A World War II Unsung Hero: Lieutenant General Rui Moreira Lima

A World War II Unsung Hero: Lieutenant General Rui Moreira Lima

By Dialogo
July 19, 2012

At the age of 93, Lieutenant General Rui Barbosa Moreira Lima is one of only three Brazilian veteran fighter pilots from World War II to be alive and kicking. A military fighter pilot by trade, he has been highly decorated, and served as commander of Santa Cruz Air Base, in Rio de Janeiro, between August 1962 and April 1964, when he was dismissed by the military government that took control of the country that same year. He’s been trying to get a full amnesty since then, but has had no luck. He also authored several works about aviation and the members of his fighter group, the best-known of which is titled, “Hit ‘Em Hard!,” a combat memoir from his days in the Italian theater of operations. In May 2012, Lt. Gen. Rui Moreira Lima sat down with Diálogo to share some of his stories.

In military circles, it is often said that fighter pilots are “different.” This statement appears to fit Lt. Gen. Rui Moreira Lima like a glove, starting with his nom de guerre. Even though he was the son of an appellate judge from a well-known family name in Brazil, he chose to be known simply as Rui.

This was the name he wore on his uniform as an aviation second lieutenant when he commanded 94 missions aboard a P-47 Thunderbolt, most of the time under intense fire from German artillery, during the eight months of Brazil’s participation during World War II. From October 1944 to May 1945 Brazil’s 1st Fighter Group, which was formed specifically for combat in Italy during World War II, executed a total of 445 missions.

Incidentally, Brazil was the only South American country to send troops to Europe to support the Allies. “The main concern we had was, basically, to fulfill the mission. It was a pain, however, to say the least! You had to remain amid crossfire for almost three hours; there was no place to go where you wouldn’t get shot,” said Lt. Gen. Rui, one of the few remaining survivors of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB).

The FEB was comprised of volunteers, basically cadets who had recently graduated from the Brazilian Army Officer Training School, because the Brazilian Air Force did not yet exist. “Brazil entered World War II after some its ships were bombed along the Brazilian coast. In December 1943, the Fighter Group was created. We entered the war with 22 pilots, and obviously, we had no experience in this. The important point to emphasize is that the Americans sold us [Brazil] the planes, and we chose the P-47,” the lieutenant general said. In total, 47 Brazilian pilots participated in at least one mission during the war. At the end, there were five prisoners and five combat fatalities.

The Brazilian pilots’ inexperience was compensated by their dedication and desire to win and honor their country’s name abroad. “I never consulted a map; I had the whole map of Italy in my head. I and all the others. There were colleagues who were called homing pigeons, because they knew more than the map did,” said Lt. Gen. Rui with teary eyes as he remembered those days.

“My first mission was on November 6, 1944. I was already married, my wife was pregnant, and some days I would write her three letters. However, our main concern was to fulfill the mission. I went on 94 missions, and I was hit nine times, with multiple shots each time; on one occasion, there were 57 holes in my airplane. I’d taken shots in the wing, which caused significant damage to its aerodynamics. That was on April 29, 1945. I almost died,” he recalled.

Nevertheless, Rui cannot pinpoint a specific mission as his main one. To him, they were all important, especially those in which the pilots were at greater risk of dying. “People were risking their own lives, and a lieutenant knew that each bomb he dropped and each shot he fired was a step closer to ending the war. This made us very aware,” he commented.

The lieutenant general remembers being on the field the moment the war ended. The announcement was made three consecutive times over the loudspeakers. “At first, there was a sort of silence, but then you heard a lot of shouting,” he recalls. “There was a lot of crying; many tears were shed that day. The end was fantastic, but then shortly afterward, you knew for sure that war is an act of cowardice. I went out to the road to see the prisoners passing by, and it was endless. There were young boys, there were old men, there were all kinds there, and I said, ‘Gosh, we were killing these guys a moment ago… and now we’re giving them cigarettes.’”

Currently, Brazil has approximately 1,400 fighter pilots, no longer shaped in the same molds as the Fighter Group, but by the doctrine that was established eventually. “Fighter pilots nowadays are surprisingly well prepared professionally, capable of piloting any fighter plane. I sense in them an enormous desire to defend Brazil, and the FEB had enormous influence on this. Our victorious return from Italy, I think, was the last straw that brought down President Getúlio Vargas’s dictatorship and sowed democracy in Brazil,” he concluded.

The P-47 Thunderbolt

These planes were called Jugs because they resembled a jug. They were very heavy, hard to get off the ground, but also difficult to shoot down when they were on a mission in the skies. Nevertheless, despite their weight, they were among the fastest piston-engine fighters of World War II.

It was due to their unmatched capacity to take enemy fire, however, that the Thunderbolt became famous. There were cases of P-47s that returned with only one wing intact and still managed to land, taxi, and come to a smooth stop on the runway.

As Colonel Hubert “Hub” Zemke, commander of the historic 56th Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) once said:

“If you wanted to send your picture to your girlfriend, you sat in the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang. If you wanted to survive in combat, you got into the cockpit of a P-47 Thunderbolt.”

Excellent article. I didn’t know the protagonist. I believe that the solution to increase the Brazilian nationalism is by showing stories like these. Congratulations on the article! My uncle (he is the husband of one of my late paternal grandfather’s sisters) is a Second World War’s veteran. He fought for Brazil (FEB) at Italy’s fields and survived the conflict. But I never saw him personally, I only heard comments about him, yet I know he is a great hero, like all the other soldiers. I think this article is very good, very good indeed. A great military.