The Brazilian Air Force and the Planes that Defined Us. Part One: War Time.

 

 

April 22 is the most important day on the history of the “Força Aérea Brasileira”. On this day in 1945, FAB set its own record when the 23 pilots of the First Fighter Group flew 44 bombing missions in 24 hours, over the Nazi occupied territories in Italy.

 

They flew the legendary P-47 Thunderbolt, the plane that pilots and ground crew learned to love with all their hearts.

Back home, FAB made it official, April 22 would be the date to remember those who fought and died in the skies of Europe during WW II, as well those who would become pilots after them.

Even though the Brazilian pilots never got involved in “dog fights”, they considered themselves as fighter pilots. So, April 22 became the National Fighter Aviation Day.

Interesting fact: in Portuguese we don’t actually call it “fighter” but “hunter”; I think is the same in any other Latin-based language.  So the day is the National Hunter Aviation Day.

 

Exactly 7 years later, on the Fighter’s Day, 1952, celebration was in full throttle at Santa Maria Air Base, the home of the First Fighter Group, in Rio de Janeiro. The atmosphere that year was a bit different, everybody seemed happier than in the years before.

Among the heavyweight FAB officials there was the Brazilian Air Minister, Brigadier Nero Moura, who was being a delightful host to a very special guest:

LG BENJAMIN J WEBSTER, US Air Force.

Who was at the time one of the top officials at the USAF Headquarters in Washington DC. His presence that day was indeed a great honor.

The celebration ended with a squadron of Thunderbolts performing  some acrobatic maneuvers.

Later that night, after dinner, Air Minister Moura and General Webster were chatting with the pilots about what could be done to improve the First Group and the answer was obvious: the Hunters need to fly jets.

The conversation seemed a little silly, because every one in that room knew it was high time to retire the P47 but that was the way Nero Moura found to, unofficially, tell them the government was in fact working on it.

After all, Gen. Webster wasn’t in Rio de Janeiro just for the nice weather, he was there as a salesman.

Let’s go a little further back in time and see how the USA and Brazil became very good friends during war time.

Brazil goes to war… finally.

On the shell is written: “The snake is smoking”. It will be explained later. 

In the years before the beginning of the WW II it was clear our President/Dictator/Emperor, Mr. Getulio Vargas, had a sympathy for the Nazi regime, after all, dictators tend to like other dictators. It was also clear after the war began, he was a bit afraid to take sides and hurt the feelings of the future winner. The best option at the moment was to stay neutral.

That “neutrality” was questionable. After all, Brazilian ships were coming and going across the Atlantic and the Nazis didn’t appreciate that at all. On March 22 1941 the first Brazilian merchant ship was attacked. After a couple ships were sunk, finally our government declared war on Germany on January 15, 1942. The picture above shows the “Araraquara”, which was sunk on August 15, 1942, by the U-boat U 507. A total of 131 lives were lost that day.

But how could we help the Allies if our military equipment was pretty outdated to say the least.

Our fighter squadrons were equipped with the biplane Boeing P12 shown here flying above Rio de Janeiro.

But Uncle Sam had a very smart way to provide weapons to us.

The “Lend and Lease” Act was proposed in 1940 and signed on March 11, 1941. This act allowed the President to provide military assistance to countries with potential to help in the war effort. In exchange, those countries would let the allies build and operate military bases on their soil and in some cases, make troops available for the fighting.

Soon after Brazil and the USA shook hands on this deal, the Americans flooded our bases with new toys. Things like guns, Jeeps, trucks, tanks, and of course, planes.

The most notorious planes FAB received were:

As advanced trainer and ground support, the North American Texan T6.

For the anti-submarine activities: the Consolidated PBY Catalina.

As a medium bomber: the North American B25 Mitchell.

For the fighting duties: The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.

And the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.

The Americans fulfilled their part of deal and now was our turn.

