A Smoking Snake: The Brazilian Expeditionary Force in WWII


The Smoking Snake shoulder patch of a Brazilian Expeditionary Force soldier in WWII.


Brazil was the only Latin American country to send ground troops overseas to fight in WWII.


In 1941 after the December 7th Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the United States (US) Navy was granted access to Brazilian ports in its anti-submarine campaign in the Battle of the Atlantic against the Axis.  In early 1942 Brazil granted permission to the US to establish air bases and military installations on Brazilian territory.   The South American bases were essential as staging and stopover points for aircraft and ships with destinations in Africa, the Mediterranean, and beyond.  Recife and Natal, Brazil, were particularly important bases during WWII.

The President of Brazil Getúllo Dornelles Vargas declared war on Germany and Italy on August 22, 1942, after 36 of its merchant ships were sunk in the Atlantic Ocean by German and Italian submarines.

The  Brazilian Expeditionary Force (BEF) was formed in early 1943 and had Army and Air Force branches. The BEF included about 25,700 men and women.

The Brazilian Navy was not directly part of the BEF.  The Brazilian Navy and the Allies defended air and sea transport lanes, protected convoys between South America and the Strait of Gibraltar, and made it difficult for German and Italian submarines to operate in the Central and South Atlantic Ocean and in the Caribbean Sea. 

The first group of BEF troops sailed from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Naples, Italy, in 1944.  Their mission was to fight alongside other Allied armies in the Mediterranean Theater.

The BEF Army branch was attached to the Allied 15th Army Group composed of British and US field armies in Italy.  The BEF had a notable role in numerous battles in Italy including the Battle of Monte Castello, the Battle of Montese, and the Battle of Collecchio. They captured over 20,000 Axis soldiers.

The BEF air branch was attached to the 305th Fighter Group of the US Army Air Force, 62nd Fighter Wing, 12th Air Force flying in the Mediterranean Theater. The Brazilians flew Republic P-47D Thunderbolt fighter planes from their base in Tarquinia, Italy.  Their callsign was Jambock. They flew 445 missions and destroyed military targets including 1,304 motor vehicles, 13 railway wagons, 8 armored cars, 25 railway and highway bridges, and 31 fuel tanks and munitions depots.


Brazilian P-47 Thunderbolt pilots wearing their distinctive white caps. Kneeling left to right: 2nd Lieutenant Paulo Costa, Captain M. Joel. Standing left to right: 1st Lieutenant A.D.S. Eustógio, Lieutenant Colonel Nero Moura, 1st Lieutenant I. Motta-Paes, 1st Lieutenant R.B. Lima-Moreira, 1st Lieutenant L.F.M.F. Perdigão.


When WWII ended, the Brazilian Expeditionary Force had lost nearly 1,000 men killed in action.

The Brazilian Military Cemetery of Pistoia, Italy, was established on August 4, 1945.  The cemetery closed in 1960. The soldiers’ remains were returned to Brazil and re-interred at the Monument of the Dead of World War II in Rio de Janeiro.  

The body of an unidentified Brazilian soldier was later discovered still buried in the Pistoia cemetery.  The Brazilian government elected to leave the remains of the soldier there.  In 1967 the Brazilian Monument and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of World War II was inaugurated at Pistoia.  



WWII Allies remembered. 

An exhibit in the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, to commemorate the Brazilian Air Force in WWII.


For additional information about the Brazilian Expeditionary Force in WWII visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazilian_Expeditionary_Force.  Also at the web page is the story explaining how the BEF got the nickname Smoking Snakes.


In God I Trust: The Story of WWII B-17 Ball Turret Gunner Frank Perez

Frank Perez WWII and 2010 kneeling next to the ball turret of a B-17 Flying Fortress.


Frank Delgado Perez was born in Los Angeles, California, on January 14, 1924. Growing up near an aircraft manufacturing plant, he became interested in airplanes. Drafted in 1943 he requested assignment to the United States Army Air Force (USAAF).

Upon induction into the USAAF Frank reported to Keesler Army Air Field at Biloxi, Mississippi, where he went through basic training and then received specialty training at the Airplane and Engine Mechanics School there. Graduates of the school became a B-24 Liberator Flight Engineer. After gunnery school at Laredo Army Air Field, Texas, and ten days leave, Sergeant Perez reported to Salt Lake City Army Air Field, Utah, where flight crews were being formed. Expecting to be assigned to a B-24 crew but due to the “needs of the service,” Frank was assigned to the Lieutenant (Lt) John J. Connolly crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress. The B-17 crew already had a flight engineer, so Frank was selected for the ball turret gunner position. The Connolly crew then went to Sioux City Army Air Base in Iowa for advanced overseas crew training.

