Captain Norman F. Kurlan
Platoon Leader, Battalion/Regimental Supply Officer
Anti-Tank Platoon, Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team
Norman F. Kurlan, originally “Kurlancheek,” was born in 1912 amongst the rolling hills of Carbondale, Pennsylvania, nestled in the heart of Lackawanna County. His parents were both Lithuanian Jewish immigrants who had only arrived in the United States in the 1880s, settling in the small town years earlier. His father began work as a bottler before eventually managing a grocery store while his mother stayed at home to care for the whopping nine children they had over a span of many years. Norman, the very middle (fifth) child, graduated high school in 1931 and went to work as the family fell into the hardships of the Great Depression. By 1937, however, the strain on the family loosened up and Norman was able to head off on his own, to college at Columbia and then New York University. It was here that Norman studied when the world plunged into war in December of 1941. Rather than go into the business world upon graduation, Norman decided to enlist in the U.S. Army in June 1942.
Upon completion of basic, Kurlan’s first post was at Fort George Meade where he remained as an enlisted man until being selected to attend Officer’s Candidate School that winter. On February 26, 1943 he graduated as a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant in the infantry branch. His posting, however, would be a unique one. Rather than move to one of the many infantry divisions forming around the country, Kurlan was sent to the swampy forests of Camp Shelby, Mississippi to join a new experimental unit that had been activated that same month: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
The 442nd, at the time composed of only two battalions, was designated as such because it was to be a segregated combat unit to be composed exclusively of Americans of Japanese ancestry, the Nisei. The unit was formed primarily from two major groups of Nisei, Hawaiians and mainlanders. The majority of the mainlanders, primarily from the West Coast, had been previously imprisoned at the many federal internment camps set up after Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 declared all Americans of Japanese ancestry to be enemy aliens and potentially disloyal to the United States. With one combat team of Hawaiian Nisei, the 100th Infantry Battalion, already overseas earning a distinguished combat record, the Army decided to form the 442nd to supplement the unit and open up recruitment to a more significant number of Nisei, including those from the internment camps. While these men would make up the bulk of the regiment, all the commissioned officers were intended to be caucasian. Kurlan, already an ethnic minority as a Jew, was selected to join the 442nd, arriving at Camp Shelby not long after his commissioning as a newly inducted member of the regiment’s anti-tank company.
Taking command as a platoon leader, Kurlan eagerly took up his task to shape the recruits, demoralized from their treatment by the federal government and regional differences but eager to prove themselves as loyal, hard-fighting Americans, into combat-ready soldiers. Training was done around the region to develop coordinated fighting tactics between the anti-tank gun crews and the infantrymen they were intended to support. Anti-tank gun teams were only a recent development in the inter-war years and thus combat would be the first time any of these men put the equipment and tactics to the test. A November 1943 memoranda about the training at Camp Shelby specifically mentions Kurlan’s role in training the anti-tank gunners, leading them on mock patrols, missions, and general battlefield instruction. In this role, he spent most of his time at Camp Shelby before transferring to a new position as the platoon leader for the Anti-Tank Platoon in the Headquarters Company of the 2nd Battalion in January 1944. The anti-tank platoon of a battalion HQ was slightly different from the anti-tank company, primarily in that it operated a few select anti-tank guns and bazooka teams to provide direct fire support for battalion operations. Kurlan took over this position for the 2nd Battalion and was serving in this role when the 442nd shipped off from Hampton Roads on May 2, arriving in North Africa twenty-six days later, finally landing in Italy on May 28, 1944.
Kurlan is located second from the left in the very front row.
Kurlan is located second from the left in the very front row.
The 442nd disembarked at Civitavecchia where it traveled to the positions of the 34th Infantry Division. Upon arrival, it was officially attached to the division and was finally reunited with its sister unit, the 100th Battalion, which soon became the regiment’s acting 1st Battalion (but keeping the 100th designation). It was not until June 26, 1944, that Kurlan and the rest of the 442nd first got their taste in battle. Arriving in the vicinity of Suverto, the 442nd was tasked to assault the town of Belvedere and take a swath of the road to Sassetta. The regiment relieved elements of the 142nd Infantry Regiment and 517th Airborne, which had chased the Germans up the path on the advance from Rome, and quickly moved into place before the chaos began. The first day of battle was about as successful as one might expect. The entire 442nd was wholly disorganized and no one knew what was going on. Kurlan took his anti-tank platoon and parked their guns alongside a dry streambed underneath a tree while he and the men huddled around waiting to figure out where they were supposed to go. While most of the men were standing around one of the platoon trucks, a man called for them to “spread out” as they were all bunched up. While Kurlan was surveying the scene, the men moved apart but not fast enough. The Germans had sighted in the open GIs and began firing artillery rounds towards them. One shell hit a tree near where the men had been standing, bursting into a cloud of shrapnel which rained down and hit directly onto three of the Nisei anti-tank crewmen standing below it. By the time the rest of the platoon could run over to their position they were already dead.
