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Boy, the way Glenn Miller played

“Pennsylvania 6-5000!” Sometimes, when the days are gray and dreary, we wander around Gale-ville shouting this randomly. Other times we contemplate changing our contact phone number to 736-5000. And still others we swing dance through the hallways with our favorite dance partner, Gale Virtual Reference Library (Student Resource Center stepped on our toes one too many times).

What we mean to say is we like Glenn Miller. Not just because he arranged and composed some killer tunes (did you know he was the first to record “At Last,” the classic Etta James song?), but also because he volunteered for duty in World War II and may have even been a spy.

After a failed effort to get into the Naval Reserve, in the fall of 1942 Miller was accepted into the Army Air Force, with the mission of setting up an entirely new kind of military band. Gone were the stiff, staid sounds of Sousa marches and typical military music. According to one biographer, Miller’s new version of the military band was “the loosest, most swinging marching band we’d ever heard.” Their most famous arrangement was a military-style “St. Louis Blues.” Despite the skepticism of some conservative high-ranking officers, this band became even more renowned than the earlier Miller orchestra, playing for many war bond fundraisers and later for Allied troops all over the European war front. General George Marshall began to worry that the official Army band was being overshadowed, but Miller refused to get involved with that band or to change his style. In 1944, Miller recorded a session meant for the Nazis, in an attempt to get them to lay down their arms. On the recording, Miller denounced Nazi “gangsterism” and praised the ethnic diversity of America (an ironic footnote: the Miller band itself had no African-American players because of the segregation that existed in the armed forces during World War II). Thirty-four songs were recorded for this series, including one in German by Johnny Desmond. In England, the band also recorded a series of programs for the Allied Expeditionary Force. The band had a close call when their English residence was buzz-bombed by the Nazis. Luckily, they were away practicing at the time.

Although always nervous about flying, Miller (by now promoted to major) agreed in late 1944 to fly to France with pilot F.O. Morgan and Colonel Norman F. Baesell in a single-engine, nine-passenger C-64 plane, to make advance arrangements for the band’s performance for wounded soldiers. After several false starts because of terrible weather, the plane, which had no de-icing equipment, took off to cross the English Channel on December 14, leaving the band to follow later. When the band arrived in three days, Miller was reported missing, presumed dead. His wife continued to hold out hope, but he never reappeared. Speculation raged over his fate. Some insisted he had been captured by Nazis, others that he had survived a crash and lost his memory. The most likely scenario, reported by a former Royal Air Force bomber pilot who was over the English Channel on the day of Miller’s disappearance, was that the bandleader’s plane was hit by “friendly fire” from a British plane dumping unused bombs.

We’ll be commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Week (April 19-26) in BioRC with a spotlight on Primo Levi. It’s important to remember those who served as well as those who suffered.

Source: “Glenn Miller.” American Decades. Gale Research, 1998.

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Posted on: April 14, 2009, 10:12 am Category: Factoids Tagged with: , , , ,

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