Dear Straight Dope:
For many years now my mother and I have had a running argument about the facts surrounding the death of bandmaster Glenn Miller. Miller, who was famous for the song "A String of Pearls" among others, was in the U.S. Army Air Force and was supposed to have died in a plane crash. But there seems to be a lot of evidence that Miller may have died in a bar fight in a French brothel. All of the people who surrounded Miller in his last days remained tight-lipped about Miller's death. Actor David Niven was one of Miller's best friends and his sole job job in the military was setting up the Miller band's appearances. But Niven never even mentioned Miller in his autobiography The Moon's a Balloon. Mom says Miller crashed — I say there is something funny going on. What gives?
SDStaff John Corrado replies:
On the afternoon of December 15th, 1944, Maj. Glenn Miller boarded an RAF Norseman C-64 aircraft. The plane left an RAF base in England to take Miller to Paris, where he would join up with the rest of his band for a show. The plane never arrived.
The official story was that foggy weather led to a crash over the Channel. But rumors ran rampant among the American troops still in Britain that Miller had been accidentally shot by an MP in Paris, or that a German assassination squad had shot down Miller’s plane. The Army (said the rumors) had covered up the incident in order to preserve morale. Miller was one of the premiere performers of the time, and his death — because the Army had failed to protect him or because a jumpy MP had screwed up — had to be portrayed as an accident.
A more likely explanation emerged later. Fred Shaw was a navigator with the 149th Squadron based in Norfolk. According to his logbook, on December 15th his squadron was sent to make a bombing run over Seigen, Germany. However, once the planes reached Brussels, they were told to abandon the run because of bad weather. Returning home, they went to the “southern jettisoning area” 50 miles south of Beachy Head on the Channel to get rid of their bombs. Trying to land a plane with a full bomb load was suicidal — not only did the extra weight of the bombs make landing dangerous, a mistake in landing would easily turn into a catastrophe were the bombs to detonate. So the Allies had designated large areas of sea where air and ship traffic was forbidden and bombers could safely unload cargo that hadn’t been “sent with a kiss” to the Germans.
Just after unloading the bombs, the bombardier called out that there was a plane below them. Shaw looked out the window and saw a Norseman flying south at 1500 feet. Bombs were going off all around it. Just before it disappeared from Shaw’s line of vision, it went into a tailspin. Seconds later the rear gunner called out that “there’s a kite just gone in down under.” Shaw’s aircraft then returned to base. Since they had never crossed into enemy territory, the crew never reported the plane they had seen go down over the Channel.
In 1985, the British Ministry of Defense, citing Shaw’s logbook, claimed that the best explanation for Miller’s disappearance was that his plane had gotten lost in bad weather and wandered into the jettison area just as a squadron was dropping its bombs. The small plane was buffeted by concussion waves from the explosions, and the pilot couldn’t keep control.
But in 1997, German journalist Udo Ulfkotte came up with another explanation. According to the German tabloid Bild, Ulfkotte had been researching American and German intelligence efforts during the war for a book on German intelligence agencies. Ulfkotte claimed that while going over documents he had obtained from the American government under the Freedom of Information Act, he found evidence that Miller had actually arrived safely in Paris on the 14th, but had a heart attack on the 15th while consorting with a French prostitute, and that the American military had covered up the episode.
A shocking revelation if true. But Ulfkotte later claimed he’d been misquoted. He’d never actually found U.S. documents showing that Miller had died in a whorehouse, he said; rather, he’d been told this story by German intelligence specialists in an off-the-record conversation. So no papers, no proof, just a few old spies spinning stories.
The Bild story also claimed that British diver Clive Ward found the remains of Miller’s Norseman plane off the coast of France in 1985, but that there was no damage and no signs of human remains. Which invites a few questions: if Miller’s death had been faked, and the military had placed the plane there in order to bolster its story about the “real” cause of Miller’s death, then why didn’t they bother making it look like a wreck? And why leave it sitting there for forty years rather than “find” it after the “crash”? And since Ward stated that there was no registration number on the craft he found, how did he know it was Miller’s plane?
Then there’s the matter of Flight Officer John Morgan and Lt. Col. Norman F. Baessell, who allegedly accompanied Miller on his last flight. What happened to them? Were they just servicemen who had died in the same timeframe and the military was lucky that one of them was a pilot?
Ulfkotte’s tale, if true, would involve a massive conspiracy by a military that was both stunningly incompetent and stunningly lucky. They found a pilot whose death hadn’t been noted by others; they deposited a plane in the English Channel to act as “evidence” without thinking to damage it or place dead bodies (such as poor F/O John Morgan) in it, but that didn’t matter because it wasn’t found for another forty years; they managed to hush up absolutely everyone involved, from Miller’s manager (who was bumped off the fateful flight so that Miller could take it) to Miller’s band (if Miller had been in Paris, they would have known about it) to everyone who had seen Miller when he left the base (there’s at least one eyewitness who states that Miller left on the flight that crashed) to everyone in the brothel where Miller died to every MP involved in removing his body and guarding the scene. Then, having hushed everyone up, they either wrote it all down for later generations to discover, or at the very least leaked it to some German intelligence agents. Somehow, I doubt it.
Special thanks to SDSTAFF Coldfire for finding cites and providing German-to-English translation on the reports on Ulfkotte; also, thanks to my friend John Kilgallon for his expertise on World War II aeronautics.
SDStaff John Corrado, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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