Glenn Miller

  • Published
  • By Dr. Robert B. Kane
  • Air University, Director of History
It was December 1942, and the United States had been at war for a year.  Virtually every family in the country, including those at Maxwell and Gunter fields and in the Alabama River Region, had family members fighting the forces of tyranny or supporting American and Allied forces across the globe. 

To help ease the pain of War Department telegrams and empty places at the Christmas table the next day, Capt. Glenn Miller, well-known musician and band leader, now in the uniform of the U.S. Army Air Forces and assigned to Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama, as the assistant special services officer, gave a concert to Maxwell Airmen on Christmas Eve.

In 1982, the commander of the Air University Band asked Lt. Gen. Charles G. Cleveland, then Air University commander, a jazz enthusiast and a Glenn Miller fan, about reviving the Glenn Miller Christmas concert on its 40th anniversary.  Cleveland, in turn, proposed to then Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar 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 people of Maxwell-Gunter and the River Region communities of Alabama each holiday season since then -- interrupted only last year.

Born on 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, began 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 the timeless classics "Moonlight Serenade," "In the Mood," "Pennsylvania 6-500" and "Chattanooga Choo Choo." 

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

Assigned to Maxwell Field, home of the Southeast Air Corps Training Center, Miller discovered that Maxwell had a dance band called "The Rhythmaires" with Jerry Yelverton, a former member of Miller's pre-war 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 five 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.  En route, Miller received orders to report to the Headquarters AAF Technical Training Command at Knollwood Field, North Carolina.

At Knollwood Field, Miller met Maj. Gen. Walter R. Weaver, commander of the AAF Technical Training Command and former commander of Maxwell Field, 1927 to 1931; commandant, Air Corps Tactical School, 1939-1940; and commander, Southeast Air Corps Training Center, 1940-1941.  While at Knollwood Field, Miller recommended to Weaver that the AAF establish bands, consisting of enlisted musicians assigned to the AAF, at its installations to better utilize their talents for the war effort through musical programs for trainees.

After Miller reported to Atlantic City, by March 1943, he had assembled a group of top musicians.  They soon reported to the AAF Training Center at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, and become members of the recently activated 418th AAF Band, later the 718th 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 Gen. 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's Band, and later as the AAF Band [Special]), arrived in England in mid-June 1944.

Known as "Glenn Miller's Band," it gave 300 live performances in England and 500 radio broadcasts to Allied troops on the continent.  That autumn, now Maj. Miller obtained approval to give live performances to the troops in recently liberated Paris, France.  On Dec. 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.  Some speculated poor weather caused the disappearance, while others have suggested bombs, jettisoned by returning allied bombers, hit Miller's aircraft.

Glenn Miller's "Big Band" sound provided a holiday morale boost to the Airmen at Maxwell Field for the Christmas of 1942 and later a taste of home to hundreds of thousands of American servicemen across the United States and later in Europe.  In July 1944, Maj. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, the commander of 8th Air Force, told Miller, "Next to a letter from home, Capt. Miller, your organization is the greatest morale builder in the European Theater of Operations." 

The 1982 Glenn Miller Christmas Concert began a continuous tradition of holiday concerts in the Alabama River Region, except for last year, for those who enjoy "Big Band" music and for younger generations to help them appreciate the Glenn Miller style.  More importantly, it has commemorated Glenn Miller's role in lifting the morale of American servicemen, many far from home and family, during one of America's darkest hours.