In April 1944 the Connolly crew with other recently formed B-17 crews ferried new B-17s over the Atlantic Ocean northern route and landed in Prestwick, Scotland. Sadly, a number of B-17s and crews were lost enroute.

Transported from Scotland to England the Connolly crew was assigned to the 401st Bomb Group (BG), 613th Bomb Squadron, Deenethorpe. The base was about two miles east of Corby, Northampshire, England.

Due to scheduling and additional training received by some members of Frank’s crew, he flew his first combat mission as a ball turret gunner with the Lt Dow C. Pruitt crew on April 18, 1944. The primary target was Oranienburg, Germany. The city was the site of a Nazi nuclear energy project. Cloud cover over the city that day forced cancellation of the mission, and a secondary target was chosen. The secondary target was the Kumarkische-Zellewolle Viscose Fiber factory at Wittenburg, Germany.

April 19, 1944, Frank’s second combat mission, he rejoined the Connolly crew. The target that day was Kassel, Germany. Kassel targets included aircraft, heavy tank, locomotive, engine, and motor transport plants as well as railway works.

In 2012 oral history interviews * **, Frank spoke of the anxiety and fear felt by many men flying combat missions. He was a devout Catholic and wore a crucifix on the chain with his dog tags. Frank said before a combat mission a priest was available to those men who wanted to receive Absolution (part of the Sacrament of Penance). It offered them a sense of peace in knowing that they may not return. Frank did not drink alcohol but said if he did he would rather have had the shot of whiskey before the mission instead of during the interrogation when they returned to their base.

After the Connolly crew June 6, 1944, D-Day mission to Caen, France, Frank was hospitalized with pneumonia. He spent almost a month recuperating and then was grounded for weeks. He started flying with his crew again on July 28, 1944, with the target being the synthetic oil and ammonia plant at Merseburg, Germany. [Frank would later fly with other crews to reach his required number of combat missions. Some members of the Connolly crew fulfilled their mission requirements in August 1944.]

All combat missions were fraught with danger, but Frank spoke of a particular mission to Ludwigshaven, Germany, that became a test of his faith. Ludwigshaven was the site of large marshalling (railway) yards and a railroad depot. The bombing run that day was completed, and the B-17s turned to fly back to their base in England. Frank’s B-17 was hit by flak and began tumbling and rolling out of control as it quickly lost altitude from about 30 thousand feet. They were still over Germany. Frank could not get out of the ball turret due to the centrifugal force created as the plane fell from the sky. He saw the ground getting closer and closer. Frank called the pilot on the intercom. No answer. Then he called “anyone.” No answer.

During the oral history interview Frank asked for a moment to collect his thoughts. Even decades later, he said he felt “tongue-tied” and emotionally “thrown back” to that mission.

After a pause Frank continued his story. He thought he was going to be killed and started to pray. He prayed, “Well, God, if this is the way it has to be, let it be.” Frank said, “I was under tension and wanted to live. But when I said that, at that instant, everything was just as peaceful as it can get. [I] had my whole life flash before me … from the time I was a little kid to that moment. I mean just like a movie, but going like that [he snaps his fingers]. It’s hard to explain … like if you get killed, so what … you just don’t care.”

And then the B-17 pulled up.

The plane was flying at treetop level with only two of the four engines working. The crew began throwing unnecessary equipment and supplies out of the plane to lighten the load. Frank was still in the ball turret and was there for the entire mission. After what seemed like an eternity, he saw the White Cliffs of Dover on the English coastline. He knew they were going to make it. The B-17 landed at a B-24 base in England.

As fate would have it, Frank knew many of the military personnel at the B-24 base. After all, he had trained with them in Biloxi, Mississippi. Frank and the crew stayed there for a few days while the B-24 mechanics repaired the B-17 engines. He recalls at the B-24 base that they ate out of mess kits unlike Deenethorpe where they ate from plates. They flew the B-17 back to Deenethorpe.

Frank’s last combat mission (Mission #32) was to a synthetic oil plant in Politz, Poland, on October 7, 1944. He flew with the Lt Albert L. Hanson crew. Five B-17 crews were lost that day; three planes were shot down, but two reached neutral Sweden where the crews were interned until the end of WWII.

