Remembering Brazil’s forgotten WW2 soldiers

English version of BBC Russian article

SÃO PAULO — Events commemorating the 70th anniversary of VE Day have naturally focused on the Second World War’s key players – Germany, Italy, Britain, the United States, France and the countries of the Former Soviet Union. 

But Brazil – the only South American country to participate militarily in World War II – is not one for military pomp.

President Dilma Rousseff visited Rio de Janeiro on 8 May for a ceremony for the approximately 450 Brazilians soldiers killed in the war, but didn’t travel to Moscow for Victory Day celebrations as had been rumoured.

Brazil, as a whole, was always unlikely to pay much attention to the date.

Few Brazilians know about the 25,000 men who set out from Rio in 1944 to fight alongside the Allied Forces in Italian battlegrounds to break through the Gothic Line. Although the World Wars are taught in schools, Brazil’s role is either a minor detail or overlooked entirely.

When war broke out in 1939, Brazil was in the stranglehold of a dictatorship, and President Getúlio Vargas at first opted to keep Brazil neutral.

However, that neutrality was later challenged when German and Italian submarines started targeting its ships in the South Atlantic, with the loss of hundreds of Brazilian lives.

Brazil declared war on Germany and Italy in 1942, aligning with the Allied Forces and pledging to send troops to Europe. But largely unprepared for battle, the U.S. Army was forced to come to Brazil and update the Brazilian military’s training and equipment.

Conscripts began to be recruited in 1942: among them was João Ferreira de Albuquerque (pictured at top), who was finishing his studies in linguistics and literature at the University of São Paulo.

“We were summoned by letters sent to the university accommodation blocks, but we had a long delay before we finally went,” Albuquerque, now 95 years old and one of only a handful of Brazilian WW2 veterans still alive, tells the BBC from his apartment in central São Paulo.

American ships finally left Rio de Janeiro in July 1944 with the first consignment of Brazilian soldiers.

Albuquerque’s language studies were to come in useful: “The crew were American and commands in English, and I had to translate. I remember everyone was excited: we joked about how many Germans we’d kill,” the veteran recounts of the 21 days on board before reaching Naples.

The Brazilian Expeditionary Force, the FEB, were eventually embedded with the U.S. Fifth Army.

Brazil WW2 veterans, including João Ferreira Albuquerque

Brazil WW2 veterans, including João Ferreira de Albuquerque, in Italy in 1944.

Albuquerque was given ten days’ training in mines and appointed Second Sergeant in the liaison corps, which was responsible for keeping telecommunications up and running:

“At one point we had to venture a kilometre into the middle of fighting to fix a severed telephone line, with bombs flying over our heads!”

The Allied troops moved up to the Gothic Line, which was heavily fortified by the Axis Forces – hundreds of thousands of landmines and anti-tank devices were laid in the mountainous area.

The Brazilians’ help to secure victory at the Battle of Monte Castello was to be their biggest and most important military achievement.

The veteran never fired a shot, but says he is proud that he “helped the Allies to victory”:

“The Italian people saw us as liberators. We were always welcomed. When we couldn’t find an abandoned house to sleep in, they took us in even if they had nothing. We would exchange our rations with them – cigarettes, chocolate, chewing gum – in exchange for Italian delicacies, things like grappa,” Albuquerque says.

Despite some injuries, his core unit of 12 soldiers was extremely lucky: in their year of service no one was killed.

Albuquerque was injured in mine training, where a small explosive used to keep the pressure up during exercises went off, unhinging his lower jaw. Two months in hospital, and a miserly weekly dose of whisky — which he remembers with obvious fondness, as no such luxuries were available on the front line — saw the veteran back on his feet.

However, their time behind the front line also wasn’t completely uneventful: the Brazilian winter uniforms were made of a thin, olive wool — barely thick enough for a regular European winter, let alone the vicious winter of 1944 — the hue of which was dangerously close to that of the German uniforms, meaning they had guns pulled on them by troops believing they were the enemy.

The Brazilians were swiftly given warmer clothes by the Americans, and did what they could to modify their uniforms.

It was one of many moments that framed just how unprepared Brazil was for its part in the war.

“The insignia of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force was a snake smoking a pipe. Brazil obviously thought this was more likely than us going to war!” Albuquerque jokes.

The veteran’s unit celebrated the end of the war near the River Po in Northern Italy as news came through that Hitler’s forces had been defeated.

“Our joy was short-lived, as a rumour went round that we might have to fight in Japan, meaning we had to stay for a further three months,” the veteran recalls.

The end to the expedition was unceremonious, to say the least: disembarking in Rio, conscripts had their uniforms and military credentials taken away from them and were promptly disowned, leaving them jobless.

Only in 1988, with the return to democracy in Brazil, did Albuquerque and his conscript colleagues get recognition and access to pension funds.

But the war, although far from its tropical shores, did have an impact on Brazil: The country’s military unpreparedness for the WW1, in which they were the only nation in Latin America to participate militarily, meant they had had to improve: an army of 18,000 soldiers in 1917 had increased to 175,000 by 1944.

More importantly, the two World Wars set the stage for Brazil to slowly emerge as a world power, albeit a reluctant one — a process that is still continuing to this day.

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