Sustaining the Wings, Part One
by: Lisa Philbrick
The street outside the BBC Broadcasting
One of the most popular swing bands, if not the most popular swing band was that led by Glenn Miller. Miller had a very strong sense of patriotism and was very aware of the effect the draft was having, not only on the musicians called up for service but on the young people who filled the ballrooms and dance floors to hear and see the band. Although Miller himself was exempt from the draft due to his age, he answered his own call of duty and after being rejected by the US Navy, he made a very strong case to US Army Brigadier-General Charles D. Young about bringing the music closer to those who were serving to keep morale up. Young agreed and Miller reported for duty at the beginning of October, 1942.
Of course, not everyone agreed. Miller faced critics, naysayers and Army traditionalists, who felt that his idea of modernizing military music was sacrilege. But Miller brushed them off, as the only opinions that mattered to him was the reaction from the servicemen that made requests for broadcasts and dedications on the radio and crowded into air field hangers, camps and auditoriums to hear the band. After all, he was doing this for them, not for any personal gain of his own. In fact, much of what he was doing was coming at a great personal sacrifice.
But he couldn't stop. He wouldn't stop. Although his own morale sometimes faltered, he never lost sight of what he was doing it all for. This was his duty and Lord knew the 40-year-old bandleader was putting everything he had into it.
None of these thoughts, however,
occupied the Major's mind as the Army staff car pulled up to the curb outside
the Broadcasting House. Major Miller grabbed his crush cap and emerged from the
car, standing at his full six feet and topping off with his cap. The broad
shouldered band leader stood on the sidewalk for a moment, as he waited for the
driver to retrieve the trombone case and attaché case from the trunk. He turned
the collar of his overcoat up against
Miller received the cases, thanked the driver and walked into the BBC with the other band members. Two nonchalant looking American Army officers stood a few feet away from the entrance to Broadcasting House, smoking cigarettes and talking. All the while, they had been waiting for this particular staff car to arrive. As soon as Miller disappeared into the building, they dropped their cigarettes and followed in after him to the studio where the band was setting up. Neither of the two officers spoke to anyone, nor did they try speak to the Major right away, holding back until such time they could approach him without too many people already around him. No one in the building, or anywhere in the entire US Army would have known who they were, as they weren't even Americans to begin with.
The studio was full of the sound of instruments playing scales, as the musicians who were already there were warming up. The drum set was being assembled and microphones were being plugged in. The small group around the Major had disbursed and Miller placed his trombone case down near a chair that was near the main microphone. He placed the attaché case on the chair itself and then paused to remove his overcoat, placing it over the back of the chair. He then opened the attaché case to retrieve the arrangements. He hadn't removed his crush cap yet.
One of the nonchalant Army officers looked at his partner and nodded. The two approached the Major.
"Major Miller?" the unknown Lieutenant Colonel spoke. Glenn Miller looked up from the open attaché case and saw he had a Lieutenant Colonel on one side of him and a Lieutenant on the other. Although he gave the customary salute, something didn’t seem right.
"Could we speak to you a moment? It's about the broadcast..." The Lieutenant Colonel tilted his head toward the door, indicating that he and the other officer wished to speak to Miller out of the presence of the rest of the band members. Now what? Miller wondered. He nodded to the two officers. "Of course," he replied. He left the arrangements in the attaché case, closed it and turned to follow the Lt. Colonel. The Lieutenant paused only a moment to remove a folded paper from his uniform pocket and leave it on top of the attaché case before turning to follow directly behind the Major.
As Miller headed for the door, he caught the eye of his bassist, Sgt. Trigger Alpert. “I’ll be right back,” he said. Alpert nodded and watched as Glenn left the studio with the other two officers. He turned to a band member next to him, who was also watching. “Who the hell are those two?” he asked. The other band member just shrugged.
