Air University Review, July-August 1986

The Brazilian Air Force
and World War II

Colonel Ford G. Daab

The Brazilian Air Force has not always been a separate and coequal member of the country's defense establishment. Like the United States Air Force, it had its beginnings in the Army, and it was World War II that provided the impetus for its separation and independence. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, U.S. leaders watched events unfolding in Europe and looked Southward as they considered possible threats to national security. Hemispheric defense was the watchword of the day, and Brazil figured significantly in the calculations of that defense. The United States needed to deny possible hostile nations a foothold in this hemisphere and to have secure bases for its own forces. U.S. efforts to accomplish those two goals, along with some provocation from the German submarine forces, brought Brazil into the war on the Allies' side. Tied up in these events of 1938-42 was the creation of the Brazilian Air Force.

Brazilian military aviation began on 13 January 1913, when the Brazilian School of Aviation was founded. On 2 February 1914, the school began operations at Campo dos Afonsos near Rio de Janeiro with three Farman biplanes and five Blériot monoplanes that it had purchased from Italy. Organized under the Minister of War, the school was to train aviators for the Army and Navy.

The Brazilian Navy, apparently not happy with this attempt at joint operations, established the Naval School of Aviation in August 1916. No longer a "joint service school," the Brazilian School of Aviation became the Military School of Aviation on 11 July 1919. For the next two decades, Brazilian military aviation would follow an Army/Navy dual track.2

Military aviation in Brazil remained a rather low-key operation for several years. No aviation units were formed, and the majority of aeronautical activities centered around the school at Campo dos Afonsos. On 13 January 1927, the Directorate of Military Aviation was formed. The director reported to the Minister of War and the Chief of Staff, the Military School of Aviation came under his authority, and officers in the grades of lieutenant, captain, and major were transferred from other branches of the Army to the Aviation Directorate. It is interesting to note that this reorganization of Brazilian Army aviation came less than a year after the United States Air Corps Act of 1926 and contained several similarities; however, any direct correlation is only speculative.

Organizationally, Brazilian Army aviation remained concentrated at the Campos dos Afonsos school. On 2l May 1931, the first operational unit was formed, drawing equipment and personnel from the aviation school. Designated the Mixed Aviation Group, its commander was Major Eduardo Gomes.

In early 1933, reorganization and expansion of military aviation was begun when the Mixed Aviation Group became the First Aviation Regiment. On 29 March 1933, three Military Aviation Zones were formed. The headquarters for the 1st Zone was located in Rio de Janeiro and consisted of the First Aviation Regiment at Rio, the Sixth at Recife, and the Seventh at Belém. The 2d Aviation Zone, with headquarters at São Paulo, contained the Second Aviation Regiment at São Paulo and the Fourth at Belo Horizonte. The 3rd Aviation Zone had its headquarters at Porto Alegre in the southern part of the country and included the Third Regiment at Porto Alegre and the Fifth at Curitiba.

Through the 1930s, the Brazilian Army aviation units concentrated on training and expanding their capabilities. Like their U.S. Army counterparts, they also participated in the air mail service, but the results were decidedly different. In fact, carrying the mail became a principal function of Brazilian Army aviation, and the mission was accomplished safely, efficiently, and effectively.3

Brazil is a huge country, larger than the continental United States. At the beginning of the 1930s, transportation posed a real problem as Brazilians sought to tie together their large and diverse nation. Rail and ship transportation were available but inadequate: railways were few and not interconnected, and ships were slow and insufficient to the country’s needs. Especially vexing was the problem of communications with the interior. Major Eduardo Gomes, the Mixed Aviation Group commander, approached the War Minister in 1931 with a possible solution: use the military aircraft to link the various parts of the country with an air mail system.

The first flight occurred on 12 June 1931, when a Curtiss "Fledgling" piloted by Lieutenants Casimiro Montenegro Filho and Nelson Freire Lavenére-Wanderley carried two letters from Campos dos Afonsos to São Paulo. By July, thrice-weekly service between Rio and São Paulo was established and the Military Air Postal Service was in business. Shortly thereafter, the name of the system was changed to the Military Air Mail.

