Swing bandleader Glenn Miller was born in Iowa, grew up in the Midwest, got famous in New York City, lived in New Jersey and went missing in a plane somewhere over the English Channel during World War Ii.
So why is there a memorial stone to Miller in New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery?
The short answer: I Sustain the Wings.
The longer answer: From March 27, 1943 to June 19, 1944, Glenn Miller and his musicians were ubiquitous in New Haven. They were there to put a spring in the steps of Air Force cadets on the Yale campus — and to lift the spirits of a country gone to war.
The Glenn Miller Story
In 1942, swing bandleader Glenn Miller dominated the radio waves as the most famous and the best paid musician in the country.
He was born March 1, 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa, but his parents moved around the Midwest during his childhood. He dropped out of the University of Colorado at Boulder to pursue a music career – playing the clarinet and the trombone.
For many years he struggled until he realized his strength lay in arranging and composing. He finally found success in 1938 with a big band that had a unique sound. The lead clarinet played the melody along with a tenor saxophone, and three other saxophones harmonized. People called it ‘sweet’ swing.
Swing was king, and Glenn Miller had the most lucrative swing band in America. It pumped out a string of hits – In the Mood, Pennsylvania 6-5000, Moonlight Serenade and Little Brown Jug. His Chattanooga Choo-Choo earned the first gold record ever. Miller appeared in Hollywood films, played at Carnegie Hall and made as much as $20,000 a week.
You’re In the Army Now
Glenn Miller sacrificed a great deal when he decided to join the war effort. He gave up millions to lift the morale of young men facing suffering and death far away from home.
“I, like every patriotic American, have an obligation to fulfill,” he said when he enlisted as an army captain (later a major) in 1942.
Historian Lawrence Erenberg wrote that Glenn Miller not only created a model of patriotic duty, but infused Depression-era swing music with a national purpose.
“His story highlights the powerful role that swing played in World War II and helps explain what American soldiers were fighting for,” wrote Erenberg.
Miller reported to the Army Specialist Corps, but transferred to the new Army Air Forces. There, the military brass accepted his proposal to run ‘a modernized Army band.’
Many talented musicians had joined the Army Air Corps. They included 19-year-old Henry Mancini, along with musicians from the Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony and the NBC Symphony. Miller managed to snatch them up quickly by cutting through red tape and improvising procedures.
When he started with a marching band in Alabama, senior officers resisted Captain Miller’s innovation.
A scene in The Glenn Miller Story actually happened in New Haven. An officer reprimanded Miller for playing the St. Louis Blues March for a cadet drill.
Miller, played by Jimmy Stewart, replied, “Tell me, Major, are you still flying the same planes you flew in the last war?”
I Sustain the Wings
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor the U.S. military had to quickly recruit, train and mobilize millions of civilians for war. Colleges turned their campuses over to the Army and Navy to train young men in a multitude of skills, from repairing airplanes to operating radar.
At Yale 3,000 cadets moved into half the residential halls, sandbagged in case of attack. In late March 1943, Glenn Miller and the 418th Army Air Force band joined them.
Why Yale? Because the Air Corps wanted a crack unit to produce national radio broadcasts. Yale offered the closest location to Manhattan for a radio production unit big enough for shows featuring Miller’s band. Called I Sustain the Wings, the show made its first national broadcast on Sept. 18, 1943. (Listen to five minutes of it here.) The show, which played Saturdays, included narration, radio skits, swing music and vocal numbers.
The Yale Band
Months before the first radio broadcast, Glenn Miller and his musicians made their presence known in New Haven. People stood on the sidewalks outside the rehearsal hall on Temple Street to listen to the music. Or they’d watch the band march to New Haven Green.
Miller didn’t just have a band. He had a 42-man marching band, a 19-man dance unit, jazz combo, radio unit and a string ensemble. And they played everywhere — East Hartford, Hartford, Meriden, Middletown, New London, Norwalk, Stamford, Wallingford and Westville.
On the morning of April 1, 1943, the band marched on New Haven Green for review formations. It continued to do so four mornings a week. On May 20, 1943, Miller activated the orchestra, which played its first concert nine days later.
In July 1943, the first of six I Sustain the Wings broadcasts from Woolsey Hall began, narrated by Sgt. Broderick Crawford.
Miller’s musicians played at enlisted men’s dances at Yale, war bond drives in Woolsey Hall and at New Haven Airport. They played at a recruiting show at the Shubert Theater, and a wedding in a Yale chapel. They played at the New Haven Arena, the Yale Drama School Theater, the Yale Bowl, the Roger Sherman Theater and the Loew’s Pole theaters. People started calling the musicians ‘the Yale Band.’
Opera singer Eileen Farrell was there, and remembers Glenn Miller and his band playing for the officers every day at lunch. She once took the train from New York with Rose Marie and Zero Mostel to perform at a bond rally on the football field. When they got there, she wrote, “Glenn Miller and his band were being driven around the field in jeeps, playing American Patrol as the soldiers performed a marching drill.”
Death in Europe
In 1944, Glenn Miller took his musicians overseas to entertain the troops. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle said, “next to a letter from home, that organization was the greatest morale builder in the European Theater of Operations.”
On Dec. 15, 1944, his small plane went down somewhere over the English Channel. His death sealed his music in the national consciousness as the soundtrack for World War II.
In 1993, local resident and Glenn Miller devotee Peter Cofrancesco held a memorial service for Glenn Miller in Grove Street Cemetery, the final resting place of Eli Whitney, Noah Webster and Walter Camp.
He spent his own money to buy a plot and granite memorial stone. Chiseled into the granite are the words “I Sustain the Wings – Sustineo Alas.”
Yale bands continue to play Glenn Miller’s music at concerts commemorating special events.
To see a video of Air Force cadets at Yale – to a Glenn Miller soundtrack – click here.
With thanks to Can’t Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell By Eileen Farrell, Brian Kellow. And Swing Goes to War: Glenn Miller and the Popular Music of World War II by Lawrence Erenberg, Society and Consciousness During World War II. Images: Memorial stone By Noroton (talk) – Own work by the original uploader, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4670053; cadets at Yale, National Archives; Glenn Miller military photos, National Museum of the USAF. This story was updated in 2021.