Glenn Miller past and present

  • Published
  • By Robert Kane
  • Air University Director of History
It was December 1942, and the United States had been at war for a year.  To help ease the pain of war department telegrams and empty places at the Christmas table that year, Captain Glenn Miller, a well-known musician and band leader, was now in the uniform of the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF) and assigned to Maxwell Field, gave a concert to Maxwell airmen on Christmas Eve.

In 1982, the commander of the Air University Band asked Lieutenant General Charles G. Cleveland, then Air University commander, about reviving the Glenn Miller Christmas concert on its fortieth anniversary.  Cleveland, in turn proposed to Emory Folmar, then Montgomery mayor, that Air University and Montgomery jointly sponsor a free Christmas concert to commemorate Miller's 1942 Christmas Eve concert. 

Select members of the Air University band, dressed in World War II AAF uniforms, performed music in the Miller style to a packed Montgomery Civic Center.  This revival began a holiday tradition to entertain Maxwell and Gunter Airmen and the River Region communities of Alabama each holiday season.

Born March 1, 1904, in Iowa, Miller and his family moved several times in his early years.  In 1923 he began his music career and by 1934 he initiated recording music under his own name.  After four years, Miller and his orchestra finally achieved success, recording 17 "Top 10" hits in 1939, 31 in 1940, and 11 in both 1941 and 1942, including such timeless classics as "Moonlight Serenade," "In the Mood," "Pennsylvania 6-500," and "Chattanooga Choo Choo." 

When war came to the United States on December 7, 1941, Miller wanted to use his musical talents for the war effort.  However, his age, 38, and eyeglasses meant he would not be drafted.  He managed to obtain a commission in the AAF on November 23, 1942.  The AAF first ordered Miller to Offutt Field, Nebraska, but unexpectedly sent him instead to Maxwell Field, Alabama.

At Maxwell Field, home of the Southeast Air Corps Training Center, Miller was assigned as Assistant Special Services officer.  He discovered that Maxwell had a dance band, called "The Rhythmaires," with Jerry Yelverton, a former member of Miller's prewar orchestra, as one of its musicians.  With Miller playing trombone, the band strove to positively affect morale. 

The band played five times during Miller's four weeks at Maxwell, culminating with the Christmas Eve concert.  The Rhythmaires played several songs arranged by Miller and "Alabamy Bound," played in the Miller Big Band style.  Five days later, he was on his way to the AAF Training Command's basic training center at Atlantic City, New Jersey. 

In route to his new assignment, Miller stopped over at the Headquarters AAF Technical Training Command at Knollwood Field, North Carolina, and Major General Walter R. Weaver, commander of the AAF Technical Training Command and former commander of Maxwell Field.  Miller recommended to Weaver that the AAF establish bands at its installations.  He recommended using former musicians now assigned to AAF, to provide musical programs for the trainees.  He pointed out that this would better utilize their talents for the war effort.

By March 1943 Miller had assembled a group of top musicians.  They soon reported to the AAF training center at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut to become members of the recently activated 418th AAF Band under Miller's command.  From January to May 1944, he produced "Victory" records for distribution to U.S. military installations throughout the country and radio broadcasts to military installations in the northeastern United States.

After the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, Miller persuaded General Henry "Hap" Arnold, the AAF Commanding General, to allow him to take a select group of band musicians to England to play for the troops.  This band, officially organized as the Casual Detachment (Glenn Miller Band), arrived in England in mid-June 1944.

"Glenn Miller's Band" gave 300 live performances in England and 500 radio broadcasts to Allied troops on the continent.  In July 1944, Major General Jimmy Doolittle, the commander of Eighth Air Force, told Captain Miller, "Next to a letter from home, Captain Miller, your organization is the greatest morale builder in the European Theater of Operations."

By autumn 1944, now-Major Miller obtained approval to give live performances to the troops in recently liberated Paris, France.  On December 15, 1944, he departed England to make preliminary arrangements for the band that would follow.  Unfortunately, the aircraft with Miller aboard disappeared over the English Channel.

Glenn Miller's "Big Band" provided a holiday morale boost to the airmen at Maxwell Field for the Christmas of 1942 and later a taste of home to thousands of American servicemen across the United States and later in Europe.   

Today, the Glenn Miller Christmas concert continues to be a holiday tradition in the Montgomery River Region.  The Air Force Band, Airmen of Note, will perform a free Glenn Miller Holiday Concert Dec. 17, 2015, 7 p.m. Troy University's Davis Theatre.  Tickets are required for entrance and are available at the following Montgomery Max Credit Union locations: Taylor Road, Eastdale Mall, Maxwell AFB and Gunter Annex.