Latin America in the Air War

Posted on Thu, September 3, 2020
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Brazilian national insignia of a 1st Brazilian Fighter Squadron P-47 Thunderbolt in Italy

Sgt. Manuel Goulart Ferreira from Rio de Janeiro proudly polishes the Brazilian national insignia of a 1st Brazilian Fighter Squadron P-47 Thunderbolt in Italy. The squadron flew in combat from November 1944 to May 1945 as part of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force. Brazil was the principal South American nation participating in allied operations against Germany. (National Archives and Records Administration, 342-C-K-4395).

With the 75th anniversary of World War II commemorations nearing their end, it is worth reflecting on those participants whose stories are not always well told. “Greatest Generation” has become a convenient catchphrase to signify the accomplishments of a United States that was both recovering from the trauma of a decade of economic devastation while also facing the most formidable enemies the nation had ever encountered. A disadvantage of the “Greatest Generation” focus is that it tends to be inward looking and often excludes the roles of the allied nations and partners that fought alongside Americans and played an essential role in the victory. When Americans do recall the participation of allies, they tend to largely focus on the role of Great Britain and its Commonwealth. Rarely mentioned are the roles played by the Latin American nations who served with U.S. forces and under U.S. command. Several recent books have chronicled the aviation contributions of Latin America, shedding new light on this often neglected subject for English-speaking audiences. Before the luster of the anniversary retrospective wears off, it is worth revisiting how the aviators and ground crews of Mexico and Brazil aided the allied victory.

Mexican pilots of 201 Squadron pose in front of their P-47 Thunderbolts

Mexican pilots of 201 Squadron pose in front of their P-47 Thunderbolts at Clark Field, Luzon in the Philippines in 1945. The squadron supported U.S. troops battling pockets of Japanese resistance in the highlands. (National Archives and Records Administration, 111-C-1581).

Brazil

              The most significant Latin American ally for the United States was Brazil. The United States had much riding on gaining Brazil’s trust on the eve of the war. In the 1930s, Germany had pushed hard on improving relations with Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas with incentives ranging from trade pacts to arms sales and aviation links, including Zeppelin routes and ship-launched seaplanes carrying mail. In 1937, Adolf Hitler overplayed his hand by attempting to co-opt Brazil as an Axis satellite and the pro-Nazi German expatriate community became an obstacle and potential threat to Vargas’ authoritarian ambitions. With the fall of France in the summer of 1940, the United States was faced with the possibility of French Guiana becoming a Nazi beachhead in the Americas. Vargas, faced with a potentially hostile nation on its border, a disaffected German expatriate community, and a population with ambivalent feelings toward the United States, quietly acceded to President Roosevelt’s overtures and defense guarantees permitting improvement of airfields in case a response to a German escalation was required. Frank D. McCann’s Brazil and the United States During World War II and Its Aftermath (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018) details the challenges of these negotiations.

Republic P-47D Thunderbolt of the Brazilian 1st Fighter Group during their deployment to northern Italy in 1945

Brazilian Air Force Sergeant Robson Saldanha stands before a United States-built Republic P-47D Thunderbolt of the Brazilian 1st Fighter Group during their deployment to northern Italy in 1945. The “Senta a Púa” insignia is the logo for the fighter group. It is roughly “fight with a spur,” which invokes the popular cockfighting traditions of Brazil. (National Archives and Records Administration, 342-C-K-4388).

However, fear of German incursions was only one small part of why the U.S. was desperate to win over Brazil to its side. Rubber supplies from Latin America were also a serious concern for President Roosevelt’s ambitious war production plans as the usual supplies from Southeast Asia were cut off by Japan’s early victories after Pearl Harbor. The next best supply of natural rubber resided deep within the Amazon.

B-24s, B-25s, and B-26s sit on the ramp at Val De Case Airfield

During April 1943, B-24s, B-25s, and B-26s sit on the ramp at Val De Case Airfield in Belem, Brazil before deploying on the long South Atlantic crossing to Africa on the way to combat theaters. (National Archives and Records Administration, 342-FH-3A00806).

Another critical concern was the Atlantic air bridge. Four months before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. faced a significant problem in supplying Lend-Lease aircraft to Great Britain. While many aircraft were needed on English bases, the dangerous North Atlantic route via Canada, Greenland, and Iceland was not yet fully established for shorter-range aircraft. The most obvious route, via the Azores, was not an option as Portugal remained staunchly neutral until August 1943. Additionally, the primary frontlines were in the Western Desert of North Africa, where Great Britain’s Royal Air Force was confronting Italian and German troops. Great Britain was also trying to shore up its Asian colonies as a hedge against Japanese expansionism. All of this meant that an air route had to be established across the South Atlantic. Given that mid-air refueling had not yet become practical in military operations, there was only one path that might work – across northeastern Brazil to western Africa. For this to be feasible, the United States needed Brazil as an ally — or at least not an enemy.

