at Yale University then, and held retreat in the New Haven Green every evening. The green consists of a six block park in the center of the city, with three churches, a few trees and a flag pole.

“On my first day home, retreat was about five pm, and I was in town having a few beers with friends when retreat started. Everyone stopped talking and moved outside to watch. There were office girls, fathers, mothers, sisters and many servicemen lined on the street listening to the most beautiful retreat I ever heard, and then the band marching off played Miller’s music.

“The traffic had stopped, buses pulled to the curve, policemen at attention in the intersection with tears running down their cheeks. Thousands of office workers streaming out of the buildings just stopped, partly from patriotism, and partly from the sound they knew so well.

“It was a very moving sight to see so many people touched by the pageantry of the ceremony and then break into smiles as the Air Force Band moved off. I’m sure Glenn Miller must have been very pleased to hear the applause from so many people, who for a short time, remembered a happier time and the many guys and gals who were not there.”

Glenn Miller in 1925

Meg Smith, the theatre personage, remembers Miller, and this is why: “Glenn Miller’s recording of ‘At Last’ figured prominently in my first marriage as it was the song that a lonely Air Cadet named ‘Woody’ Cole played on the counter jukebox of the drug store fountain where I worked on Vine Street in Hollywood in 1943.

“‘Woody’ was a very handsome, but terribly shy young man from Pennsylvania, and I was self-conscious, naive and a new arrival in Hollywood from a small town in Missouri working at my first job as a waitress for Thrifty Drugs.

“However, that drug store was a block from Hollywood and Vine, across the street from NBC Radio Studios, three blocks from CBS and most of the radio stars of that era: Red Skelton, Burns & Allen, Fibber McGee & Molly, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, etc frequented the drug store fountain, so it was a popular place for servicemen to gather.

“It was also located a few blocks from the Palladium, the popular “Big Band” showplace, so “Woody” and I were two very small frogs in the midst of the greatest entertainment pond in the world.

All the elements were there for romance and excitement, but my uniformed Lothario couldn’t bring himself to ask for a date — he just sat there playing that one song, ‘At Last,’ and drinking Coke after Coke until we closed for the night.

“However, he was waiting for me after I changed my uniform for street clothes, and he did muster up enough courage to ask if he could walk me home. It was the quietest walk home of my life. The only words he uttered for the 20 blocks to my house were one-word answers to my questions. He made Gary Cooper’s famous ‘Yup’ sound like the Gettysburg Address!

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“When we finally got to my front porch, I thanked him for seeing me home, and mumbled what I thought was a funny farewell ‘So long, at last!’ He failed to see the humor and I apologized and invited him in to hear my Glenn Miller collection.

“He stayed so late that my mother invited him to sleep on the couch so the whole house could get some rest.

“Being a teenager during that terrible war time was a fascinating experience. Strangely exhilarating on one hand, and darkly tragic on the other. The whole country seemed tenderly sentimental about all those young boys who were too young to die, and too angry to admit fear of the attackers of our nation.

“The music that we danced and sang was significant of the period — ‘Der Fuehrer’s Face,’ ‘Gloomy Sunday,’ ‘Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,’ ‘Comin’ In On a Wing and A Prayer’ made us laugh, cry, dance and sing with a terrible kind of urgency.

“But for the romantic youth of that period, nothing could compare with Glenn Miller’s smooth rendition of ‘Moonlight Cocktails,’ ‘In the Mood,’ ‘String of Pearls,’ ‘Sunrise Serenade,’ ‘Moonlight Serenade,’ and what was to become ‘our’ song — ‘At Last.'”

“When you’re a 22-year-old bashful son of a coal miner from Pennsylvania, far from home and training to drop bombs on an unknown enemy, wanting desperately to communicate your feelings to a girl, then Glenn Miller’s music was a life-saving bridge.

“And if you’re a nineteen-year-old girl from the midwest who dreams of marriage and children with a blond Adonis of the skyways, then you’ll fall in love with the band that plays the music that gives that young man the courage to propose after only four tongue-tied dates!

