My friend Gary Neeleman has breached what he refers to as the "linguistic tomb" with his forthcoming book, Rubber Soldiers. It's an exhaustive look, with much of the information translated from Portuguese, at how his beloved Brazil and its citizens were instrumental in helping the allies defeat Axis forces in World War II.
With the Kool Aid of nationalism becoming the political cocktail of choice for many in this country, it may be an appropriate time to learn that without the key role played by a much smaller country as partner, the most powerful nation on earth might well have been halted in its drive to defeat Nazi Germany. The partner was the largest nation on the other American continent.
Neeleman, from six decades of involvement in and with Brazil, has always believed the interests of what he refers to as "the two giants of the western hemisphere."were intertwined in an unusual and mutually beneficial relationship. But nothing could give form to that belief more than the story of the 55,000 Brazilians who trekked or were taken into the Amazon jungles to tap latex to produce the rubber that the Allies needed for their war machine.
The story of the Rubber Soldiers begins soon just after Pearl Harbor, when ninety-seven percent of all of the natural rubber in the world, mostly grown in Asia, was in the hands of the Japanese. Since rubber was an essential ingredient for mounting an effective war machine, that created a crisis in 1942 for the Allied war effort.
President Roosevelt reached out to Brazilian President Getulio Vargas, whose county had once been the source of most rubber in the world before the arrival of rubber in Indonesia in the early twentieth century put Brazil out of the rubber business, though the trees remained in the Amazon jungles.
Although Hitler made a major effort to convince Brazil to come into the Nazi sphere, Roosevelt and Vargas reached an agreement, including U.S. payment of $120 million, that led to the U.S. establishing air and naval bases in Brazil and the "Rubber Army" being dispatched up the Amazon to bring rubber out to satisfy the needs of the Allies.
Neeleman, whose fluency in Portuguese dated from his time as a Mormon missionary, was Brazil manager for UPI from 1958 to 1966 and eventually became UPI manager for Latin America and the Caribbean area.
It was because of those years in Brazil that Neeleman became aware of parts of history in that nation, history about which he uses the phrase "linguistic tomb" to characterize the challenge the Portuguese-language barrier posed for researchers and academics learning about that Brazilian history.
Because son David, first of the Neelemans' children to be born in Brazil, founded and remains a major shareholder of Jet Blue and now guides his fast-growing Brazilian airline Azul, the Neelemans (Gary 82 and Rose 81) have little problem with the cost of their travels from their home in the Salt Lake City area to Brazil. They have three trips planned this year, more to promote his now three books on Brazil in travels around that country than doing additional research.
There is a dark side to the tale of the heroic Rubber Soldiers in that the Brazilian government failed to fulfill its promise to pay for the return home of those citizens.
Thus many of the soldiers who survived, although perhaps half died from yellow fever, malaria, dengue, beriberi and dozens of other jungle afflictions and creatures during their four years harvesting rubber, could not afford to leave the jungle to return home.
There were accusations that the U.S. had failed to honor its promises to provide funds to Brazil, though a couple of years ago that country began remitting 25,000 reals (roughly $7,800) to the survivors and their dependents.
The money was welcome, as the men are elderly and most are frail. But many of them said that this amount was a pittance meant to silence them and did not fulfill the promises made to them when they signed up.
It was while Gary and Rose were searching the Brazilian backcountry for information for their second book, Tracks in the Amazon, that they began to learn about the rubber soldiers.
Tracks in the Amazon was about construction in the early years of the twentieth century of a railroad to traverse the most dense tropical jungle on earth, along the Madeira River then down the Amazon, to bring the rubber to ships, a project once bankrupt but eventually resurrected and completed, at a cost of 10,000 workers who lost their lives. Then the rubber trade died.
The story of the old railroad inspired Tracks in the Amazon, but the Neelemans found the story of the train was also intertwined with the story of the rubber soldiers.
Inspiration for Rubble Soldiers emerged, says Neeleman, "after countless interviews with survivors of the rubber army, now in their nineties. The persistent question from these men was 'when will the United States pay us for our sacrifice?'"
"We feel this book answers this question and for the first time provides a clear picture of the relationship between the United States and Brazil during the war years," Neeleman said, including details of Brazil's rebuff of Hitler.
Neeleman says the book, which will be published in May and is in pre-sale on Amazon, "finally puts to rest the questions of 'did the US pay for the rubber?' and among other things, it documents the money trail with official papers from the files of the United States Senate never before seen."
"As we pursued information for the book, we became very attached to these old rubber tappers and their descendants and found many hundreds of new friends in this remote area of the world," Neeleman notes.
Neeleman's 63-year relationship with Brazil is much like a love affair with a nation and its people, beginning in 1954 when he arrived as a 20-year-old Mormon missionary.
He has been recognized repeatedly in Brazil for his work over six decades toward enhancing the friendship between the nation of his birth and the one where three of his children were born. Most prominent of those recognitions was in September of 2015 when he was honored in the main hall at the City of Sao Paulo as the fourth recipient of the Sao Paulo Citizen Award, joining the Pope, the Dalai Lahma and the founder of the Mormon Church in Brazil as the only other recipients.