Michael P. Zirpolo’s Review of “Glenn Miller Declassified” by Dennis M. Spragg.
The definitive story of how swing era bandleader Glenn Miller was lost on a flight from England to France on December 15, 1944 during his military service has finally been told. This story, and more broadly, the story of Miller’s World War II service in the U.S. Army Air Force, including a complete analysis of the facts surrounding his death, are to be found in “Glenn Miller Declassified,” by Dennis M. Spragg. (Potomac Books (2017), 386 pages.)
The author is to be commended for undertaking and pursuing to completion exhaustive, scrupulous, and critically tested research to support the statements and conclusions contained in his book. This is a scholarly work that will correct a historical record that has all too often been strewn with and distorted by unverified anecdotes and oral “histories.” As the senior consultant of the Glenn Miller Archive and the American Music Research Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder, he was in a most advantageous position to have complete access to the Glenn Miller family archives. This enabled him to find many original documents, and to obtain and include in the book many never previously published clear, crisp photographs, with informative captions. The placement of these photos at the places in the narrative where they are relevant greatly enriches the ongoing story.
In addition, Mr. Spragg did extensive research in various military archives in both the United States and in England. Although this research was essential to investigating and establishing myriad facts, it led in some instances to a somewhat ponderous literary tone that resembles that found in military or police reports. Also, the use of abbreviations and acronyms throughout the book is extensive, and at times bewildering. In order to help the reader, a list of abbreviations is included at the beginning of the book. Having that list tabbed will help readers turn to it as needed, which will be frequently. Overall however, the book is well-written.
The conclusions ultimately reached by Mr. Spragg as to the basic facts surrounding Miller’s disappearance do not differ greatly from what was known and reported soon after Miller went missing: Miller, riding as a passenger in a small aircraft, went down into the English Channel. No trace of him, the airplane in which he was a passenger, or the other two persons on-board was ever found.
The mosaic of facts and personalities involved in this story, identified, established and fleshed-out by Mr. Spragg’s research, and then painstakingly assembled by him in the narrative, leads up to and strongly supports his conclusions. The cultures of the United States and British military, as well as that of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), are also investigated and explained. This provides essential context, and often explains why people behaved as they did. Although this story took place more than seventy years ago, it is clear that human motivations and actions have not changed since then. Politics and career-jockeying by those around Miller with whom he often had to interact with were rife then, and they sometimes ensnared and frustrated the take-charge Miller, whose great success in his own career as an entertainer was already assured.
Miller himself is the central character of the story. In civilian life, he had been a good trombone player and arranger, a great organizer, and ultimately a spectacularly successful bandleader in the years 1939-1942. His eventual success as a bandleader rested as much on his skill as a radio personality as it did on his skill as a musician. His band’s 33 month run on CBS’s high-level radio program sponsored by Chesterfield Cigarettes was the bedrock on which he built ever-greater successes as a recording artist, movie star, and top-drawing in-person attraction. Miller’s savvy as a radio personality, and in a very real sense as a radio producer, were the assets the U.S. Army Air Force (AAF) wanted when Miller was first commissioned as a Captain in the fall of 1942. Although Miller’s role for the AAF evolved substantially in the twenty-six months he served in the military, essentially his job was to assist in creating an elite radio production unit, and to produce musical content to be presented by him on radio. (Nevertheless, he and his musicians also made many personal appearances before audiences in both the U.S. and England.) He was given carte blanche authority to do this, which he did with great success first in the U.S. (from early 1943 to June of 1944), then in England (from June until December of 1944). Miller’s next and possibly final destination as a base of operations for his radio production unit and musicians was to have been Paris.
The historical record both inside and outside the covers of Mr. Spragg’s book is replete with evidence that Miller was an intelligent man who was an inspiring leader, especially of musicians. There is also much historical evidence that Miller was a strict disciplinarian in both his own personal life and in his professional life. He completely understood that for a big band to operate successfully, there had to be organization including a chain of command. The people in that organization had to have well-understood roles, and everyone had to carry out their roles. All of this translated directly into Miller’s military life, except that in the military, it is essential for the success of any enterprise that people down the chain of command follow orders. Yet in the end, Miller’s own brief and surprising deviation from military discipline (among several other concurrent factors that resulted in in the crash of the aircraft he was in), proved fatal.