For the next two days hectic combat brought the 442nd into heavy German fire, testing the willpower of the Nisei under duress while they sought to take an important objective. On the 28th Kurlan took his platoon once again into the fray, this time to fire at their very first German tank. While positioned in a wooded area awaiting their next assignment, someone spotted a German tank far down a valley close to a mile away. Kurtlan came up and told the gunners nearby “Okay, you guys bring your guns down the road, get into position, and look for the tank.” The gun crew listened to the orders and moved their gun down the treeline, eventually spotting the tank. The distance made it difficult to make out but they believed it to be a smaller tank, much smaller than a Panzer IV, such as a STuG or an Italian-captured vehicle. Although the tank was technically within their firing range, it was far too distant for the gunners to get a good sight on. Nevertheless, they fired upon command. While nothing happened to the tank, the enemy spotted the muzzle flash of the anti-tank gun and within a few minutes began to pour down artillery fire directly on the anti-tank gun platoon’s position. “All hell broke loose,” claimed Herbert Isonaga, one of the gun crewmen, and many of the other men in the 2nd Battalion HQ Company became upset at them for giving away the position. Even with these guffaws, however, the 442nd still managed to come out on top, knocking out an entire SS combat battalion and units of the Hermann Goering Division before taking their objectives and earning a brief two-day rest.
On July 1 the regiment went back into action near Luciana and Leghorn beginning a nearly three-week stretch of constant extremely heavy combat against German forces. The worst bulk of the fighting for Kurlan and the 2nd Battalion was centered around Hill 140, or “Little Cassino," a rocky hilltop just south of Castellina which a German battalion had fortified supported by pinpoint artillery firing in their support. The battle raged for three days tearing apart the 2nd Battalion, especially G Company. In such dire straits, Kurlan and his anti-tank platoon turned their duties from gunnery to stretcher-bearing, taking up cloth litters and heading to the front line to evacuate the many wounded Nisei hit while storming the fortifications. It was a brutal struggle but thanks to the support of the anti-tank platoon, the hill was finally taken and many casualties were saved that might have been lost. The next two weeks saw the battalions leap-frogging their way up the Italian coastline, pushing back German forces and collaborating with the 91st Infantry Division to finally liberate Leghorn on July 17. Two days later Kurlan is recorded as working with two signalmen from the 91st Division to locate some of the other companies in the 442nd, demonstrating the tightness of operations in the area. By the 20th the regiment had reached Pisa but was pulled back only a few days later for a long rest after their many weeks of intense action.
It was not until the night of August 20 that the 442nd moved back onto the line south of the Arno River near Florence. Kurlan and the 2nd Battalion moved to take up positions along the Greve River on the right flank before initiating several days of combat patrols to test the German lines in front of them. The patrols were hotly contested and continued going back and forth with numerous casualties on both sides. Morning reports from the 2nd Battalion show that Kurlan and his men were once again primarily relegated to litter-bearing duty, evacuating wounded from other companies while keeping their guns in strategic defensive positions in case of a German push. On August 29 a large barrage of German artillery pinned down the units of the 2nd Battalion, a sign that, in combination with recon reports, signaled a general German retreat. Kurlan and his men, themselves safe from harm, came across a 17-year-old Italian boy who had been wounded by the artillery, giving him immediate medical aid before sending him back to a hospital. The next day saw the battalion begin probing across the river, exploring now abandoned houses only to find many of them booby-trapped. Kurlan himself came across a dud artillery shell placed under a bed in a house next to one of his anti-tank gun squads. After a few more days of patrols, the 442nd was replaced on the line, moving by truck in a series of moves back towards Naples. Upon arrival Kurlan and the 442nd were notified that the regiment was to be removed from Fifth Army attachment in preparation for service with the Seventh Army, now making its way through Southern France after the successful landings of Operation Dragoon.
After several weeks of refitting equipment, gaining replacements, and embarkation towards a new battlefield, Kurlan and the 442nd landed in Marseilles where, on October 4, they received orders to join the 36th Infantry Division for its drive into the Vosges Mountains. While the Seventh Army had managed to successfully push the Germans out of Southern France, the mass retreat stopped at the Vosges, an ancient region of forested mountains where Germans had been preparing a large defensive line. On October 14 the regiment reached the locations of the 36th Division, leaving their trucks at Le Void de la Borde before marching two miles east to the planned jump-off points for a division-wide assault. The target was the town of Bruyeres, a German stronghold and sticking point holding back further American advances.