The Smoking Snake

President Vargas had promised to the Allies to send 100.000 Army personnel to Europe but he actually sent only 25.000.  In July 1944, the first wave of the recently created “National Expeditionary Force” arrived in Italy, almost two years after the declaration of war.

Vargas delayed the decision to send the troops as much as he could and at some point, the population and the media as well were convinced it would never happen. One reporter from a big Brazilian newspaper once said: “I think I’m going to see a snake smoking a pipe before I see a Brazilian soldier at war”.

Sure enough, as the right answer to that reporter, the symbol of our Expeditionary Force became a smoking snake.

What was at first just a joke, became serious; the Brazilian Army accepted the symbol as official and it must be shown on the sleeves of every soldier in the field.

The first drawing was a bit crude and later the army received a much better version done by no other than Walt Disney Studios.

The Brazilian Expeditionary Force had a very short participation in the war, as part of a massive combination of allied nations in a effort to open a corridor through the Italian mainland all the way to Berlin. The Nazis knew very well the importance of keeping that door shut at any cost and both sides fought fiercely. As a result, the Italian campaign was one of the bloodiest of the war.

We helped to liberate cities like Massarosa (picture above), Monte Plano and Monte Castelo.

The Second Part of the Deal

The Americans built several bases in Brazilian soil, some from scratch and some around infrastructure already in place but the most important one was the “Parnamirin Field”.

Located in the small town of Parnamirin, on the Northern tip of the country, it is the closest city in the Americas to Africa. On top of that, the summer-like weather all year round made the location a perfect choice.

The construction begun in late 1942 and by 1944 the base was fully operational.  It was massive, with two runways, a small harbor, ramps for the Catalinas, piers for the Martin Mariners, Transit Hotel, huge fuel and oil storage and so on.  It was the biggest American airfield outside the USA and the busiest during the war.

During its peak time, Parnamirin handled a plane landing every 3 minutes, basically every cargo plane transporting troops or goods in route to Africa, Russia, Italy and Burma had to stop there.

Parnamirin was also the base for most anti-submarine warfare in the South Atlantic.

President Roosevelt called it: “The Trampoline to Victory”.

The base had something between 2,500 and 3,000 Air Force personnel and didn’t take long for them to introduce a little bit of the American culture to the 40,000 local population.

As an FAB officer recollects: “For the first time we had contact with the kind of stuff we only saw in movies. Things like: bubblegum, canned beer, Ray Ban sunglasses, greasy hair and swing dancing. You bet we loved it all”.

For All.

Trying to have a better interaction with the local population, the base Commander used to promote, on weekend nights, open gates parties with snacks, refreshments and even allowing local musicians to play live.

The name of those parties were “For All” and needless to say, they became a huge success in the city and on the villages around.

By the end of the war the Americans closed the base and went back home, leaving all that infrastructure to the FAB. Even decades after 1945, the locals still had really good memories of the “Gringos” as being a jolly and kind people.

Flying Fast.

In January, 1944, 43 Brazilian pilots, all of them volunteers, were sent to the USAF base of Aguadulce, in Panama for some serious training in the P40. For most of them, that would be the first contact with a high performance fighter.

It was decided the Brazilians would fly under the command of the 350th Fighter Group. That means they had not only to learn how to handle that beauty but the Rules of Engagement as well.

By 1944 Curtiss had already ended the production of the Warhawk.

Plauged during its career by the lack of guts of the Allison V12 engine, the Warhawk was outperformed by its foes like the BF 109 in Europe and the Zero in the Pacific. Even though the P40 was massively produced with more than 13,000 units built and it was highly modified during the years with more than 10 official versions.

Exported to all allied countries, the plane saw action in basically every major campaign in the war, from Europe to the Middle East, from Russia to China.

With its “shark” nose art, the Warhawk is, perhaps, the most recognizable WWII fighter.

The first P 40 flight was in 1938 and the last Air Force to retire them was FAB.

During the war, our Warhawk squadrons were kept in Brazil to protect the homeland.

