From a small British airfield, band leader flew into history


Bedford, Cambridgeshire -- Fifty years ago today, Maj. Glenn Miller, the nonpareil big band leader of World War II, took off in a light plane from an RAF airfield near here and vanished into a cold, gray, rainy sky.

He was never seen again. Bound for Paris, his journey ended in immortality.

Lost in the confusion of war, he was not reported missing until three days later when his Army Air Force Band reached France. His plane was never found. His disappearance became a mystery surrounded by legend.

He remains an MIA of World War II. At the Cambridge American Cemetery about 10 miles from here, his name is cut into the stone of the Tablets of the Missing: "Miller, Alton G., Major," just above a sergeant from Maryland named Arthur J. Miller.

Alton Glenn Miller and his Army Air Force band played the theme music of World War II. He and his band and their music symbolize the war generation like nothing else.

For the men and women of the 1940s, just recalling the names of the songs evokes nostalgia and regret, pride and love, old hopes and lost youth:

"In the Mood," "String of Pearls," "Kalamazoo," "American Patrol," "Tuxedo Junction," "At Last," "Little Brown Jug," "Perfidia," "Moonlight Serenade" . . .

His was the music of first loves and last partings. It was the music of an older, cleaner, sweeter America, when the men were all heroes and the women all heroines.

Americans danced to the music of the Glenn Miller Orchestra when they heard the news of Pearl Harbor. They were dancing to his music on D-Day, on VE Day and on VJ Day. They still dance to the Miller sound, a big, fat, sweet and sentimental music that swings.

In Britain, Glenn Miller and his band are equally, probably more, ,, revered. The Miller sound was a revelation for bandleaders, musicians, dancers and listeners when his AAF Band played on the BBC in 1944. And it has remained a mainstay of British dance bands ever since.

"There was that certain sound of his music, that people got married to, made love to, it was wonderful," says Connie Richards, who was a girl during World War II. She and her husband Gordon are representatives of the 8th Air Force Historical Society in the United Kingdom. She specializes in the Glenn Miller story.

Memorial concerts are scheduled this week at three of London's biggest concert centers, the Royal Albert Hall, the Barbican and tonight at the Queen Elizabeth Hall of the South Bank Center.

At the Corn Exchange here in Bedford, where Glenn Miller's Air Force Band played its first radio concert in Britain, the BBC's Radio Two Big Band today salutes the grand master with a memorial concert. It's been sold out for weeks.

They'll plant a scarlet oak at the old airfield from where Glenn Miller took off. They'll say a memorial prayer about the time he disappeared into the failing light of a December afternoon.

Connie Richards was 12 when the Glenn Miller band arrived in Bedford.

"I was determined I was going to get into this dance," she recalls. "I had no idea who Glenn Miller was. He was an American dance band leader in my little village and I was going to his dance."

She put on a grown-up dress, secondhand high heels and Tangee lipstick. The American boyfriend of an older girl sneaked her into the dance.

"Everybody was there," she says. "The place was absolutely heaving" with men and women in uniform.

"And in the interval my friend's boyfriend took me up and introduced me to Glenn Miller," she says. "And I shook hands with Glenn Miller.

"But of course at that time it didn't mean anything. He was just somebody who stepped off the movie screen -- in this wonderful uniform that all the girls ran after in the wartime. They were super. Pinks and greens they called them."

Miller memorabilia abounds in and around Bedford. The band was stationed here from June to December 1944, when it went to France and found its leader missing.

The band practiced in and broadcast for the BBC from a place called Co-Partners Hall, which is now a storeroom for the Charles Wells brewery. It played for dozens of broadcasts from Corn Exchange Hall, where the British movie star David Niven was sometimes the announcer, and the American actor Broderick Crawford was a kind of big band roadie.

Some 30,000 Americans were stationed at seven 8th Air Force bases within nine miles of Bedford, mostly attached to B-17 Flying Fortress groups and their support units. Throughout Britain, 350,000 people were assigned to the 8th Air Force.

"One morning you woke up and there are 3,500 GIs in a village [of 125], all wanting this, that and the other thing," Mrs. Richards remembers.

Every day the 8th Air Force sent hundreds of bombers on raids over Germany. On the day Major Miller was lost, 396 Flying Fortresses and 296 fighter escorts flew from bases near Bedford, according to Geoffrey Butcher's "Next to a Letter from Home," the definitive book on Glenn Miller in Britain.

The Glenn Miller band played three and four shows a day for the men and women at bases across Britain. By the end of the war it had racked up 956 performances in England and Europe, Mr. Butcher has calculated.

The Twinwood Farm airfield from which Glenn Miller's plane took off is now a farm growing wheat and oats and rape (a fodder plant). The control tower still stands, derelict and windowless, the old steel steps broken and twisted like fragments of a bad dream.

Mrs. Richards believes, like most people, that Glenn Miller's plane iced up after it took off from Twinwood and went down in the English Channel.

"Glenn was standing by the middle window up there looking out," Mrs. Richards says. "It was a terrible, terrible day, foggy and frosty and icy. My friend was a WAAF on flight control and she was telling Glenn Miller not to go because the weather was so bad."

But he went. Many accounts say he asked the pilot, Flight Officer John R. S. Morgan, "Where are the parachutes?"

His fellow passenger, a blustery colonel named Norman F. Baessell, replied "What the hell, Miller, do you want to live forever?"

Where the runway once was, a field of December stubble stretches away toward the horizon. A fresh wind blows in from the west and people who listen hard enough can hear echoes of the music of their youth 50 years ago.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad