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Brazil Goes to War

 Brazil 
        Goes to War

Brazil’s
lack of training became apparent when the Brazilian soldiers
came under enemy fire. Instead of dispersing, so as not
to provide choice targets for German gunners, the Brazilians bunched
together. In one trench, 80 dead Brazilians were found, having
followed one after the other into the death trap.
by: John
Roscoe

 

An
international coalition to fight evildoers that threaten humanity? Would
Brazil ever actively participate, actually send troops in such an endeavor?
This is exactly what happened in 1943.

A student
of mine, Ivo, is a historian. He’s also a non-conformist, iconoclast,
who seldom combs his hair. He is fond of wearing an old army field jacket
that was actually his when he served in the Brazilian Army, almost 20
years ago. Nowadays, Ivo makes forays into the jungle to spend weeks
at a time researching the native peoples of the Amazon.

We
share an interest in history in general, and military history in specific.
As an American male "baby-boomer" I can recite the names of
all of the leaders of World War II, talk about the virtues of the P-51
Mustang fighter-bomber and discuss the battles of Iwo Jima, Anzio, and
the Ardennes. It was the glory and the heroic, mythology brought home
to us by our fathers that created legends and icons for our generation,
which were only slightly dulled by the Viet Nam debacle.

In
the last 38 years, I must have read hundreds of books regarding military
subjects. I’ve visited war museums, played computer simulations of historical
battles, and had my eyes filled with tears watching Saving Private
Ryan. I even served in the army as a medic, although I only participated
in the battles of Ft. Sam Houston, a medic training post in San Antonio,
Texas.

Imagine
my chagrin when Ivo brought up the subject of Brazil’s second-world
war combat in Europe.

Who?
What? When? Where?

It
briefly crossed my mind to ask "On which side?" but then again,
the people of Brazil are hardly of a pure, Aryan-stock.

I was
incredulous.

A few
days later, Ivo put in my hands a battered, paperback copy of As
Duas Faces da Gloria (The Two Faces of Glory) by Brazilian writer-historian,
William Waack. It was accompanied by the warning, "Don’t discuss
this book with veterans or their families."

It
is a fascinating work, and like all military history, it’s about much
more than the military.

In
1943, according to the comprehensive research done by Waack, President
Franklin Roosevelt was already considering the New World Order that
would emerge after the war was over. Brazil had suffered the sinking
of some of its ships by German submarines, and was ready to enter the
war against the Axis. Roosevelt proposed the formation of three modern
and well-equipped, Brazilian infantry divisions. The prevailing Allied
thinking was that this would enhance the image of a truly international
coalition, even if the Brazilian forces were to be largely symbolic.
Does this sound familiar?

General
George Marshall thought the Brazilians could best be used to relieve
and "free-up" higher quality troops that were occupying relatively
tranquil sectors.

Brazil,
notably not famous up until this date for having a stable democracy,
had ulterior motives for participation. The Brazilian government was
shrewd in the formation of its forces, with the common troops being
recruited from the poorer, ethnically darker regions of the northeast,
as compared to the more affluent, euro-centric south. Internal stability
was more than a minor consideration at the time. Giving large formations
of men guns had to be carefully thought-out.

For
the officers, as for military officers throughout history, it was a
chance to achieve personal glory and career advancement. The Brazilian
military at the time reflected the state of the society. The officer-caste
had a culture that was infused by political and family considerations,
and that distanced itself from having any genuine concern about the
welfare of their common soldiers that universally came from the poor
classes.

In
their military traditions, the Brazilians were fond of recalling the
defeat of Paraguay that occurred shortly before the American Civil War,
and the subsequent genocide that resulted. Paraguay with a fraction
of the land area and population of Brazil finished the war with units
of women and children utilizing spears and other hand weapons against
the 19th century rifles and cannons of Brazil. Since that
time, the Brazilian military had been a force concerned only with maintaining
Brazil’s borders and keeping (or removing) the leadership in power.
It had neither the experience nor technology for fielding an overseas,
modern, combat force.

In
1944 the U.S. was an advanced, industrial power then at the height of
its efficiency and productivity. Its relationship with Brazil reflected
this disparity and other significant differences in mentality that still
resonate today.

The
sixty-year old correspondence and top-secret reports that are included
in Waack’s book, were circulated among the Allied commanders, and they
reveal an interesting portrait of the Brazil that was emerging into
modern society.

American
officers—used to military discipline and regimen—were confounded
by the fact that Brazilian officers seldom arrived at their duty stations
before lunch. They encountered "amanhã-syndrome"
when their Brazilian counterparts would routinely promise results for
the following day, but instead offered polite excuses at the appointed
hour. Many officers had never even inspected units that were under their
command. The shining exception, to this overall disappointing image,
were the Brazilian fighter pilots, whom were held in high esteem by
the other allied forces. They were regarded as exceptional professionals,
with great skill and courage.

Relegated
to Italy

The
25,000 men of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force, or the FEB (Força
Expedicionária Brasileira) as it came to be known, were relegated
to the campaign in Italy, which in 1944 was a distant-second priority
in the war against Hitler.

The
famed 101st, and 82nd Airborne Divisions were
being dropped behind the lines in Normandy, and the "Big Red One"
1st infantry Division was proving itself at Omaha Beach.
Down the ramps of incredible ships rolled all the industrial might of
the United States of America.