Even after the arrival of the jet fighters, FAB kept the P40 operational, as a trainer in many military aviation schools until 1958.

*Engine: Allison V12, water cooled, 1150 HP

* Max speed: 360 m/h

*Service ceiling: 29000 ft

*Armament: Six 0.50 Browning machine guns.

*Max payload: 1000 lb bombs

The Final Training 

After 160 flight hours in the P40, in June 1944, the pilots and the ground crew were sent to Suffolk Air Base on Long Island, NY to start the training in the pride of USAF, the P47 Thunderbolt.

At this stage the Brazilians were comfortably flying as a tactical unit and it didn’t take long for them to get used to all the qualities of the new fighter.

The Thunderbolt was big but maneuverable, tough as a tank yet fast. It was a multi-role warplane that could easily perform tasks like interception, escort, ground support, light bomber and reconnaissance.

And how big was it? It was three feet wider than the P-51 and four feet longer. And at more than 10,000 pounds empty, it was about 50 percent heavier than the Mustang and nearly twice the weight of of the Spitfire.

The P47 is not a pretty airplane to look at,  it doesn’t has the beautiful, aerodynamic lines of its “brothers in arms” the Mustang and Spitfire. It was designed around the “hot rod” aircraft engine of the time, the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp.

It is an 18 cylinder, air cooled, radial engine with 2800 cid. On the latest supercharged versions, it could deliver over 2500 hp and on the “emergency mode” with water/alcohol injection it could reach 2800 hp. Enough power to keep the Thunderbolt head to head in the top speed with the Mustang at 440 miles per hour.

Its top ceiling was at 40,000 ft.

This engine could also be found in other “top performance” fighters like the Hellcat and Corsair.

The Thunderbolt firepower was superb as well. Equipped with eight 0.50 cal Browning machine guns and room for nothing less then 3400 rounds (the Mustang could pack only 1800 bullets). It was enough for a full 30 seconds blast. As a Brazilian pilot once said in an interview: “If you had enough bullets in your pocket, you could cut a German locomotive in half”.

The best role for the massive Thunderbolt was ground attack, fully loaded, it could carry 3,000 pounds of bombs and rockets, almost half of the B17 payload.

Since its performance in dogfights was less than ideal, the P47 pilots have different tactics to engage enemy fighters, as Brigadier Nero Moura recollects: “During our training, the Americans made very clear our mission was ground attack but that didn’t mean we were forbidden to shoot at enemy planes.

Our instructors repeated the Thunderbolt golden rules for dog fights a thousand times: Fly high, dive fast, hit hard. If you got the bastard, great; if you didn’t just keep moving. You will get him next time.”

Among all the qualities of the Thunderbolt, perhaps the one most pilots keep in a special place in their memories is the amazing capacity of the plane to take punishment and still be able to bring its pilot home. It was as tough as a Sherman tank and that peculiar quality saved the lives of many pilots during the war.

The picture above was taken on Jan 27, 1945 and shows the damage on the P47 flown by Lt. Raymundo Costa Canário (canário means “canary”). What tore off a 4-foot long piece off the wing was something less glamorous than a well aimed German flak.

Lt. Canário, at this time was a rookie in combat and on that day, he was flying a low level ground attack mission.

Thanks to his inexperience, the 20 year old aviator crashed his plane against a huge factory chimney. Even with a big chunk of his right wing gone, he was able to fly it back home, being guided by his squadron leader, Cap. Dorneles, all the way.

They took a longer path to get home, flying above the ocean, trying to avoid the unusual heavy movement of German anti aircraft batteries that day.

To make things worse, at some point, they were mistaken as  enemy planes and attacked by a pair of patrolling Spitfires. Thank God the Brits soon realized their mistake and quickly left the scene.

They both landed safely to the amazement of every single one in the base. Just another proof of the incredible Thunderbolt’s reliability.

(Cap. Dorneles was shot down and died during his 89th mission and Lt. Canário survived the war with more than 50 missions at the end.)

