Exactly 70 years ago, on August 13, 1943, the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) came into being. The troops departed for combat on July 2, 1944. Just before departure of the transport ship General Mann, the 5,075 soldiers on board – known as pracinhas – were sent off by President Getúlio Vargas: “Soldiers of the Expeditionary Force. The head of government is here to bring you a word of farewell on behalf of the entire nation. Fate has chosen you for this historical mission to raise the green and yellow flag in the fields of battle. It is with great emotion that I wish you complete success. This is not goodbye, but “see you soon,” when you shall hear your homeland’s gratitude.”
But upon their return in 1945, the president’s promise went unfulfilled. “The demobilization of the FEB soldiers was handled in a politically conservative way in an effort to prevent the expeditionaries from participating in the power struggles of the Estado Novo [“New State” period, 1937-1945] by gradually pushing them into social oblivion. The veterans were abandoned by the civil and military authorities. Legislation was passed to award them benefits, but it was practically ignored, and the benefits earmarked exclusively for the combatants were increasingly misappropriated by non-expeditionaries,” explains historian Francisco César Alves Ferraz from Londrina State University, a visiting researcher at the University of Tennessee. Ferraz discussed the social reintegration of FEB veterans in his book A guerra que não acabou (The war that never ended, published by Londrina State University, 2012), and more recently in two research projects: The preparations for social reintegration of American combatants in World War II (1942-1946) and Social reintegration of World War II veterans: comparative study of former combatants from Brazil and the United States (1945-1965).
According to the researcher, unlike the former combatants of Europe and North America, who turned their public demonstrations into organized social movements (enabling them to win benefits and social recognition), Brazil’s veterans were unable to call the attention of society and the government to their problems, not the least of all because they were so few in number. Ferraz, who analyzed the differences between the reintegration of American and Brazilian former combatants, recalls that in 1942, studies had already been already commissioned from a wide range of American government organizations, the Armed Forces, Congressional committees, and the private sector. “One of the most expressive results was the group of laws called the G.I. Bill of Rights, which entitled veterans to free technical and university-level education, made the federal government a guarantor for their bank loans, and granted unemployment benefits and free healthcare to soldiers who had been in active combat duty for at least 90 days.”
So on April 6, 1945, the U.S. War Department sent a letter to the commanding general of the country’s Army forces in the South Atlantic, to which the Brazilian soldiers were subordinate, warning them of the inadvisability of immediately demobilizing the FEB upon their return to Brazil. “As this is the only Brazilian Army unit fully trained by the USA, they are considered to be of great value as a focal point for training other elements of the Brazilian Army, and as a potentially valuable Brazilian contribution to hemispheric defense,” the document observes. The warning was already a response to the rumors, started in March 1945, that the Brazilian authorities intended to summarily demobilize the FEB. And this actually happened.
“The Brazilian Army did everything in its power to marginalize and disregard the men who fought in the front lines. There was enormous prejudice and envy toward those who participated in the FEB. All the experience they acquired was disdained, going against the USA’s advice that the expeditionaries should be viewed as the core of an effort to modernize and renew our Army,” concludes historian Dennison de Oliveira from the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), who has been working on this topic, among others, in his most recent research project: Social reintegration of former combatants in Brazil: the case of the Paraná Expeditionary Legion (1945-1980). “In their eagerness to do away with the FEB, which they saw as politically untrustworthy, the Brazilian government and military quickly demobilized the pracinhas without subjecting them to the medical exams that would later prove essential for them to claim pensions and financial support in case of diseases or injuries sustained in combat,” the professor explains. Political fears played a key role: the threat posed by this new type of military force – more professional, liberal and democratic – to the Brazilian Army under the Duke of Caxias; the fear that the FEB officers could tip the political-electoral scales and might be co-opted by the Communists and, above all, the possibility that President Vargas’s immense popularity among the expeditionaries could lead them to support him and encourage Brazilians towards solutions other than the conservative pact sealed by the political elites for the succession of the Estado Novo’s former leader.
In a Reserved Notice issued by the Ministry of War and signed by Minister Eurico Dutra on June 11, 1945, the Brazilian Command observed that: “Although we acknowledge the general public’s interest, FEB officials and soldiers are hereby prohibited, for reasons of military concern, from making statements or granting interviews without authorization from the Ministry of War.” According to Ferraz, forbidding the soldiers to tell their stories is an act of censorship, not national security. The ban appears to have been designed to “break the impact” of the FEB’s arrival and prevent any comments that might embarrass the military institution or involve it in the political issues that were simmering at the time.
Ferraz explains that this becomes especially evident when compared with the instructions issued to the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) Fighter Group by the United States Command: “When you arrive in your home town, the local press will probably want to interview you. You are free to talk about your activities to journalists, but you should not speculate about the future of our units. The war continues in the Near East. However, we would like its story to be told many times, in the U.S. and in Brazil. Good luck to you in the future,” wrote Major General Charles Myers.
The FEB was also poorly received by many in the Army, career military men who had somehow managed to escape going to war. “The sending out of expeditionaries, of citizen-soldiers, was the butt of jokes in the barracks. When the expeditionaries returned and were met with popular prestige, many in the military felt that they might ‘fall behind’ in their careers, and so an unspoken conspiracy began among the majority who feared being passed over for promotions and titles,” observes Dennison de Oliveira.
In his comparison of American and Brazilian veterans, Ferraz showed how an important factor in veteran reintegration in both countries was how to handle the past, which raised precisely those political issues associated with the former combatants. In the case of Brazil, the most recent foreign war in which young, non-military men had been drafted and mobilized was the War of the Triple Alliance (or Paraguayan War, 1856-1870). Their return to society was far from satisfactory, since most of the veterans ended up in the National Home for Invalids. “A consequence not planned by the Brazilian Empire was the increase in active political participation by officers, including low-ranking ones. The legacy of this was that the authorities became so fearful of the combatants’ political activism that this took precedence over the duties of society and the State toward the war veterans,” Ferraz notes. In the U.S., the authorities learned how to reintegrate their young veterans when the military mobilizations for the Civil War, and particularly for World War I, brought veteran-related issues into starker emphasis during the Depression, with riots breaking out on the American streets.
“They saw that the profile of recruited combatants directly influences their social reintegration: the higher their level of education and professional qualifications, the greater their chances of success upon resuming their professional careers and citizenship. And also, the more egalitarian and socially distributed the drafting process, the better the chances of being received by society in a positive way,” Ferraz explains. In Brazil, the researcher says, all sorts of “string-pulling tactics” were deployed to keep the sons of wealthier families out of the unit. Even so, though mostly poor and uneducated, the Brazilian force was above average in relation to the rest of the country.
“Most of the sergeants, corporals and soldiers came from urban areas, could read and write, and were so physically fit and robust that the FEB had to produce uniforms larger than the standard Army dress,” observes historian Cesar Campiani Maximiano, researcher at the Center for Political, Historical and Cultural Studies at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP) and author of books including Barbudos, sujos e fatigados: soldados brasileiros na Segunda Guerra (Dirty, unshaven, and fatigued: Brazilian soldiers in World War II, published by Grua, 2010). “Out of all the FEB soldiers, 80.7% came from Southern and Southeastern Brazil. The conscripts from the Northeast, chosen for their excellent health and educational level, were mostly students who served as corporals and sergeants, having been included to address a shortage of experienced graduates,” notes the author.
In the U.S., 47% of the first 3 million drafted could not meet the standards; between 1942 and 1943, out of 15 million men examined, 32.4% were rejected for physical or psychological reasons and one-third were deemed “unfit for any service”. The Americans wanted only the best, and they enforced strict criteria to get it. The most striking difference, however, is that there was no distinction of class when drafting for the war and a rigorous control system was in place for exemptions. This and an extensive campaign to mobilize public opinion enabled the recruitment of more than 16 million soldiers over the course of the war. “There was a combatant in practically every American family, which helped them understand the duties of society toward those who fought,” Ferraz assesses.
In Brazil, despite the welcome-home parties, the expeditionaries were quickly demobilized. “The reason was political: both the authorities of the declining Estado Novo and the opposing political forces feared a political pronouncement by the expeditionaries, in what could be a repetition of the political involvement of the military in the previous century, after the War of the Triple Alliance,” says Ferraz. The rush to obliterate the FEB was so great that the soldiers already had their discharge certificates in hand when they left Italy, and upon their arrival in Brazil, they were no longer under the authority of the FEB commander, but rather of the military commander of the Federal District, who was not exactly a FEB sympathizer.
“From there, they were left to their own devices. Psychological traumas of every kind, and fighting for survival in the job market, made homecoming difficult for the thousands of Brazilians who had been sent out into the field of battle. The first laws to support them were not passed until 1947,” says Dennison de Oliveira. Most of those laws were never enforced. And others were not well received by the former combatants, such as the decree-law passed by Vargas in July 1945 granting amnesty to the FEB military men, whose practical effect was to grant amnesty to those who deserted in Brazil before the military campaign. According to Oliveira, the last straw was the so-called “Beach Act”, passed in 1949 by President Dutra. “According to this law, any person sent into the ‘war zone’ was entitled to the benefits and pensions. The law included navigable waterways and cities on the Brazilian coast that were located in that ‘war zone’. So both a soldier who had risked his life and fought in the freezing Apennines and a bank teller who had been transferred to a coastal city received the same benefits,” says the historian.
“Reintegration was also difficult in the USA, of course, but American society made an effort to receive the millions of men returning from war. Their combatants would be celebrated as the ‘greatest generation’, the one that secured victory against barbarism. For Brazilian veterans, there was no such recognition,” Ferraz observes. According to the historian, the veterans’ pursuit of institutional support drove them closer to the Armed Forces and, consequently, to their political practices – including the military coup d’état of 1964. Transformed into symbols and supporters of the military regime, the FEB soldiers came under fire from detractors of the post-1964 military dictatorship in Brazil. “Instead of questioning this equating of the FEB with the Army and the military government, these critics preferred to attack the reputation of the expeditionaries, which only strengthened the bond between the Army and the veterans,” Ferraz observes.
It cannot be denied, of course, that many pracinhas did support the military regime, especially as there were a few FEB members among the first generation of coup orchestrators – including the first military dictator, President Castelo Branco, whose ascent to power gave veterans hope of being “avenged”. But the memoirs of these combatants reveal different stories, as observed by Israeli historian and Brazilianist Uri Rosenheck, who is currently working in the U.S. at Emory University. His research on the FEB was published in Fighting for home abroad: remembrance and oblivion of World War II in Brazil. The subjects of his study included former combatants’ memoirs and the monuments to the expeditionaries, erected in the “civic spaces” of Brazilian cities.
“The memoirs of the pracinhas are simply recollections of the past, but if you look at them analytically, they are revealed as instruments of contemporary political critiquing. To read their memories of war is to see how these men challenged the military dictatorship and condemned gunpoint politics,” explains Rosenheck, who reviewed the 150 memoirs written about the FEB. According to the historian, although they publicly defended their leaders, the citizen-soldiers criticized the military.
“Most of their observations have to do with the inefficiency of the Brazilian Army as compared to its American counterpart, and the contrast between regular and reserve officers. They criticize the lack of logistics and describe how they suffered in the cold for lack of appropriate uniforms, how they had to pay for their own train tickets as they waited to depart for Rio, and even the lack of IDs, as dog tags were not given to them,” says the Brazilianist. The strongest vitriol was reserved for officials of the regular Army, i.e., Caxias’s Army, as opposed to the voluntary combatants of the FEB. “They recall the Army’s outdated perceptions on the relations between pracinhas and officials, on the ethics and morality of the officer corps, and on professionalism in real combat.” Some recall that they were robbed by their superiors, and that decisions were arbitrary and based on what types of gifts they could give their officials.
The same was true when the subject was racism. “In many memoirs, the soldiers say that they were horrified at the racism of American soldiers, but in many cases, these memoirs contain ‘slips’ that reveal the pracinhas’ own racism. But the important thing is to realize that they prefer to blame cases of prejudice on ‘orders from superiors’. So everything is categorized as ‘an American thing’ or ‘orders from superiors’, separating ‘the soldiers’, ‘the FEB’, and by extension, ‘the Brazilians’ from the others who were responsible for these horrible acts, whether these people were domestic or foreign.” According to Rosenheck, the accusations against commanders, calling them racist and incompetent, can be interpreted as an implicit attack on the Armed Forces and its role in society. “Criticism does not need to be explicit in order to be effective. The fact that veterans from the largest military combat force since the Paraguayan War are criticizing the Army lends their observations credibility and strength. Everything is focused on the military, not on the political government or civil society, which only reinforces this interpretation.”
Rosenheck also studied the monuments dedicated to the FEB, reaching similar conclusions. “Although people say that the pracinhas were forgotten, there are 192 monuments to the FEB, which lost 451 men. In other words, there are almost three monuments for every seven dead,” he reports. These were not erected to celebrate dead soldiers, but rather to celebrate the living, those that came back, a very non-militaristic approach. The Armed Forces are almost absent from the texts that accompany these monuments; the inscriptions emphasize democracy, freedom, and good citizenship. Out of the 192 monuments, 120 were built between 1945 and 1946 and 32 were erected before the military dictatorship was established. Few of them depict soldiers (most are obelisks), and their visual representation is not one of combat. “The narrative does not convey the importance of the Army or its role in building the nation, but the values of a civilian society,” says the historian. “We must recognize that the FEB’s links to military history are important, but there are other narratives. We must create connections between the FEB’s history and other aspects of Brazilian history and society as a whole,” he warns.Republish