Frank sailed home to the United States (US) after completing his required combat missions. He was back in the US before the Battle of the Bulge began on December 16, 1944. His assignment on the ship while crossing the Atlantic Ocean was to guard German prisoners of war (POW) who would be interned in stateside POW camps.

Staff Sergeant Perez was stationed at Amarillo Army Air Field, Texas, as a B-17 Inspector when WWII ended.

Frank returned to California and earned a Degree in Agriculture from California Polytechnic University. He always had a passion for life and considered every day a blessing. Frank was very active in his church and his community. Between the ages of 78 and 88 he went hang gliding, parasailing, skydiving, and paragliding. He never lost his childhood love for flight.


Frank’s crucifix is pictured at the bottom left of the photograph. Years later it still remained with his dog tags.


Frank died January 16, 2015, two days after his 91st birthday.

One can hope that other flyers experienced the “feeling of peace” that Frank felt before they died.



Faith in God was of great importance in the hearts and minds of many people, both military and civilian, who lived through WWII. Another story on this web site, “WWII Camp Shanks, New York: And a Visit by Archbishop Spellman,” addresses the comfort that faith in God provided the men and women who fought and died in the war. In 1943 the Ground Echelon of the 401st BG stayed at Camp Shanks before boarding the Queen Mary in New York City to cross the Atlantic Ocean to England. The link to the story is http://www.ww2history.org/war-in-europe/wwii-camp-shanks-new-york-and-a-visit-by-archbishop-spellman/.

Thank you to Josie Navarro, Frank’s niece, for her help in researching this story, sharing family memories, and for permission to post the photographs.

 * Thank you to Reagan Grau, Archivist, at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.  

 ** Thank you to Dr. Vernon L. Williams, Military Historian and Professor of History, at Abiliene Christian University. As Director of the East Anglia Air War Project, he interviewed Frank Perez and many WWII  Eighth and Ninth Army Air Force veterans and also members of British communities who grew to know and love (and sometimes marry) the “Yanks.”  The link for information about the project is http://www.angliaairwar.org/.


WWII United States Navy “Sweetwater” Aircraft Carriers

US Navy Pier, Chicago, Illinois, during WWII. USS Wolverine (on left) alongside USS Sable.
US Navy Pier, Chicago, Illinois, during WWII.  USS Wolverine (on left) alongside the USS Sable.


With possible threats posed by German and Japanese submarines along the United States (US) Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, US Navy Commander Richard L. Whitehead had the idea to train Navy pilots in takeoffs and landings on aircraft carriers in the North American Great Lakes. Ingenuity was necessary to make this happen since there were no US Navy aircraft carriers in the Great Lakes.

Two paddlewheel passenger steamers already operating on the Great Lakes were converted to “sweetwater” aircraft carriers.  “Sweetwater” was a Navy slang word of the time used to describe freshwater versus saltwater ships.  

One of the two ships converted to an aircraft carrier was the Steam Ship (SS) Seeandbee which was commissioned the United States Ship (USS) Wolverine on August 12, 1942. The other ship, originally the SS Greater Buffalo, was renamed and commissioned the USS Sable on May 8, 1943.  Basically, their superstructures were removed, and a flight deck was added.


SS Greater Buffalo before conversion to USS Sable


SS Greater Buffalo conversion
SS Greater Buffalo during conversion


USS Sable on Lake Michigan with Grumman Wildcat fighter plane taking off.
USS Sable in Lake Michigan with Grumman Wildcat taking off


The homeport for these two “makeshift” aircraft carriers was the Chicago, Illinois, US Navy Pier located on Lake Michigan. Pilots attempting to qualify for aircraft carrier duty flew from US Naval Air Station Glenview, Illinois, to train on these ships.

Over 17,000 pilots were trained in takeoffs and landings. One US Navy aviator who trained on the USS Sable was a future President of the United States, George H. W. Bush.


After WWII, some planes that were lost during training were brought up from the bottom of Lake Michigan. Recovered fighter planes have included a F4U-1 Corsair and a FM-2 Wildcat.

The North American Great Lakes supported the war effort in various roles. See an earlier post, “Great Lakes Shipbuilding in WWII: And the Tale of FP-344,” on this website. The story link is http://www.ww2history.org/homefront/great-lakes-shipbuilding-in-wwii-and-the-tale-of-fp-344/ .

Thank you to WWII historian George Cressman for his assistance in writing this post.