Between 1941 and 1945, were built a little over 15,600 units of the P47 and just like the P40, the Thunderbolt was employed in every theater of the war and was exported to most of the allied countries.

The FAB’s Finest Hour.

The FAB arrived in Italy on October 6, 1944. They saw some action while based in the city of Tarquinia but after two months they were officially transferred to 350th Fighter Group, based in the city of Pisa, until the end of the operations on July 1, 1945.

Pisa is a city in Italy’s Tuscany region best known for its iconic Leaning Tower. Already tilting when it was completed in 1372. Just to give an idea how close they were to Germany, Pisa is 311 miles from Munich.

Very soon the Brazilian pilots were regularly flying combat missions. It was time to put everything they had learned during the training to work. It was time to join that formidable force that would very soon defeat the German war machine.

Since their training days in Aquadulce, the Brazilians had a “Battle Cry”,  Senta a Púa. It means something like an imperative voice saying: “Hit with a bat”. But it was only after a few weeks in Italy they decided to create the symbol for it.

The drawing is full of meanings: behind the bird there is flak exploding; the red background is the skies stained with the blood of those who died in combat; the shield represents the Thunderbolt’s armor; the stars on the shield are the “Southern Cross”, one of the Brazilian national symbols; and the bird shooting a gun represents their very mission.

But the question is: Why those crazy guys chose a ostrich? A damn bird that just can’t fly? The answer is again connected with our good sense of humor.

For most of our crew one of the biggest challenges of the war was to eat the dreadful American canned campaign food. They used to say to each other: “To survive the German flak you need skills and a lot of luck but to survive the canned food you need an ostrich’s stomach.” So, they considered themselves as a bunch of fighting ostriches.

The FAB had a short participation in the war but was a very intense one.

They faced many obstacles, just like any other allied soldier, a fierce enemy, a harsh winter, homesickness. But perhaps one of the most cruel of them was our very own government.

Everybody knew our President didn’t want fight in this war and our boys paid for his lack of willingness.

Getulio Vargas never allowed FAB to send enough replacements to cover the pilots lost in combat.

The result was after only 6 months, the First Group was reduced to only 22 pilots. Just too few to keep them flying as a group.

The next step would be to dismantle the unit, replace it by another allied one and send the remaining pilots as replacements for other groups across Europe.

But the guys refused to break apart, they were born as a group and should die as one.

The commander of the 350th was straightforward: “If you guys want to keep the First Group alive that means one thing, each one of you will have to fly your own mission and the mission of that guy who never came as well”.

From that point to the end of the war, on many occasions, some of the Brazilian pilots had to fly 2 missions a day and during the final allied push, they even performed 3 daily missions.

During its short contribution in WW II, the First Fighter Group flew a total of 445 bombing missions.

From the original 43 pilots who arrived in Italy, 9 were shot down and died, 5 were made POW, 3 bailed out over enemy territory and were rescued by Italian families and 15 were sent home because of medical issues.

In 1986, Colonel Ariel Nielsen, former Commander of the 350th Fighter Group, pledged on behalf of the Brazilians, for the American government to give them the “Presidential Unit Citation” .

FAB became the third foreign Air Force to receive the honor.

My favorite Curbside Classic. 

In my hometown, Curitiba, there is a very nice museum that honors our participation in WWII. In front of the building there are some static pieces on display: a captured German cannon, a torpedo, a light tank and a P47 Thunderbolt.

Since I was old enough to understand what an airplane was, I would bother my father to take me to see “the plane”. For a 6 year old kid that Thunderbolt wasn’t big… it was gigantic.

Many years later, when the teachers and the books taught me about the war and the reasons we fought, that plane became even bigger.

I think that display even played a big role in my decision to join the Air Force in 1988.

The FAB Museum in Rio de Janeiro has been working hard to put together a P47 to became the only fly-worthy unit in the country.

The main source for parts are the Thunderbolts on static display across the country.

My favorite CC proudly gave its brake system.