The Glenn Miller mystery is getting a fresh look nearly 70 years after the beloved bandleader disappeared over the English Channel in 1944 on his way to play a concert for US troops in Paris—and a historian says newly discovered documents help explain what happened to him. An episode of History Detectives Special Investigations airing on PBS examines his disappearance, as well as the conspiracy theories that say he failed in a plot to overthrow Hitler or died in a Paris brothel. "This is a story about a guy who was in essence a rock star of his time—he was every bit as big as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones," one of the program's hosts tells USA Today. "He joins the Army Air Force to be a patriot and poof, he vanishes." Miller, who joined the Army at the height of his fame in 1942, was last seen boarding a single-engine Noorduyn Norseman aircraft in December 1944, just before the Germans launched the Battle of the Bulge offensive.
In the show, Colorado University historian Dennis Spragg says Miller died because of a disastrous combination of circumstances, the Chicago Tribune reports. Desperate to get to Paris to play for the troops who had liberated the city months earlier, Miller accepted a ride in a plane known to have a defective carburetor, in deteriorating weather with a pilot not certified to fly by instruments alone. Halfway across the channel, "the engine stops, the airplane turns nose down, and in eight seconds it's in the water. … That's exactly what the United States Army Air Force concluded three weeks after the accident," Spragg says. "You have a perfect storm of human error, mechanical failure, and weather. Not independent of one another—all three. And the plane goes down." The military failed to explain that scenario at the time, he says, because military policy precluded releasing such information.