The Smoking Snakes and Brazil in WWII

A couple blocks from my house sits the Museu dos Ex-Combatentes da Força Expedicionária Brasileira, a museum dedicated to Brazil’s participation in WWII. If you’re like me, despite this war’s name, you didn’t know Brazil got roped into it. So I decided to go and learn. Here’s what I found out:

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By the time the war started, Brazil was ruled by president-turned-dictator Getulio Vargas. Brazil traded with both Axis and Allied powers up until early 1942, when pressure from the US led Brazil to cease diplomatic relations with Italy and Germany.  (In exchange for support for its steel industry, Brazil had permitted the US to build airbases in the northeast.) In retaliation, German U-boats sank 13 Brazilian vessels over the next six months, killing over 600 people.

Vargas was a dictator himself, and also personal friends with Mussolini, but his administration was unable to withstand the public outcry over the U-boat attacks. Brazil officially declared war in August of that that year.

This led to some problems for the sizable communities of German, Italian, and Japanese immigrants living in Brazil, especially around Caxias. The government prohibited speaking these languages, leaving entire communities afraid to speak or facing punishment if they did. In Caxias, that meant renaming public spaces to scrape any trace of Italianness from them—including the central square in Caxias, which was named after Dante Alighieri.

Some Italian descendants in Caxias saw themselves as Brazilians first, but others saw themselves as proper Italians and thus supported fascism in the motherland. German and Italian nationalists could pick up AM radio signals from their respective countries, and there was even a pro-fascist newspaper in Caxias.

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All of Caxias’s WWII vets

During the war, Brazil provided the Allied efforts with military bases, supply lines to North Africa, and even troops. The US trained Brazilian forces and outfitted them with US uniforms and weapons. In the end, over 25,000 members of the army and air force were sent to invade Italy as part of the Força Expedicionária Brasileira (FEB). The entered in Naples and traveled up to northern Italy.

FEB was known as the colored division, as their racial diversity was notable alongside the segregated divisions of black- and Japanese-American soldiers. FEB helped mount offensives on the Italian front, resulting in a number of battles. The most famous of which was the victory at Monte Castello, where FEB succeeded in taking over a German stronghold.

Throughout the course of the war, nearly 1,9000 Brazilian soldiers died.

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The route FEB took through Italy

After the war, veterans weren’t revered quite as they were in the United States. Sure, their return home was celebrated, but heavy censorship of letters home depicted a skewed vision of what life on the front lines was like. Grisly accounts of the battlefield were withheld; lighter tales of day trips were permitted. As a result, the Brazilian public came to suspect soldiers were just spending their time vacationing in Italy, and civilians were less likely to look favorably on them (in job interviews, for example) as a result.

(I think it’s worth noting that this information wasn’t included on a plaque or anything in the museum; I learned about it by asking the docent if Brazil venerated its vets in a similar way as the US does.)

Despite this, the memory of FEB lives on in everyday language. Due to what appeared like Vargas’s initial reluctance to join the war effort, people began to claim “Mais fácil uma cobra fumar um cachimbo, do que a FEB embarcar para o combate“—or, “It’s more likely for a snake to smoke a pipe than for FEB to leave to fight.” As a result (and as one of my students told me), people began to use “a cobra vai fumar” (“the snake will smoke”) in a way similar to “when pigs fly.” So of course when Brazil entered the war, they adopted the moniker “smoking snakes.”

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Brazilian troops largely used US ranks/decoration, but you can spy the smoking snakes in the top left.

This iconography was also supported by the United States. Walt Disney, when he wasn’t creating a Brazilian parrot named José Carioca to star in a 1942 film likely intended to encourage ties between South America and the Allied Forces, sketched a mascot for FEB to use:

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Anyway, what I’ve presented here is the barest of outlines of Brazil’s participation in the war; you can find a lot more information about that here.

The museum was great—probably the best I’ve been to in Caxias so far, mostly because it had plaques that said what things were so I didn’t have to pester the nearby docent in order to learn something. But even when I did, I was super well-attended and the docents were exceedingly friendly and knowledgable.

On a personal note, I enjoyed being able to draw connections between my life here and the history I learned about while living in Rome. And despite the tragedy of the war, I also realized that its wake created the program that allowed me to be here in the first place. I’m continuously struck by how any event is the result of a complex web of social, economic, and political factors—and how much I have yet to learn.

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