WWII Camp Shanks, New York: And a Visit by Archbishop Spellman

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Camp Shanks was located in Orangeburg, New York, about 30 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. It served as a staging area to equip United States (US) military units in preparation for their embarkation to the European Theater of Operations in WWII.

US Army bombardment groups, infantry divisions, armoured divisions, medical groups, and other military units passed through Camp Shanks. The average stay was 12 days. It is estimated that 75% of those who took part in the Normandy, France, D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, had been billeted there.  One unit that was in transit at Camp Shanks was the 101st Airborne Division, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, E (Easy) Company.  Easy Company later became well-known in the Stephen E. Ambrose book Band of Brothers and a HBO miniseries by the same name.

Camp Shanks, nicknamed “Last Stop, USA,” was a large military installation that had its own newspaper, orchestra, and baseball team. Celebrities of the time, Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny, the Andrews Sisters, and Jimmy Durante were among those who entertained the troops there.

One visitor to Camp Shanks was Archbishop Francis J. Spellman.  He had been named Vicar for the US Armed Forces by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939. On one of the Archbishop’s visits there in 1943,  a young US Army nurse, Lieutenant Josephine Pescatore, was in the audience.

Lieutenant Pescatore remembers the audience, of about 1,000 people, included individuals from various religious denominations. She says there was an atmosphere of apprehension in the air as those in attendance prepared for war and did not know if they would return home someday.

Archbishop Spellman gave everyone a prayer, the Act of Contrition, that he said was specially written for those in wartime.*  There were many questions from those attending the gathering, such as “What do I do if I am wounded and dying and there is no priest there to say the prayer for me?” The Archbishop told them that someone other than a priest could say it for them, or they could say it themselves. 

On June 12, 1944, Lieutenant Josephine Pescatore landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, as a nurse with the US Army 24th Evacuation Hospital. The evacuation hospital treated and cared for the wounded and dying as it followed the troops through Europe. As a nurse, it was important to Lieutenant Pescatore to let dying men know they were not alone. When she knew a man was dying, she would go to his bedside, touch him gently, and say the Act of Contrition for him.  She once told me … she didn’t know if a dying man had been able to say the prayer for himself, so she said it for him.

Act of Contrition

Forgive me my sins, O Lord, forgive me my sins; the sins of my youth, the sins of my age, the sins of my soul, the sins of my body; my idle sins, my serious voluntary sins, the sins I know, the sins I do not know; the sins I have concealed so long, and which are now hidden from my memory.  I am truly sorry for every sin, mortal and venial, for all the sins of my childhood up to the present hour.  I know my sins have wounded Thy tender Heart.  O my Saviour, let me be freed from the bonds of evil through the most bitter Passion of my Redeemer.  Amen

O my Jesus, forget and forgive what I have been.

Nihil Obstat:–Arthur J. Scanlan, S.T.D.

Imprimatur:–Francis J. Spellman, D.D.

April 8, 1941


* The Act of Contrition is a prayer to make peace with God.

Story as told to me by Lieutenant Josephine Pescatore Reaves.  For her service in WWII, she was awarded the Bronze Star with Battle Citations for Normandy, Northern France, the Rhineland, and Central Europe.

The US Army 24th Evacuation Hospital admitted and treated 19,313 patients in WWII.  The survival rate at the evacuation hospital was 98.39%.


In the future there will be more stories about the US Army 24th Evacuation Hospital and its people. 

Mexico’s 201st “Aztec Eagles” Fighter Squadron WWII

201st Fighter Squadron pilots after their first combat mission in the Philippines


After Germany declared war on the United States (US) on December 11, 1941, the German Navy expanded the area patrolled by its submarines and increased their activity along the Canadian and US Atlantic Ocean coastline and in the Gulf of Mexico.  In May 1942 a German submarine sank two Mexican oil tankers, the Potrero del Llano and the Faja de Oro, which were carrying crude oil to the US.  After those two incidents, Mexico President Manuel Avila Camacho formally declared war on Germany, Italy, and Japan on May 22, 1942.

President Camacho, after meeting with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Monterrey, Mexico, in April 1943, formed the 201st Mexican Expeditionary Air Force Fighter Squadron which became part of the Allied war effort.  It was thought that the historical and cultural connections between the Philippines and Mexico, with the sharing of the Spanish language, would make the unit valuable in the Pacific Theater of Operations.