In
Italy, a polyglot of New Zealander, Black-American, Japanese-American,
Brazilian, Indian, South African and Australian troops were, among others,
mired in a campaign to keep the Germans busy so they couldn’t be used
against the Normandy invasion. Artillery shells were rationed and fuel
severely restricted.

Since
landing in Italy, the situation had been far from pretty, and allied
troops had suffered high-casualties, while making few gains. When the
Americans mixed with the Brazilians who had come to relieve them, they
knew exactly how second-priority the Italian battlefront was. Some of
the Brazilians had been recruited one week before boarding the ship
to Italy.

Almost
none of them had any kind of tactical combat training, and very little
target practice. Actually, training of any kind was not widespread among
the common soldiers. Drivers had no idea how to function in convoys,
or in many cases how to do simple maintenance—like water for radiators
or oil for engines. Almost none of the infantrymen could use a compass.
A soldier knows that in the dark, a single lit match can attract enemy
fire from more than a mile away.

The
Brazilian troops were fond of lighting bon fires and singing songs around
them. Perhaps the one thing that did more to effect the opinion of other
allied soldiers was the standard of hygiene employed by the Brazilian
forces. Modern armies had learned over the years that large concentrations
of troops often lost more men to disease, than to enemy action. It was
observed that the Brazilians constructed very few latrines, and seldom
used them. There was a concern about an epidemic occurring when the
snow melted.

For
their part, the Brazilians found the Americans rude, arrogant, and intolerant,
with condescending attitudes. When American experts arrived to help
in training the FEB, they were assigned to menial jobs and kept out
of the way. When the Americans made a suggestion on how to do things
the RIGHT WAY, the insulted Brazilian commanders would make certain
to ignore the suggestion, regardless of its merits.

Brazilians
accused the U.S. of unfair distribution of supplies, including food
and ammunition. The Americans said that according to their records,
the Brazilians had requisitioned 20 percent more than any other comparable
unit in the area. The Americans refused to answer any more emergency
requests for food or other supplies, until the Brazilians accounted
for those that had already been sent. It was noted that the Italian
senhoritas in the Brazilian sector were fashionably attired in
American military clothing and dined on a regular diet of U.S. Army
rations.

Although,
hardly an uncommon occurrence in any American theater of war, the supply-situation
in Italy forced severe restrictions and strict accountability measures.
The logistical need of 25,000 people in a combat-zone, is more of a
challenge than supporting the entire needs of a small-town. Small towns
don’t move around, and fight other small towns. The Brazilian supply-system
was sending a bunch of guys to get some stuff.

The
lack of initiative on the part of the Brazilian troops, and their complete
lack of discipline or respect for their leaders caused serious worries
for the allied commanders. The Americans thought the relationship between
the Brazilian officers and their troops was bad, because the officers
treated the troops so unjustly, without any concern for their welfare
or dignity, as if they were sub-human. When a Brazilian soldier was
issued a uniform—that was it—he wore it until it fell-off.
Unlike other allied troops, the Brazilians weren’t routinely provided
with showers or changes of uniform.

Yet,
in contrast, the Brazilians found American racism just as impressive
any of their own practices, noting that US military units didn’t even
allow mixing of black and white troops at the time. The Japanese were
likewise segregated.

Relations
were at an all-time abysmal-low.

Ineffectual
Army

The
situation changed dramatically after the Brazilian troops were slaughtered
in their first two failed attacks against German positions. Their lack
of training became apparent when they came under enemy fire. Instead
of dispersing, so as not to provide choice targets for German gunners,
the Brazilians bunched together. In one trench, 80 dead Brazilians were
found, having followed one after the other into the death trap. Artillery
support was horribly ineffectual, without pre-planned fire missions
or communications with frontline troops.

Brazilian
barrages routinely missed their targets by a thousand yards or more.
In some cases, the Brazilian troops broke and ran, but were unable to
keep up with their officers who led the pack. German combat reports
are generally precise and conservative. An official combat report of
their battle against the Brazilians, described, "…great and
bloody losses suffered by the enemy…" The disaster was complete,
and a major investigation was launched to document the reasons. Instead
of glory, the Brazilian career officers faced shame and potential court-martials.

After
a top-secret report of the investigation was distributed among the Brazilians
and the other allied forces, the Americans took over the training and
coordination of the Brazilian unit, and this time cooperation on the
part of the Brazilians was complete. Much of the training was conducted
by the elite U.S. 10th Mountain Division. The common Brazilian
troops received the same treatment as the elite American troops, and
responded with professionalism and enthusiasm. By the time the war finished
the following year, the Brazilians had become as competent, organized
and efficient as many of the units they served with.

How
well organized and efficient? Well, it is interesting to note that 18
years after the war ended, the Brazilian military took over their country,
and administered it for almost thirty years. Many of the major political
players in Brazil, until recently, were veterans of the FEB in Italy.
After they returned home with their stories of "what had happened
over there", official Brazilian history told of how these men had
brought home glory to their country.

 

John
Roscoe is a Hawaiian-American living in Brasília. He studied
journalism and communications at the University of Hawaii and has
written, folksy, feature-stories for small island newspapers, as
well as résumés for all of his friends. He currently
works as an English teacher and can be contacted at johnthemedic@hotmail
 

 

 

 

 

 

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