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The Smoking Snakes

The Brazilian Expeditionary Force was an Allied force fighting in the Mediterranean during World War II and the only ground troops sent into the war from a South American country. The BEF had some notable victories in Italy in 1944 and 1945, but was generally late entering the war. At the beginning of the war Brazil tried to maintain neutrality, but as the war progressed trade with the United States became more important than trade with Germany and Brazil slowly came over to the Allies. The Brazilian Navy began to help the US Navy to keep shipping lanes open in the Atlantic and Germany retaliated by torpedoing Brazilian merchant vessels, killing hundreds.

The Brazilian government did not want war and the Brazilian people protested against it. It seemed highly unlikely that the Brazilian Army would ever send ground troops to fight in the European campaign. A popular saying in Brazil at the time was “the snake will smoke” before the BEF will go fight. This is something like our idiom in English, “when pigs fly,” meaning its not going to happen. The soldiers of the BEF adopted this phrase, calling themselves Cobras Fumantes, the Smoking Snakes. This bit of folk wisdom is captured in their divisional insignia.

In the image above BEF soldier, Yoas Esoi de Lima, of Porto Alegre, Brazil, eagerly drinks fresh milk at the Station Hospital Mess at Camp Patrick Henry in Newport News. Note the shoulder patch.

Artist’s rendering of the Smoking Snake divisional patch, via Wikimedia commons.

On May 24, 1945, the transport WEST POINT arrived at the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation from Naples, Italy. Included in its complement were 35 Brazilian casualties like this man shown here talking with WAC Sgt. Ann Disano.

Prior to being moved to a general hospital in their own country, the BEF casualties received treatment at Camp Patrick Henry. In this photo a private who lost his leg in an attack is debriefed by an officer attached to the Brazilian embassy in Washington.

A Brazilian soldier with his hand immobilized in an elaborate cast has his steak cut by Pvt. Margaret Tubman, part of the WAC Medical detachment at Camp Patrick Henry.

These men from the Brazilian 11th Regiment were connected with the American Fifth Army, the caption reads “The men are shown here having a good time amusing themselves with song and comedy.” Welcome to Hampton Roads boys!

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