The Major followed the Lt. Colonel down the hall way and was starting to wonder what was going on. He stopped to turn to the Lieutenant behind him, who merely gave him a gentle push to keep walking. Miller did and they came out of the building. The street and sidewalk were back to a normal looking facade as most if not all of the band members were inside. The Lt. Colonel led the way to a car and opened the back door. He looked at Major Miller.
"Get in, Major."
Miller was suddenly alarmed. "What is this?"
"This is a kidnapping, Major Miller," the Lt. Colonel said. "You are to be a guest of the Third Reich for an undetermined amount of time."
Miller turned quick, thinking to make a run for it but the Lieutenant was directly behind him and pulled a small pistol from the coat of his uniform and placed a persuasive grip on Miller's forearm. "Please, Major," the Lieutenant spoke, his German accent unmistakable, "we do not wish to make a scene. Get into the car..."
Miller eyed the gun and then turned back to the Lt. Colonel. He cast a quick glance around the street, realizing nobody of the few people who were around knew what was going on. Effectively bushwhacked, he let out a defeated sigh and got into the car. The Lieutenant followed in after and the Lt. Colonel closed the door. He then walked around the car and got in on the other side.
One of the members of the band, a young private, saw most of the whole thing. He had passed the Major in the hallway heading toward the studio. He looked once, noting that it appeared the Major was being marched out of the building by the other two officers. When he stopped to look twice, he saw as Miller looked at the Lieutenant behind him and was quietly persuaded to keep walking. Not quite sure what to make of it, the private continued on into the studio and found his seat, putting his trumpet case down. He turned when he heard the band’s arranger, Sgt. Jerry Gray, pose a question.
“Does anybody know who those two officers were?”
Nobody knew. The private stepped forward
though and offered what he had seen. “Sir? I just saw
them go down the hall…it looks like they’re taking Major Miller right out of
“Out of the building?” Sgt. Alpert said. He looked at Sgt. Gray. “Something’s wrong…” He turned immediately and headed out of the studio. Gray followed, along with the private. They hurried down the hall and as they came out onto the sidewalk and stopped to look around, they saw as Major Miller was getting into the car, and the obvious movement of one of the officers concealing a weapon back into the coat of his uniform.
The private swore. He took two
steps forward but was held back by Alpert. “If they’ve got guns,
we’re not going to be a whole lot of help.”
“We can’t let them get away!”
“We can’t give them cause to shoot him either!”
Helpless, the three watched the car pull away and saw through the car window as a blindfold was placed over the Major's eyes. The private turned first and ran back inside the building, hollering that the Major had been kidnapped. Some were disbelieving until Alpert and Gray returned to the studio and confirmed it. The studio was then abuzz with barely contained panic which then turned to a simmering disdain when the note that had been left on top of the attaché case was found. By order of the German Propaganda Ministry, Major Glenn Miller had been kidnapped and if the band played in that night's broadcast or any future broadcasts...
...the Major would not be returned alive.
Major Wolfgang Hochstetter circled around his US Army Air Corps counterpart who was seated on a wooden straight back chair in the middle of the Gestapo interrogation room. No matter what, Miller would not look at the Gestapo Major. The band leader sat up in the chair and looked straight ahead or at any other corner of the room, but not at Hochstetter. The Gestapo Major couldn't tell if the avoidance of eye contact was out of fear or defiance. Most American officers that Hochstetter had had the pleasure of interrogating were usually brazen and cocky, at least until Hochstetter had knocked them down a couple of pegs. But this officer was different. While others had shown open defiance, this officer was reserved. Quiet almost to the point of being sullen.
Even the American Major's facial expression was held in reserve. Hochstetter couldn't understand why the man looked so battle worn, considering who he was and his position. Surely playing music couldn't be that draining on a person, could it?
Hochstetter checked his watch. The
Propaganda Ministry asked that Major Miller be held at Gestapo Headquarters
until they had secured a place to move him to. So far, the American Major had
Hochstetter took a deep breath, and continued pacing around the band leader. "Let's try this again, shall we? What do you know about the Allies plans on the Western front?"