A U.S.-built Martin 167 kicks up dust during takeoff on Ascension Island

A U.S.-built Martin 167, known by the Royal Air Force as the Baltimore, kicks up dust during takeoff on Ascension Island during its trip across the South Atlantic from Brazil. (National Archives and Records Administration, 342-FH-3A00547).

The other challenge facing the U.S. in Brazil besides overcoming logistics was the political equation. Fears of the U.S. drawing Brazil into the war made Vargas’ political establishment leery of significant cooperation, so the United States committed to arms deliveries to the Brazilian army to guarantee the nation’s sovereignty. Vargas acceded and the first ferry flights across the South Atlantic via Ascension Island were inaugurated on November 14, 1941. Four days after Pearl Harbor, U.S. Navy PBY Catalinas began operating from Brazilian bases. By the end of January 1942, Brazilian neutrality had begun to fade and Vargas broke off diplomatic ties with Axis nations, especially as it became clear that German U-boats were patrolling near the Brazilian coast.

U.S. Navy officers review a line of Brazilian PBY-5A amphibians with senior Brazilian naval aviators

During the Battle of the Atlantic, Brazilian Consolidated PBYs like these participated in anti-submarine operations, with one successfully sinking a U-boat, U-199, off the coast of Rio de Janeiro on July 31, 1943. Here, U.S. Navy officers review a line of Brazilian PBY-5A amphibians with senior Brazilian naval aviators. (National Archives and Records Administration, 80-G-K-5258).

Between 1942 and 1944, the United States and Brazil also waged war on German and Italian submarines operating off the South American coast. Two recent English-language publications provide a useful insight into this campaign, which resulted in the sinking of one Italian submarine and 15 German submarines, most of which were sunk by aircraft. Santiago Rivas’ Brazilians At War: Brazilian Aviation in the Second World War (Helion & Company, 2017) details these efforts with a range of U.S. provided aircraft. Only one of the confirmed submarine sinkings was by a Brazilian aircraft: a PBY Catalina that sank U-199 on July 31, 1943. A sense of the camaraderie between U.S. military personnel may be seen in John R. Harrison’s Fairwing Brazil: Tales of the South Atlantic in World War II (Schiffer, 2014). Harrison was a U.S. Navy photographer in Fleet Air Wing 16, which operated PBY, PB4Y, PBM, and PV patrol aircraft in Brazil. In the book, he combines hundreds of wartime images, many of which he took himself, with touching anecdotes of life in a country that remained mysterious to most Americans.

Brazilian naval and army aviators learn how to use an aeronautical sextant

Brazilian naval and army aviators learn how to use an aeronautical sextant for navigation at a U.S. training base. (National Archives and Records Administration, 342-C-K-1877).

While the U.S. Navy and Brazilian Air Force continued operations against Axis submarines, the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Air Transport Command greatly expanded ferry operations through Brazil. With Japan creating an effective barrier for air routes across the Pacific, airplanes being supplied to African or Asian airbases mostly went through Brazil, including many of the Lend-Lease aircraft sent to the Soviet Union. This concept had its first major test just after Pearl Harbor when President Roosevelt authorized “Project X,” with 80 B-17 and LB-30 bombers to be rushed to the defense of the Philippines, a ferry distance of nearly 20,000 miles. Fifty-one bombers eventually made the eastbound crossing but came too late to prevent the Japanese victory in the Philippines and Dutch East Indies.

These aircraft patrolled hundreds of miles offshore looking for Axis submarines.

A U.S. Navy Consolidate PBY Catalina equipped with radar sits on the ramp at Parnamirim Field, Natal, Brazil, during May 1943. These aircraft patrolled hundreds of miles offshore looking for Axis submarines. (National Archives and Records Administration, 342-FH-3A00788).

For four-engine transports and bombers, the route from Natal, Brazil, to Accra, Gold Coast, in West Africa was not an unreasonable path. However, twin and single engine aircraft lacked the range to make the hop. Their crossings depended on one of the major logistical feats of the air war: the conversion of Ascension Island, nearly 1,500 miles to the east of Natal, into a major airbase. The island did not have any readily available fresh water sources and was potentially vulnerable to a surprise assault by a commando force, so British and American engineers had to rapidly construct what would become known as Wideawake Field, so named for the sooty tern birds that lived there, known to sailors as “wideawakes.” It opened for service on July 10, 1942, and was essential to the war. Without it, tens of thousands of Allied aircraft would have had been significantly delayed in entering service. For aircrews, getting to the island was a nail-biting experience and the popular saying among aircrews was, “If I don’t hit Ascension, my wife will get a pension.”

Bell P-39 Airacobras passing through Wideawake Field

One of the more demanding ferry flights had to be crossing the South Atlantic in Bell P-39 Airacobras. These examples were passing through Wideawake Field in May 1943. (National Archives and Records Administration, 342-FH-3A00548).

