“While their contributions to the final victory may seem miniscule when compared to those of other world powers, their participation is nonetheless noteworthy.”
THE NATIONS OF LATIN AMERICA are not often counted among the foremost contributors to the Second World War.
Countries like Chile and Uruguay largely stayed on the sidelines until the war’s final weeks before finally joining the Allies.
Other states like Paraguay were quietly sympathetic to both Nazi Germany and Italy.
Columbia, Nicaragua and Bolivia were hostile to the Axis, but stopped short of committing armies to battle, choosing instead to supply the U.S. war effort with raw materials.
Then there was Peru and Ecuador. The two quarrelsome neighbours seemed more concerned with fighting each other in 1941 than defeating the forces of tyranny.
Yet despite this, a handful of Latin American states did take part in the Second World War. And while their contributions to the final victory may seem miniscule when compared to those of other world powers, their participation is nonetheless noteworthy. Consider these:
The Other “Eagle Squadron”
Initially, Mexico hoped it could stay out of the Second World War entirely. All that changed in 1942 however when German U-boats operating in the Gulf of Mexico sank two Mexican freighters killing 24 sailors. In response, President Manuel Ávila Camacho declared war on the Axis on May 22. While a lack of modern military hardware prevented Mexico from making a sizeable contribution to the conflict, it did send a detachment of 30 pilots and 270 support personnel to the United States for advanced air combat training in 1944.
The group, known as the Fuerza Aérea Expedicionaria Mexicana or Mexican Expeditionary Air Force, was eventually attached to the American 58th Fighter Group as the 201st Air Fighter Squadron, aka the Aguilas Aztecas or “Aztec Eagles”. Washington issued the outfit with 25 top-of-the-line Republic P-47 Thunderbolts and by early 1945 the Eagles were in action over the Philippines. Between June and August, the squadron flew 96 combat missions from its base on Luzon, accumulating nearly 2,000 combat flying hours.  While none of its pilots scored a single air-to-air victory in the campaign, the 201st dropped nearly 1,500 bombs on the Japanese.  It lost three pilots in action. The Eagles returned to Mexico in 1945 and were honoured with a parade in the capital. Currently, a subway stop along the main Mexico City subway line is named in the squadron’s honor.
“Determined We Fly”
While the government in Buenos Ares was content to watch the war from the sidelines, more than 600 Argentines, mostly of Anglo heritage, flocked to the Royal Air Force to join in the fight against Hitler. In 1942, a handful of these volunteers were amalgamated into No. 164 “The Argentine” Squadron — their motto was firmes volamos, Spanish for “determined we fly.” The outfit had its greatest impact during the Normandy campaign when it flew tank-busting Hawker Typhoons, all of which were emblazoned with RAF markings as well as the small blue and white Argentine national flag.
In all, nearly 4,000 volunteers, most of them of English background, returned to the U.K. to fight the Axis on land, sea and in the air.  And surprisingly, not all of them were men. In fact, the famous poster-girl for the co-ed Air Transport Auxiliary warplane ferrying service was Maureen Dunlop, a Quilmes native with Anglo parents.
The Schindler of the Americas
An obscure diplomat by the name of José Castellanos Contreras made El Salvador’s most important contribution to the Second World War. What’s more, he did it with a pen, not a rifle. In 1942, the Geneva-based envoy prepared false documents for a Romanian Jew named György Mandl showing that the man was a citizen of El Salvador. The ruse fooled the Gestapo and saved the refugee from deportation to Auschwitz. Contreras didn’t stop there. By 1944, the 49-year-old attaché, with help from others in the Salvadorian diplomatic corps, conspired to distribute counterfeit citizenship papers to 13,000 Jews living in Eastern Europe. The bogus credentials allowed the bearers and their dependents to flee Nazi death camps. All told, he saved an estimated 40,000 lives. By comparison, the famous Oscar Schindler rescued 1,200 concentration camp inmates. Yet despite his heroism, Contreras shunned the spotlight after the war. In fact, it wasn’t until after his death in 1977 that the full scope of his incredible humanitarian efforts became fully known. He has since been posthumously honoured in Israel, the United States and (of course) his homeland.
Cuba’s U-Boat Hunters
Although initially clinging to a policy of neutrality, Havana ended up declaring war on both Japan and Germany following the attack on Pearl Harbor. And in short order, Cuba became a key player in closing the Caribbean to German U-boats. To aid its ally, the U.S. lavished Havana with surface vessels and maritime patrol planes, like the Grumman G-21 Goose. The Bautista regime returned the favour by granting the U.S. land on which to build modern airstrips, all of which Washington agreed to vacate after the war. From 1942 through 1945, Cuban vessels scoured the waters off its shores for enemy submarines. Over three years, it escorted several hundred merchant vessels, logged an impressive 400,000 sea miles escorting convoys and rescued more than 200 sailors from ships torpedoed by Nazi wolf packs. The highlight of Cuba’s naval campaign came on May 15, 1943, when three of its patrol boats working in conjunction with a U.S. Navy Kingfisher recon plane attacked and sank U-176, a Type IXC boat that had just recently claimed two Allied freighters in the area.
The Brazilian Expeditionary Force
Although by far the largest Latin American participant in World War Two, Brazil’s nationalist government was anything but hostile to the Nazis in the years leading up to the outbreak of hostilities in Europe. In fact, the country’s president, Getúlio Vargas, was a long-time admirer of European fascism and sought to strengthen trade and banking ties with Germany throughout the 1930s. When war erupted, Brazil did not immediately move to sever ties with Berlin. Yet amid mounting pressure from Washington, Rio agreed to allow the U.S. station a fleet in Recife in 1942 and build airstrips on Brazilian soil. Berlin signalled its displeasure with the new arrangement by unleashing the full fury of its submarines on the South American country’s merchant fleet.
Between February and August, the U-boats claimed 13 Brazilian freighters. As casualties exceeded 1,000, popular pressure forced Vargas to declare war on the Axis. Brazil’s antiquated navy soon found itself neck-deep in the U-boat campaign. Despite their marked obsolescence, the country’s warships mounted at least 66 attacks on Axis subs in the South Atlantic and helped the Allies sink nine German vessels.  But Brazil’s war wasn’t just confined to the high seas. In 1944, it dispatched the Força Expedicionária Brasileira, an expeditionary force to join the U.S. Fifth Army fighting in Italy. As many as 25,000 soldiers took part in the hard-fought campaign while two entire fighter groups, both of which were equipped with the latest American P-47 Thunderbolts, flew 445 combat missions in theatre. The squadrons’ biggest day came on April 22, 1945, when 25 Brazilian pilots completed 44 air strikes on German ground vehicles near San Benedetto.  The feat is celebrated annually in Brazil on Fighter Arm Day. By war’s end, 948 of the country’s soldiers had been killed on combat along with 550 naval personnel. 
(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on February 11, 2015)