Major Miller sighed and gave his same answer, his baritone voice echoing a little within the room. "Miller, Alton G. Major, US Army Air Corps. 0505273..."
Hochstetter stopped pacing and stood off to the side of the US Army Major looking at him for a moment. He decided to change his tactic a little. "I know you do not know anything of the Allies plans for the Western front. You're a musician."
Miller sat, resolute. It's taken you three hours to figure that out? "Then why do you keep asking me?" he asked, still not looking at the Gestapo Major.
"Routine questions, given your rank. The Gestapo knows you would not have any knowledge of the Allied Command's battle plans."
Major Miller now turned his head and looked at Hochstetter, raising an eyebrow. There's a punch line to all of this?
Hochstetter didn't meet Miller's gaze and paced a few steps in front of the American Major. "Tell me Major, given that we know you know nothing of the Allied Command's battle plans, aren't you the least bit curious as to why we have you?"
Brown eyes peered through wire-rim glasses at Major Hochstetter. Miller kept a neutral face for a moment and then smirked slightly. "You're looking for trombone players for the Hitler Youth Swingtime Jazz Band?"
Hochstetter stopped and turned to face Miller, not amused. "No...but the Allied Expeditionary Forces Band is more than likely looking for a trombone player."
Hochstetter's tone was unnerving but Miller didn't let it show. "I'm sure they can find one."
"Yes but...can they find one as important as you?"
The American Major regarded Hochstetter with a guarded expression.
"Isn't it true, Major Miller
that you were quite active in working to bring your American music closer to
your soldiers? So much so that you gave up a very comfortable civilian life to
join the US Army? Even more so that you insisted on being
"It's no big secret."
"Don't you think if somebody as important as you were to go away, that perhaps all those efforts would crumble?"
Miller shook his head.
"If you think kidnapping me will stop the broadcasts, you're wrong."
Major Miller nodded. "That band is so tight they can easily continue without me. I've made sure it's that way, in case something should happen to me."
Hochstetter paused. Obviously the Propaganda Ministry knew this too or they wouldn't have issued the ultimatum to the Allied Expeditionary Forces. "Then what if I told you, Major, that at this time, the Allied Expeditionary Forces Band has been told in no uncertain terms that if one note from any of their instruments is heard during tonight's broadcast you will be sent back to England...how do you Americans put it? In a pine box..."
Major Miller looked directly at Hochstetter. "What is it you want with me?"
"The Gestapo wants nothing with
you. However, the Propaganda Ministry would like to permanently cease the
Allied broadcasts from
Miller looked at Hochstetter for a moment longer and then turned his gaze away, keeping his thoughts to himself. He knew what the Germans were trying to do. Take away the music in an attempt to demoralize Allied troops. It had to be the most outrageous and desperate stunt the Germans could pull at this stage in the game. But for the moment it would work as Miller knew the band wouldn't play with such an ultimatum hanging over them. The band members would feel like they were part of a firing squad the moment they raised their instruments to play. He knew they wouldn't do it. But the thought of the music not reaching the soldiers who were putting their lives on the line everyday....bothered him more than the fact his own life was on the line right now.
While Miller was contemplating this, the little window on the door to the interrogation room was slid open and a Gestapo guard signaled to Hochstetter. Hochstetter nodded and the window was closed. Miller looked up as Hochstetter appeared to be preparing to leave. "Not to worry, Major," the Gestapo man said. "You will be comfortable while you are here. The war shouldn't last too much longer and when it's over you can leave. Of course, with the Third Reich being victorious you may decide to stay here."
"I don't think so."
Hochstetter smirked. "We shall see... Now if you'll excuse me, Major, I will find out where you are going to be held next. Rest assured, the Propaganda Ministry does not plan on leaving you in one place for too long. We wouldn't want anyone to get any crazy ideas to try and rescue you."
Major Miller said nothing as Hochstetter turned and left the interrogation room.