Beyond combatting U-boats and serving as the lynchpin of the critical overseas supply line, Brazil became an active combatant in the European theater of operations. Vargas, seeing the great economic and defense advantages of a U.S. alliance, acceded to President Roosevelt’s appeals to field a significant expeditionary force. This ultimately constituted 25,000 troops and a fighter group of P-47s deployed to the Italian theater, which operated as the 1st Brazilian Fighter Squadron under the command of the U.S. 350th Fighter Group, XXII Tactical Air Command. The unit was highly effective, flying 2,546 combat sorties and destroying 1,304 German vehicles, 250 railcars, and 25 bridges, while suffering the loss of 15 aircraft and nine pilots. A Brazilian liaison and observation also supported allied operations using L-4 “grasshoppers.”

Italy explodes after being hit by Brazilian P-47s

On March 9, 1945, a German ammunition dump near Fenili, Italy, explodes after being hit by Brazilian P-47s flying as part of the U.S. 350th Fighter Group, XXII Tactical Air Command. (National Archives and Records Administration, 342-FH-3A24616).

Mexico

              The century of relations between the U.S. and Mexico before World War II had been rocky to say the least. From the 1846-1948 Mexican-American War and the loss of the territory that became the western United States to the 1916-1917 “Punitive Expedition” that nearly led to a second Mexican war, both nations viewed one another with suspicion. The “Zimmerman Telegram” that directly led to the U.S. entering World War I had centered on German efforts to bring Mexico int the war preemptively against the United States had sowed further distrust. As war broke out in Europe in 1939, Mexico-U.S. tensions were once again running high as the United States oil industry was reeling from Mexican President Cárdenas’ seizure of oil company property, causing a U.S. boycott of Mexican oil, which caused Mexico to look to Axis customers. However, German subterfuge and Ávila Camacho’s election as president on a platform of improved relations with the U.S. helped shift the balance to a pro-Allied stance on the eve of Pearl Harbor to include reciprocal use of airfields. U.S.-Mexico relations warmed significantly after the Pearl Harbor attack, and Mexican airfields supported the continuous movement of aircraft and supplies to the critical Canal Zone in Panama. 

Mexican P-47 Thunderbolts fly over central Luzon in July 1945

Mexican P-47 Thunderbolts of 201 Squadron fly over the unforgiving terrain of central Luzon in July 1945. (National Archives and Records Administration, 111-C-1584).

By 1943, President Camacho realized that for Mexico to have a seat at the table in the post-war decisions over the geopolitical spoils of conflict, his nation would have to take a more active combat role However, Mexico had never fought in an overseas conflict and the Mexican military required significant modernization and training to be effective on the modern battlefield. The Joint Mexican-United States Defense Commission that had been established in 1942 had decided by early summer 1944 to follow the model of the Brazilian 1st Fighter Group, but on a smaller scale.

A flight of Mexican 201 Squadron P-47 Thunderbolts over Luzon

A flight of Mexican 201 Squadron P-47 Thunderbolts over Luzon, Philippines during July 1945. (National Archives and Records Administration, 111-C-1585).

Mexican Squadron 201 began basic training at Randolph Field, Texas, in July 1944 and converted to P-47s at Pocatello Army Airfield in Idaho in September 1944. The Escuadrilla Aguilas Aztecas (Aztec Eagles Squadron) deployed to Luzon in the Philippines to support U.S. troops fighting to liberate the island from Japanese forces. They flew only 59 combat missions under U.S. command, making their participation more symbolic than effective. Nonetheless, as author Walter S. Zapotoczny Jr. illustrates in his The Aztec Eagles: The Forgotten Allies of the Second World War (Fonthill, 2020), the experience represented a significant shift in U.S.-Mexican relations that have led to a far more cordial relationship over the past 75 years than in the century that preceded World War II.

A Flight of 201 Squadron “Aztec Eagles” pose in front of their logo

Officers of A Flight of 201 Squadron “Aztec Eagles” pose in front of their logo at Clark Field, Luzon, Philippines during the summer 1945. (National Archives and Records Administration, 342-FH-3A30650).

Argentina

              Unlike Mexico and Brazil, which found close relationships and military alliances with the United States to be advantageous during World War II, Argentina had a more contentious relationship. Whereas the war provided a stabilizing influence in the Mexican and Brazilian leadership, it destabilized Argentine governance, resulting in a military coup in 1943, which installed a fascist-leaning government. As a result, the U.S. did not convince Argentina to declare war on the Axis until March 1945. Nonetheless, Argentina participated in the air war in an unusual way: Thousands of members of the large British expatriate community volunteered for British and Canadian military service, with many of them winding up in a single Royal Air Force squadron – No. 164 Squadron – which distinguished itself during the Normandy campaign.

A rocket-equipped Hawker Typhoon IB of Royal Air Force No. 164 Squadron

A rocket-equipped Hawker Typhoon IB of Royal Air Force No. 164 Squadron takes off from an airfield at Thorney Island, Hampshire, in England during a close air support mission over Normandy during the summer of 1944. Most of the members of 164 Squadron were Argentinian nationals, mostly from the large British expatriate community there. (Imperial War Museum, CH 13344).


Roger Connor is the lead curator for the Museum’s new World War II gallery in development.

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