Experts aim to finally solve plane war mystery of famed big band leader Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller was one of the most famous casualties of the second world war
Nearly 74 years after a plane carrying big band leader Glenn Miller vanished over the English Channel, a US-based historical aviation organisation is launching a new investigation to try to find out what happened.
There are numerous theories about the disappearance of the small aircraft with Miller, who at the time was a major in the US Army and performing for the troops fighting in Europe in the second world war. Two other people were on board the flight from England to France on December 15, 1944.
The most widely cited explanations suggest the single-engine plane was either hit by friendly fire or suffered a catastrophic mechanical fault because of bad weather.
Two recent books have advanced both ideas and The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has finished an initial investigation into a report that a fisherman briefly snagged what might have been Miller’s C-64 Norseman aircraft off England’s south coast.
The group concluded the wreck could be Miller’s aircraft, meaning that the next step will be studying hydrographical surveys to see whether any unidentified anomalies have been found on the seabed. Wrecks that have been found can be more closely examined, while areas that have not been mapped can be searched with state-of-the-art sonar.
If the remains of the aircraft can be recovered, it may be possible to determine the fate of the bestselling recording artist in the world during the early years of the war, famous for hits like In the Mood and Moonlight Serenade.
TIGHAR – which is also still researching the equally intriguing disappearance of Amelia Earhart over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 – has been in contact with the fisherman who discovered the aircraft and his account is credible, said Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, which is based in Pennsylvania.
“The most popular theory is that his plane was mistakenly knocked down by bombs jettisoned by British bombers returning from an aborted mission,” Gillespie told the South China Morning Post.
That theory was given weight in a book by Roy Conyers Nesbit called Missing Believed Killed, which was published in 2002.
The author spoke to a crew member from a British Lancaster bomber who said he saw a small aircraft knocked down by bombs dumped over the English Channel in 1944.
But that claim is disputed in Glenn Miller Declassified, a new book by Dennis Spragg, who Gillespie said makes a strong case for the Norseman going down because of a build-up of ice or a mechanical failure, which would tally with the explanation put forward by an inquiry conducted by the US Air Force soon after the accident.
Spragg claims the Royal Air Force bombers were not in the area at the time Miller’s plane disappeared, having flown over 90 minutes earlier.
Both suggestions are plausible – certainly more so, Gillespie suggests, than the kind of conspiracy theories that inevitably crop up around unexplained disappearances.
In Miller’s case, those include claims he was a secret agent for the Office of Strategic Services, the shadowy forerunner of the CIA, that he had been captured by the Germans and tortured, that he died in a drunken bar brawl or of lung cancer in a French hospital or was mistakenly shot by a airfield sentry.
One of the most fanciful claims is that he was dumped outside a brothel in Paris and left to die.
According to Gillespie: “The fisherman’s story presents a possible opportunity for a conclusive resolution to the mystery.”
Yet he agrees that some significant problems remain to be overcome.
“The English Channel is large, nasty and littered with all kinds of wrecks,” Gillespie admitted.
“It would be impossible to search it all for the Miller aircraft, but the fisherman’s story provides a specific location.”
According to the reports, the fisherman’s gear recovered a small aircraft off Portland Bill, a peninsula that juts into the Channel from the Dorset coast.
TIGHAR is declining to provide further information due to the need to preserve the site as much as possible, although Gillespie did say that the seabed is only 130 feet beneath the surface.
That depth is relatively straightforward for any recovery, although currents in the Channel can be notoriously challenging, as is visibility at that sort of depth, while the sea lanes are also extremely busy. There is also the possibility that the wreck site has been inadvertently damaged or disturbed by other fishing crews.
The positive results of the initial research mean that there is now sufficient evidence to warrant a research trip to the UK.
“We would want to interview anyone who had first-hand knowledge of the incident and conduct archival research of sources that are not available online,” Gillespie said.
“The first step, as with any investigation, is ferreting out the facts and laying to rest the myths to permit the best possible understanding of what happened,” he said.
“We would only try to locate and recover the aircraft if research indicated there was a reasonable chance of success.”
If a target could be identified and a more thorough investigation confirm its identity, then the mystery might finally have been solved.
“And, as with any historic aircraft or relic,” Gillespie said.
“It should be carefully conserved and go to a reputable museum.”