“Lieut. Woodrow Wilson Cole and I were married on Easter Sunday, 1943, and we would have had the organist play ‘At Last’ for our wedding march if we could have convinced the chaplain who performed the on-base ceremony. But we did play it on the jukebox in the tiny restaurant where we had our wedding dinner, accompanied by the gunnery sergeant and his wife who were our witnesses.

“We honeymooned for three days in a dusty little motel in Kingman, Arizona, and he then reported to the first of many bases for additional training as a bombardier in a B-26.

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“In the next six months, we were the victims of the time. I sat on luggage in the backs of buses and slept in the aisles of trains that sometimes were side-lined to make way for troop trains.

“I ate bologna and mustard sandwiches captured from train station counters that were crushed and mangled from being clawed after by frantic people who piled off trains that stopped at that station for only five minutes at a time.

“I walked and staggered under luggage, accepting rides from strangers to get to an air base, only to find he’d been transferred the day before to another base in another part of the country.

“When I finally caught up with my young husband in Casper, Wyoming, the strains of ‘At Last’ could have easily replaced the National Anthem in my songbook!”

YouTube video

Larry Catipay of West Morrison remembers Glenn Miller and has written us a letter about it all: “I remember Glenn Miller, a tall scholarly man with rimless glasses, who achieved such stature as a dance band leader he became a kind of shining symbol for a whole generation.

“When I heard the radio broadcast in Cebu, Philippines… The airwaves were full of the lovely strains of Moonlight Serenade, Sunrise Serenade, Moon Over Miami, Faithful Forever and many, many more. Glenn Miller’s music belongs to all ages.

“The U.S. Armed Forces radio said that day Glenn Miller was missing on a flight from England to Paris. No trace of his plane was found… as I understand it, the Glenn Miller band went on its schedule that afternoon, and there were many who wept at the sound of it, knowing that the man who shaped its greatness would not be around anymore.

“Now the youngsters who danced to his rhythms at the Glen Island Casino have aged almost four decades and, presumably, most of them have put childish things aside.

“But it is doubtful if they will ever renounce the special brand of music — the unique sound of Glenn Miller’s music… nor is it fanciful or sentimental to say that he died, as he most certainly had lived, for his music…”

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John Myers Sr.. Box 7, Nipomo, remembers Glenn Miller’s music very well. He writes: “As a young G.I. back in 1943, I was stationed in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on the boardwalk.

“Glenn Miller, who was a captain in the Air Force Special Services, was stationed with his band in Atlantic City at the same time. I took my basic training marching up the boardwalk and across town to Brigindine Field, where the sergeants did their best to wear us out, and then back to the hotel where the air force had us billeted.

“In the evening, we listened to the mellow, smooth band of Glenn Miller, which made us forget our aching and tired feet, and most of all our homesickness.”

And the winner is…

“The memories of Glenn Miller that I have will never be forgotten. You see, my story goes back quite some time ago, in fact as far back as the late Thirties or the beginning of the Forties when Glenn Miller was appearing at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia, Pa., at 11th and Market streets.

“I used to always go there every week to see the different stars who would be there. But this one afternoon, I took my daughter Marie with me. and as we were walking down the aisle, Glenn Miller and his band started to play that song called ‘Margie.’ My little girl yelled out, ‘Mommy, they’re playing your name!’

“Quite a few people heard her, and the first thing I knew, the house lights went on and people were applauding me. Glenn Miller stood there, and he gave us one of the most beautiful smiles that he had for anyone, and played it again. I was so thrilled.

“I always remember that, because it happened so many years ago, because now my daughter is 43, and we still hear his old songs once in a while on TV. But to me, he will always be special.

His music was so outstanding, like ‘String of Pearls,’ ‘Tuxedo Junction,’ and Tex Beneke sang ‘Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy.’ There were so many. His music each and every one could enjoy, young and old alike. His memories, his music, his smile, and his friendliness will never be forgotten.”

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Jimmy Stewart in The Glenn Miller Story (1953)

Vintage Glenn Miller Story movie with Jimmy Stewart - 1950s (2)

Vintage Glenn Miller Story movie with Jimmy Stewart - 1950s (1)


Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson for 'The Glenn Miller Story'
Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson for ‘The Glenn Miller Story’

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