Brazil’s participation in the Second World War (1939-45) is not widely known. The participation of 25,000 Brazilian troops in the Italian campaign tends to be ignored or neglected, even in Brazil itself.
Brazil was the only Latin American country to send combat troops to the war after years of diplomatic pressure from US President Franklin D Roosevelt, who was particularly interested in access to her raw materials and to airbases in the North East to easily access Northern Africa.
Eventually, Brazilian dictator Getúlio Vargas's hand was forced after the 'Brazilian Pearl Harbour' when a German U-boat attacked and sank five Brazilian merchant ships off their Atlantic coast. There was public outrage at the death of hundreds of civilians and war was quickly declared on the increasingly aggressive Nazi Germany, despite Vargas being a dictator himself and harbouring some sympathies for the fascist European regimes.
Curiously, due to the Brazilian dictatorship's unwillingness to get more deeply involved in the Allied war effort, by early 1943 a popular saying was: "It's more likely for a snake to smoke a pipe, than for the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) to go the front and fight." ("Mais fácil uma cobra fumar um cachimbo, do que à FEB embarcar para o combate.").
Before the FEB entered combat, the expression "a cobra vai fumar" ("the snake will smoke") was often used in Brazil in a context similar to "when pigs fly". As a result, the soldiers of the FEB called themselves Cobras Fumantes (literally, Smoking Snakes) and wore a divisional shoulder patch that showed a snake smoking a pipe.
It was also common for Brazilian soldiers to write on their mortars, "The Snake is smoking ..." ("A cobra está fumando..."). After the war the meaning was reversed, signifying that something will definitively happen and in a furious and aggressive way. With that second meaning the use of the expression "a cobra vai fumar" has been retained in Brazilian Portuguese until the present, although few of the younger generations realize the origin of the expression.
The Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) equipped themselves admirably in their first major battle at Monte Castello with a fiercely contested victory over the Nazis in the Italian Apennines. The Brazilian Air Force (FAB), which was originally created during the war, also saw combat during the Italian campaign, where their distinct 'Senta a pua!' emblem first garnered attention, but mainly patrolled the Atlantic for German submarines.
Amusing anecdotes soon started to circulate amongst the Allied troops about their eccentric new comrades, including their unprecedented cosmopolitan platoons where black and white soldiers fought shoulder to shoulder.
In another story of Brazilian good humour, while the Americans and British had nicknamed the fearsome German MG-42 machine gun 'Hitler's Buzz Saw' on account of the harrowing sound from its 1,200 rounds per minute firing rate - double anything the Allies had - the FEB, at the battle of Monte Castello, chose to rename the infamous gun 'Lurdinha', after deciding it sounded much like one of the officer's nagging girlfriends back home.
They then wrote a popular samba about her with tongue-in-cheek lyrics about how she tries to catch them but always misses. The samba is also a unique lyrical summary of the entire battle of Monte Castello as seen through the eyes of a sambista
The silence that surrounds the FEB and its historical context has led not only to a lack of knowledge about the Brazilians who fought for the Allied cause but also an almost total ignorance about the artistic production that arose from their participation in the war.
Lesser known is that Carlos Scliar, a renowned Brazilian artist, was sent to document the experience of the FEB in Italy and sketched several images of the soldiers during breaks in the fighting.
For an excellent documentary about the Brazilian Expeditionary Force along with comprehensive interviews with veterans from the Italian campaign, look no further than 'Lapa Azul' below. The documentary also reveals an extraordinary recording by the BBC of a regiment of the FEB singing the Brazilian national anthem during Mass in the famous cathedral of Pisa while German bombs can be heard dropping outside.