According to the documentary Silent Wings: The American Glider Pilots of WWII, World War II is the most chronicled event in our human history – except for the mostly untold story of the American glider pilots. Just over 6,000 volunteer pilots flew infantry and supplies behind enemy lines in fragile, defenseless, and engineless airplanes.
These were one-way trips on the aircraft; without engines, there was no way to fly home and the glider corps were both rated pilots as well as infantrymen who strapped on their light arms once on the ground and fought their way to their ground forces. The expendable gliders were unsalvageable once landed; as former WWII war correspondent and glider rider Andy Rooney says, each glider landing was “a planned accident and you hoped to survive the accident.”
After Hitler sent eleven Nazi gliders into Belgium to easily overcome the hitherto unassailable Fort Eben Emael, the Allied forces scrambled to design, build, and fly their own glider force. In 1941, U.S. General Hap Arnold got the glider program off the ground, so to speak; Cessna and Ford produced the 8- and 15-person powerless planes at a cost of around $15,000 per glider.
U.S. gliders were involved in most of the major offensives after Pearl Harbor. The invasion of Sicily was their brutal introduction; headwinds and Axis antiaircraft guns made it impossible for the gliders to reach the designated landing zones and many had to make water landings with no life rafts. Many of the unmarked gliders that actually made it to Sicily were then shot down by panicked friendly fire that didn't recognize the planes. Burma was a much more successful operation as the American gliders delivered over 9,000 British and Indian troops in the first six days, ultimately stopping the Japanese from getting into India.
In Normandy, the Nazis studded all open fields with posts so that landing Allied gliders had their wings snapped off, causing them to tumble and roll. Regardless, with no helicopters to speak of, the gliders were crucial to bring men and re-supply the paratroopers. American gliders were also involved in the invasion of Holland, despite having no compasses, few maps and fewer pilots still knowing where their targets were, and the Battle of the Bulge, where they brought in desperately needed doctors and supplies to the cut-off Allied forces.
This documentary is comprised of stunning archival footage, some still shots and modern interviews with veteran glider pilots. There are also anecdotal interviews with Andy Rooney and Walter Cronkite. Rooney flew into Normandy in a glider on D-4; Cronkite’s harrowing glider flight was during “Operation Market Garden,” the invasion of Holland. Some of the film is dry but the interviews with the pilots and the war correspondents humanize the history and make it accessible.
There are not much by way of extras on the DVD: a virtual tour of the Silent Wings Museum in Lubbock, Texas; an interview with writer/director Robert Child; and three trailers for other Inecom documentaries.
It’s a long film, clocking in at 113 minutes, and will prove most interesting to World War II history buffs, airplane aficionados, and veterans and their families. But despite the length and the subject matter, for which I have no particular affinity, the documentary largely kept my attention and even brought tears to my eyes on several occasions. The American glider pilots of WWII were an incredibly courageous group who should be recognized along with our other veterans and thanked for their bravery and valor. Silent Wings gives voice to their story and is a respectful tribute to their sacrifices.