In essence, Miller, worried about the myriad details involved in moving his entire operation from England to Paris, was to go ahead of his musicians to the French capital in mid-December 1944 to do the last-minute advance work he wanted to be done before the radio production unit and musicians themselves arrived. (This challenging process was compounded by problems created by his junior officer Don Haynes, who had been Miller’s personal manager and friend in civilian life.) In order to secure his transportation to Paris, Miller obtained appropriate and approved travel orders that were effective on December 12. As a VIP, Miller was forbidden to travel casually. Unfortunately, bad weather settled over the part of England where Miller was to have departed from then, and for the next three days. Each day, Miller’s scheduled flight was cancelled.
Growing restless, Miller became aware of another flight from England to Paris, one on a small military plane that was presumably under the authority of Colonel Norman F. Baessell. Baessell arranged for a flight which would carry himself, pilot John R.S. Morgan, a twenty-two year old Scot, and Miller. What Miller evidently did not know was that Baessell, who was a careless and overconfident man, but who nevertheless was an officer senior to Miller, did not have the authority to do that. Miller probably did know that flights of the kind he was anticipating with Baessell, were routinely made without incident when weather conditions were not bad. Consequently, Miller hitched a ride with Baessell without reporting his intentions up his chain of command. The itinerary for plane Miller was to ride on was not entered into the military air traffic system. Consequently, when he boarded the small plane on December 15, 1944 with Baessell and Morgan, Miller’s travel plans were unknown to his chain of command and to those in control of military aviation.
Even before Miller boarded the plane, it was obvious that weather conditions for a safe flight were hardly good: the temperature was in the mid 30s, and an icy rain was falling. Despite this, he wanted to get to Paris, and had already been delayed three days. It appears that the brusque and bumptious Baessell encouraged the young pilot Morgan to undertake the flight, and indeed to continue it when conditions in flight were becoming dire. Baessell’s seniority in age and rank clearly intimidated Morgan, who was a qualified and experienced pilot, and overcame his good judgment. Given the conditions Morgan confronted before he left England and headed out over the English Channel, he should have turned the plane around and landed it at the nearest English airstrip.
Instead, the flight continued out over the choppy, cold waters of the English Channel. Very soon, a constellation of weather-related factors rapidly compounded, resulting in the plane crashing into the Channel at high speed, demolishing the aircraft and killing its passengers.
The fact that Miller’s whereabouts were unknown to his chain of command on December 15, 1944, and that the flight he was on when he disappeared was unauthorized, together with the rapidly unfolding events on the Continent that were to become known as the Battle of the Bulge, caused a substantial delay in the military beginning and completing its investigation into what happened. Miller was not reported as missing until December 23, 1944. By the time the secret investigation of Miller’s disappearance was completed by the Air Force on January 24, 1945, and then quietly filed away, rumors and misinformation began to fill the information vacuum. These, unfortunately, became more lurid and farfetched over the following seventy-plus years. Mr. Spragg’s fine book has finally set the historical record straight.
When it became known that the plane Miller had taken was missing, a general up the chain of Miller’s command asked incredulously: “How the hell did we lose Glenn Miller?” The answer to that question is explained throughout Mr. Spragg’s book, and is summed up by the author: “His death was a pointless catastrophe.”
I recommend this book without reservation to anyone who has an interest in Glenn Miller.
Here is a prime example of the music produced by Glenn Miller’s AAF band.
“Jeep Jockey Jump”
Composed and arranged by Jerry Gray.
Recorded by Glenn Miller and the Army Air Forces Training Command Band on April 7, 1944.