The 201st Fighter Squadron (FS) was composed of pilots and ground crew.  Over 300 men volunteered to be part of the unit.  Training of the FS and equipping it for combat operations was accomplished under provisions in the US Lend-Lease Agreement of June 11, 1942.

Formation of the 201st Mexican Fighter Squadron at Randolph Field, Texas

The 201st FS arrived at Randolph Field, San Antonio, Texas, in July 1944 for their initial phase of  training.

Pilots were sent for flight training to Foster Field in Victoria, Texas, Pocatello Army Air Field, Idaho, and Majors Field in Greenville, Texas.  They were trained in various aircraft including the T-6 trainer, P-40 Warhawk, and the P-47 Thunderbolt. Training for the ground crew took place at a number of military installations across the US.

It was during training in the US that the 201st FS got the nickname “Aztec Eagles.”

The 201st FS graduated at Majors Field, Greenville, Texas, on February 20, 1945, and was presented with its battle flag.  Colonel Antonio Cardenas Rodriguez was the unit commander.  Captain First Class Radames Gaxiola Andrade served as squadron commander.

In March 1945 the 201st FS left San Francisco, California, by ship and arrived in Manila, Philippines, on April 30, 1945.  The unit was assigned to the US 5th Army Air Force, 58th Fighter Group, based at Porac near the Clark Field complex on the island of Luzon.  After initially flying borrowed P-47 Thunderbolts, the 201st received 25 P-47s painted with both the insignia of the US and Mexico.

The 201st FS fought in the Battle of Luzon with the bombing of Japanese targets in Luzon and Formosa and provided ground support for the US Army 25th Infantry Division.  The unit flew an estimated 59 combat missions between June and August 1945.

The 201st Mexican Expeditionary Air Force Fighter Squadron returned to Mexico November 18, 1945.  They were welcomed back with a parade in Constitution Square in Mexico City.  During the parade, Mexico President Manuel Avila Camacho was presented with their battle flag.


Thank you to Dr. Mario Longoria for his invaluable assistance in providing information for this post.  The photographs are from his Mexico’s 201st Fighter Squadron Collection and are used with his permission.


Great Lakes Shipbuilding in WWII: And the Tale of FP-344

FP-344 In Kewaunee Harbor
FP-344 in Kewaunee Harbor


The North American Great Lakes were an area of strategic importance in the United States (US) during WWII. Iron ore needed to be transported to steel making plants along the Great Lakes.  Shipyards on the shores of the Great Lakes built military vessels. Types of ships built were cargo ships, tugboats, submarines, and other vessels.

After ships were launched in the Great Lakes, they made their way down to Chicago (Illinois), transited the Chicago Drainage Canal, traveled through other waterways connecting with the Mississippi River, and sailed south to the Gulf of Mexico where they were placed in service.

The US Coast Guard was assigned duty on the Great Lakes to guard against sabotage and to keep shipping lanes open. Duties included manning lookout stations which monitored shipping lanes, patrolling harbors, and guarding bridges, docks, and ships.  The most powerful “designated” icebreaker of the time, the United States Ship (USS) Mackinaw, kept ice out of shipping channels in winter months.

Kewaunee (Wisconsin) Shipbuilding and Engineering on the shore of Lake Michigan was one of the shipbuilding locations during WWII. The company,  founded in 1941, received a government contract to build military ships. Eighty vessels, cargo ships and tugboats, were built between 1941 and 1946.  The shipyard employed 400 workers. One of the workers was my father, Stanley “Jocko” O’Konski.

It is at Kewaunee Shipbuilding and Engineering that the tale of Freight and Passenger (FP) -344 begins.  FP-344 was a cargo ship, built originally for the US Army,  launched in April 1944, and survived WWII.  By 1967, then a US Navy ship, it was refitted for intelligence gathering and sent to the Pacific.

The US Navy had changed the name of FP-344 to the USS Pueblo.  The ship was captured by North Korea January 23, 1968, and the action is known in history as the Pueblo incident. During the capture of the ship, a sailor, Duane Hodges, was killed.  The remaining 82 crew members were held in North Korea until December 23, 1968, when they were released after US and North Korean negotiations.

The USS Pueblo is still in North Korea. The US Navy has never decommissioned the ship.


Kewaunee Shipbuilding and Engineering continues today as Kewaunee Fabrications.

An area of interest, although not addressed in this post, is the history of the US Lighthouse Service.  Founded in 1910, it was merged with the US Coast Guard in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as WWII became imminent.