On 12 October 1911, an unsuccessful attempt was made to open service to Goiás in the interior when Lieutenant Montenegro crash-landed his Curtiss shortly after takeoff, due to bad weather. However, on 19 October, Lieutenant Lavenére-Wanderley launched the second attempt and successfully completed the mission on the twenty-first. Expansion of the aviation organization into the three air zones in the spring of 1933 provided the necessary infrastructure, and equipment began to be improved in 1934 with the arrival of several Waco EGC-7 aircraft in the inventory. Also, in 1934, the Brazilian Navy initiated an air mail route from Rio south to Florianópolis. Other routes were established by both the Army and Navy so that, by 1938, the services were delivering mail to more than seventy cities throughout the country. In January 1941, with the creation of the Air Ministry, the Army and Navy systems were combined into the National Air Mail––a system that exists to the present––utilizing military and civilian aircraft to provide mail and cargo service to every part of the country.

Brazilian Army aviators may have been proud of their achievements, but––like their U.S. counterparts––they believed aviation should be separate and independent from the surface components. A "campaign" for the creation of an air ministry and a separate air force began in the 1920s. On 11 November 1928, the Sunday edition of the Rio de Janeiro newspaper 0 Jornal published an article by Major Lysias that outlined the need for a new and separate Ministry of Aviation. Two weeks later, a follow-up article by Major Lysias expanded on the ideas presented. These articles launched what was to be a continuing, albeit low-level, campaign for component "independence." Never reaching the level of the furor in the United States, the advocacy for a separate Air Ministry continued until, on 20 January 1941, the Brazilian Air Ministry was created. Six years "senior" to the U.S. Air Force, the Brazilian Air Force incorporated not only Army aviation but Brazilian naval aviation as well. Indeed, the Decree-Law No. 2961 of 20 January 1941 specified that the Air Ministry would include the Military Air Army, the Fleet Air Arm, and the Department of Civil Aviation. Initially known as the National Air Forces, the Brazilian Air Force per se came into being on 22 May 1941.

No doubt internal "agitation" played a part in the creation of a separate and independent air arm, but external events (particularly U.S. moves linked to security concerns about hemispheric defense) certainly had an impact on the Brazilian government and military. By 1938, the United States, particularly within the Air Corps, had begun to look toward the defense of the nation in real and practical ways as the events in Europe became more ominous. In October of that year, the Air Corps Board produced a study titled "Air Corps Mission under the Monroe Doctrine."4 Primarily designed to show the importance of aviation in providing defense, the report nevertheless made it quite clear that hostile occupation and resultant operational capability from some Caribbean islands or the northeast area of Brazil would present a serious danger to the Panama Canal and the southern United States.

As early as January 1938, President Roosevelt, in making a request for additional money for the Army and Navy, included a warning that any potential enemy must be kept "many hundreds of miles from our continental limits."5 Subsequently, late in 1938, Secretary of State Cordell Hull pushed for a declaration of "hemispheric foreign policy" at the Inter-American Conference of Lima, Peru.6

In the United States during late 1938, the joint Planning Committee studied what the United States might do in case of a German or Italian attempt to secure bases in Latin America. In February 1939, General George C. Marshall, the Assistant Chief of Staff, directed the Army War College to examine in secret what force would be necessary to make Brazil (and Venezuela) safe against assumed German designs to take them over.7 Thus, by the spring of 1939, the United States not only was worried about possible hostile intentions but was taking the first steps in planning counter or preventive moves.

Meanwhile, in December 1938, the German Army had extended an invitation to the Brazilian Chief of Staff to visit Berlin. Given the U.S. concern over possible hostile moves in the area, this overture must surely have been "unwelcome" news in Washington. Apparently, there were those in Rio de Janeiro who felt the same way, for, in January 1939, in an effort to forestall the Berlin visit, Brazilian Foreign Minister Oswaldo Aranha proposed that the U.S. Chief of Staff come to Brazil and then reciprocate with an invitation for the Brazilian Chief of Staff to visit the United States.8

When General Marshall's appointment as the new Chief of Staff was announced at the end of April, it was decided that Marshall would make the trip.9 He and his party departed New York on 10 May 1939 aboard the USS Nashville and arrived in Rio on the twenty-fifth. Their itinerary for twelve days included visits, dinners, receptions, and discussions with the Brazilians. On 6 June, the Nashville departed for the United States with the Brazilian Chief of Staff General Góes Monteiro and his party aboard. General Góes Monteiro was given an extensive tour of the United States, which must have impressed him, for he never made the visit to Berlin. The process of bringing the Brazilians "into the fold" had begun.

