Glenn Miller: Iowa’s King of Swing

by Michael Swanger

Iowa native Glenn Miller’s body was never recovered after the plane he was traveling on mysteriously disappeared in bad weather on December 15, 1944, over the English Channel en route to entertain United States troops in France during World War II, but his body of work and legacy as an American icon is no mystery to the world.

Miller, a musician, arranger, composer and bandleader, helped define the swing era and was one of the best-known recording artists from 1939 to 1942, thanks in part to a distinctive sound that emphasized melody and complimentary harmonic lines. During that period, The Glenn Miller Orchestra recorded seventeen Top 10 hits – including “In the Mood,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “Little Brown Jug,” “Moonlight Serenade” and “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” making it, arguably, the most popular Big Band of its time.

During the early 1940s, Miller’s popularity was so great that he was earning about $20,000 a week. His Big Band was featured three times a week during a 15-minute radio broadcast for Chesterfield cigarettes on CBS, and Miller and his group appeared in two movies: 1941’s “Sun Valley Serenade” featuring Milton Berle, and 1942’s “Orchestra Wives” featuring Jackie Gleason.

But in 1942, at the peak of his civilian career, Miller decided to forgo further fame and fortune and persuaded the U.S. Army to enlist him at age 38 so he could “be placed in charge of a modernized Army band.” He was soon transferred to the Army Air Corps, which later would become known as the Air Force, where he attained the rank of captain and led a military band that performed more than 800 concerts, live and over the radio, to thousands of American troops – and millions of other listeners. Those appearances established him as a beloved patriot and entertainer among a generation of Americans that would later become known as “The Greatest Generation.”

During his brief military career, Miller earned numerous awards, including the Bronze Star Medal, The World War II Victory Medal, campaign medals in America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East and The Marksman Badge with Carbine and Pistol Bars.