Alton Glenn Miller, directing: James J. “Jack” Steele, William E. “Whitey” Thomas, Robert J. “Bobby” Nichols and Bernard “Bernie” Privin, trumpets; James R. “Jimmy” Priddy, John R. “Johnny” Halliburton, James F. Harwood and Lawrence “Larry” Hall (Drathschmidt), trombones; Henry “Hank” Freeman, Michael A.”Peanuts” Hucko, Frederick G.”Freddy” Guerra,alto saxophones; John M. “Jack” Ferrier and Vincent H. “Vince” Carbone, tenor saxophones; Charles T. “Chuck” Gentry, baritone saxophone; Melvin Epstein (Powell), piano; Carmen N. Mastandrea (Mastren), guitar; Herman “Trigger” Alpert, bass; Raymond F. “Ray” McKinley, drums; Generoso Graziano (Jerry Gray), arranger.
The story: In addition to the information contained in my review of Dennis Spragg’s book, I offer the following background for this recording: “The band’s main function as a part of the AAFTC Radio Production Unit No.2 (Unit No.1 was already on the air in California), was the weekly broadcast of its legendary public relations recruiting program “I Sustain the Wings”, aired every Saturday from New York City from July 17, 1943, until June 10, 1944–the last one was actually (broadcast) from Chicago…” (*) “Early in 1944, on top of their other work, the band received a new assignment. The Office of War Information (the civilian Government outlet for war news and propaganda), had been stepping up its harnessing of the American entertainment industry including dance and jazz bands to help project Allied war aims throughout the world. As part of this, the OWI sent recorded programs overseas for distribution to foreign radio stations through American embassies abroad. The overseas branch of OWI asked Captain Miller if the band could record some programs. Their first ‘Music From America’ session took place in new York on Friday March 10, when they recorded three 15-minute programs of music from their normal repertoire. Each program was introduced by the band’s theme, ‘I Sustain the Wings,” and each tune was separated by a short bridge from ‘The Army Air Corps Song,’ the AAF’s ‘official’ song. There were no announcements on the records to allow for spoken introductions in local language(s) by the stations using them. (**)
This recording was probably made in the NBC Vanderbilt Theater studio, 148 West 48th Street in Manhattan, which was demolished in 1954.
The music: Jerry Gray, who was Glenn Miller’s most successful arranger and composer of original swing tunes (like “PEnnsylvania 6-5000,” and “A String of Pearls”), had a wonderfully musical and swinging way with riffs. (Riffs are repeated musical phrases that act as musical/rhythmic propellers in a swing arrangement.) Gray knew just how much a given riff could be played to achieve its musical effect, without inducing boredom due to excessive repetition. In addition, he was a fast worker, very creative in what he wrote, and easy to work with. In short, he was a bandleader’s dream arranger. Gray learned a good bit about how to make a band swing in his years as Artie Shaw’s chief arranger (1937-1939). After Shaw left his band at the end of 1939, Glenn Miller immediately called Gray and asked him to work with his then fast-rising band. Before long, Gray was turning out a succession of arrangements for many of Miller’s greatest hits. Gray was with Miller during his civilian band’s most successful years (1940-1942). When Miller broke up his band in the fall of 1942 to join the Army Air Force and create an elite musical organization, he lost no time in getting Jerry Gray into his organization. Their creative partnership continued to flourish.
Here we present the irrepressibly swinging “Jeep Jockey Jump,” one of Gray’s riff based compositions written especially for the highly polished and powerful Miller AAF band. The arrangement starts with the bright saxophones playing the catchy musical fragment containing octave jumps that suggests a World War II vintage jeep bouncing along on a bumpy road. The straight-muted brass egg the saxes along for the opening 16 bars of the first chorus, and then play a robust bridge. First alto saxophonist Hank Freeman plays a tasty 16-bar solo as the second chorus begins. The second bridge is taken by the open trombones, with fiery open trumpet bursts lifting the excitement.Tenor saxophonist Vince Carbone (Tommy Dorsey’s manager in the 1950s), has the next solo, and then the entire band blasts out the riffs that build intensity. Note Ray McKinley’s excellent drumming in this sequence. The brilliant-toned trumpet solo is by Bobby Nichols.The saxes then riff again, this time backed by the brass players creating an oo-ah effect by flexing their cupped hands in front of the bells of their instruments, a deft arranging touch. The band then quiets down for the conclusion to the piece, but with a bright, powerful blast by everyone at the very end.
The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.