Beginning in 1940, the United States made military equipment and assistance available to the Brazilians. A United States Military Mission was established in Brazil, surplus coast defense material was sold to Brazil at bargain prices, and training aircraft, light tanks, scout cars, and various other types of vehicles were supplied.10 All of this generosity was designed not only to enhance Brazilian capability but also to draw the Brazilians into a confidential relationship and onto the "side" opposing the Axis powers. What the United States really needed was access to air bases in northeastern Brazil that would allow its forces to cover the South Atlantic shipping lanes and concurrently deny the area to the Germans or Italians.

Getting U.S. military personnel actually into Brazil and acquiring base rights were not easy matters. There was a large German and Italian population in Brazil, authority for stationing U.S. troops in Brazil did not exist unless "specifically requested" by the Brazilian government, 11 and Brazilian officials felt that their government would not survive if it did "invite" the Americans.12 In any event, stationing of significant U.S. combat forces did not become necessary, and the bases in the northeast were acquired by a bit of sleight of hand.

Pan American Airways was operating throughout Latin America, and its subsidiary, Panair do Brasil, had been granted rights to construct and improve airfields in Brazil. A secret contract (W1097-eng-2321) between Pan American and the War Department provided funds for the facility construction. The War Department obtained the funds from the President's special fund and transferred them through the Export-Import Bank after certification of Pan American's vouchers by a representative of the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army. In return, all privileges enjoyed by Panair do Brasil were extended to U.S. military aircraft––extended by Pan American, that is. The rights granted by the Brazilian government to Panair do Brasil contained no provisions for military use of the airfields. However, in July 1941, General Robert Olds and Brigadier Eduardo Gomes (the former commander of the Mixed Aviation Group at Campo dos Afonsos and then commander of the Northeast Air Zone) negotiated an agreement whereby the Brazilian government permitted military use of the airfields, construction of military housing, and occupancy by USAAF technicians.13 As a result, airfields and facilities were improved or enhanced at Arnapá, Belém, São Luis, Fortaleza, Natal, Recife, Maceió, Salvador, and Caravelas.14 Thus, the United States acquired air base facilities from which it could provide air cover over the South Atlantic. More important, access to this strategic region was effectively denied to the Axis. Additionally, the string of airfields from the northern Amazon basin to just north of Rio de Janeiro provided a vital link in the eventual South Atlantic air-routes between the United States, North Africa, and southern Europe. On 23 May 1941, a political-military agreement between the United States and Brazil was signed, but it was broad and general in nature: no specific permission was granted for any particular installations. Practically all negotiations and agreements continued to be verbal between USAAF/USN personnel and Brigadier Eduardo Gomes, the Northeast Air Zone commanders.15 Finally, in June 1941, a formal agreement for U.S. bases in Brazil was signed by the two nations.16

Stationing of large contingents of U.S. forces never occurred, but in 1941 and early 1942 there was serious consideration to implement the idea. On 13 June 1941, the Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of War forwarded to the President a report of the Joint Planning Committee of the Joint Army and Navy Board recommending that immediate consent of the Brazilian government be obtained to move Army and Navy security forces to northeast Brazil. The Army contingent would consist of one "triangular division" and an air force of two bomb groups, one pursuit group, one transport group, one observation squadron, and two reconnaissance squadrons. This air force component would comprise some 10,000 personnel and 226 aircraft.17 On 7 January 1942, Air War Plans Division recommended to the Chief of the Air Staff that this force be sent––prepared, if not invited, to seize the installations "by force at once."18

The German Navy provided the impetus to preclude direct U.S. combat entry "by force" when it stepped up submarine activity in the South Atlantic and attacked several Brazilian ships. On 28 January 1942, Brazil broke diplomatic relations with Germany, Italy, and Japan. By the second half of 1942, U.S. Navy PBY-5 Catalinas and PV-1 Hudsons were operating from Brazilian bases, and Brazilian Air Force crews were actively training to take over the mission. In April 1944, the U.S. Navy began to withdraw, and by the end of that year the Brazilians assumed the mission. Until the end of the war, the Brazilians carried out maritime patrol and antisubmarine warfare operations, using B-25 bombers, PBYs, and Lockheed Hudsons and Venturas.19

In the meantime, Brazil had declared war on the Axis. On 18 December 1943, its military established the First Fighter Group to accompany a Brazilian infantry division to Italy.20 Training initially on P-40s in Florida and Panama, the group moved in June 1944 to Suffolk Air Base, Long Island, New York, to transition into the P-47. On 10 September 1944, the First Fighter Group departed Newport, Virginia, on the French ship Colombie and traveled in convoy to Livorno, Italy, arriving 6 October 1944. Its first mission was flown eight days later.

The Brazilian unit was assigned to the 350th Fighter Group, USAAF. Beginning combat operations on 31 October, the Brazilians flew initially with USAAF squadrons in order to gain combat experience. On 11 November, they began operating in formations that were exclusively Brazilian. Employed as fighter-bombers, the Brazilian P-47s provided close air support and flew interdiction missions. By the time the war ended in May 1945, the First Fighter Group had flown 2546 sorties and 5465 combat hours. The group destroyed 1304 motor vehicles of various types, 13 railway engines, 250 railcars, 8 armored cars, 25 rail and highway bridges, and 31 fuel and munitions depots, shooting down 2 aircraft and damaging 9 others en route.

The combat achievements of the Brazilians did not come without losses. Of the forty-eight pilots who flew with the First Fighter Group, there were twenty-two casualties. Five pilots were killed by antiaircraft fire, eight were shot down but bailed out successfully over enemy territory, three died in flying accidents not related directly to combat operations, and six were "grounded" due to "combat fatigue." Those killed were buried initially in the Brazilian cemetery at Pistoia, Italy. Subsequently, their remains were returned to Brazil and interned in a crypt in the Monument of the Dead of the Second World War, located in Rio de Janeiro.

Two months after the war ended, the First Fighter Group returned to Brazil. Thus ended the Brazilian Air Force's combat operations. From its meager beginnings at Campo dos Afonsos in 1913, the Brazilian Air Force achieved independence from the Army (and Navy) and became an equal partner in its nation's defense organization. Born of the necessities of impending war in the early 1940s, the Brazilian Air Force "won its spurs" in World War II. It continues today as a well-organized, competent member of Brazil's armed forces.

Key West Naval Air Station, Florida


1. Correio Aéreo Nacional (Rio de Janeiro, Air Force Public Relations Center, 1976).

2. Nelson Freire Lavenére-Wanderley, História da Forca Aérea Brasileira (Rio de Janeiro, Ministry of Aviation/Department of National News, 1976).

3. Correio Aéreo Nacional. This book provides a good description of the Brazilian air mail system and the role of the Brazilian military.

4. Air Corps Board Study, October 1938 (in USAF Historical Center, File 167.5-44).

5. Forest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Education of a General (New York: Viking, 1963), p. 337.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p. 338.

9. Ibid., pp. 338-42; also, DeWitt S. Copp, A Few Great Captains (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1980).

10. Letter from Secretary of War to Secretary of State, 30 August 1941 (in USAF Historical Center, File 145.81-11).

11. Memorandum for the Chief of Staff from Brigadier General Spaatz, Chief of the Air Staff, 6 November 1941 (in USAF Historical Center, File 145.81-87).

12. Letter from Secretary of War to Secretary of State, 30 August 1941 (in USAF Historical Center, File 145.81-11).

13. Unsigned Memorandum for the Record, 10 January 1944 (in USAF Historical Center, File 145.81-87).

14. Nelson Freire Lavenére-Wanderley, The Brazilian Air Force in the Second World War (Rio de Janeiro: Air Force Public Relations Center, 1976).

15. Memo of 10 January +1941 (in USAF Historical Center, File 145.81-87).

16. Memorandum for General Giles from the Advisory Council, 15 June 1944 (in USAF Historical Center, File 145.81-87).

17. Memo to Chief of Staff from General Spaatz, 6 November 1941 (in USAF Historical Center, File 145.81-11).

18. Memorandum for General Spaatz from AWPD Chief, Lt. Col. H. L. George, 7 January 1942 (in USAF Historical Center, File 145.81-11).

19. Lavené-Wanderley, The Brazilian Air Force in the Second World War.

20. The account of the First Fighter Group presented here has been extracted and translated from Wanderley’s books The Brazilian Air Force in the Second World War and História da forca Aérea Brasileira.


Colonel Ford G. Daab (B.S., Texas A&M; M.A., Central Michigan University and University of Alabama) is Director of Intelligence, U.S. Forces Caribbean, Key West Naval Air Station, Florida. He has been a C-130 pilot and served in airlift staff positions at Ninth Air Force, Hq TAC, and Hq USAF. In his previous assignment he has served in the Defense Intelligence Agency, has been Air Attaché in Brazil, and, most recently, was Assistant for International Students as a faculty member at Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Colonel Daab is a graduate of Squadron Officer School, Industrial College of the Armed Forces, and Air War College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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