The attack kicked off on the 15th with the 2nd Battalion in the lead, almost immediately encountering German resistance and suffering numerous casualties. Kurlan’s men, ineffective with their guns on an advance in the hilly wooded terrain, resorted back to their supportive role as litter bearers and supply-bringers, helping to sustain the attack through direct combat support. On the 16th Kurlan even found himself alongside the enemy face-to-face, helping to gather and bring back some of the many German prisoners being taken at Hill 555 by the advancing battalion. Cold wind, fog, and mist came over the mountain valleys where the men struggled and in the early hours of the 17th, the rumble of German armor overtook the battlefield. Two companies of Germans, supported by at least four tanks, began throwing themselves against the 2nd Battalion companies along Hill 555 which bordered the town of Bruyeres. Unable to get the anti-tank guns into position through the heavily wooded area, Kurlan gathered up his troops and formed six bazooka teams, leading them from their rear position directly into the fray alongside E Company to support the infantry. Although at times the battle seemed to be at point-blank range, the combined forces managed to throw the Germans back and Kurlan’s anti-tank teams were able to successfully repel the enemy armor.
The next morning saw the 2nd and 3rd Battalion launch their final attack on the town, with especially bloody combat against two large hills, designated A and B, which housed very strong German fortifications. After nearly eight hours of combat, the Germans finally began to fall back, ceding town to Kurlan and the Nisei by nightfall. As the sun rose the battalion command post moved into the town, taking over a girl’s schoolhouse to oversee the battalion’s next movement: attacking Hill 503. While Kurlan still worked to support the battalion’s infantry as they pushed up yet another hill, the battalion S-4 supply officer, Lieutenant Donald Rowlands, was making a run of supplies to the troops in his jeep when he was hit and wounded by an enemy artillery barrage. Desperate for leadership amidst the struggle, and with Kurlan already overseeing logistic support with some of his anti-tank platoon acting as litter-bearers and supply carriers, he was designated the temporary battalion supply officer as well as the anti-tank platoon leader. One of his first tasks in this double role was to support the “O’Connor Task Force,” a joint force of F and L Companies which spent October 21 driving a wedge between a heavily concentrated German line in order to free up ground for other advancing troops. The fighting over the many houses and hills in the area centered around Foret de Belmont was often close quarters and under heavy artillery from German guns. In spite of this, Kurlan played an important role in making sure the task force was supplied with stretchers, supplies, and whatever else was needed to make the assault possible. Thankfully, it was a success, advancing the line over 2,000 meters, capturing fifty-six prisoners, and killing eighty Germans. For these actions, and his assistance in making it possible, Kurlan was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.
In spite of these extremely harrowing combat scenarios and casualties sustained, the 442nd nevertheless pushed on in its Vosges drive. On October 23 the next major town, Biffontaine, fell to the 100th Battalion, and on the 24th, the entire regiment was finally relieved for two days of very well-deserved rest. Unfortunately, the actions of the battalion commander of the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, canceled the 442nd’s reserve status when the unit became cut off and surrounded by German forces, at threat of being totally destroyed. On October 26 the regiment was called back into action. Kurlan and the 2nd Battalion led the charge with a push down a wooded ridge overlooking the valley between Biffontaine and La Houssiere while the 3rd and 100th Battalions left from Belmont to begin their own assaults. The terrain and weather during the advance were miserable, as freezing cold and rain hampered the already slow movements through heavy forest and dense underbrush. Tree burst artillery caused massive casualties and German defensive positions were fought over with great cost. Held by the German 202 Infanterie Regiment, the 2nd Battalion began its assault against Hill 617 by “methodically” launching numerous assaults against the enemy emplacements and wearing down segments of the defenses. Kurlan’s role throughout the battle was to maintain supply to the troops and evacuate the wounded, as evidenced by the journal of the 2nd Battalion Headquarters. He is referenced as overseeing meals to the attacking infantry and leading his anti-tank crews to act as stretcher teams to evacuate the wounded. By October 29 the hill fell to Kurlan and his comrades, securing the left flank of the regiment so that the other two battalions could focus on rescuing the surrounded T-Patchers. Kurlan himself assisted in the cleanup by taking charge of the nearly sixty prisoners alongside his many other ascertained duties. Holding the hill for another day until the lost 36th troops were rescued, the brave actions of the 2nd Battalion during the Lost Battalion Rescue helped earn it, and Kurlan, another Presidential Unit Citation later on.
While the regiment continued to fight in the region for another week, the worst of its combat was behind it and, despite numerous casualties, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team truly earned its place in history. Fighting for nearly three weeks straight in extremely hazardous and cruel conditions against an entrenched, experienced, and determined enemy, the Nisei managed to break through German lines time and time again, even to rescue a surrounded battalion of the 36th Division which was at risk of being totally lost. Kurlan, a man of many hats throughout the battle, was present for all of it and played an important part in sustaining the 2nd Battalion’s ability to perform its combat duties. Whether it be bringing food and ammunition to the front or evacuating the heroic casualties lost in the fight, Kurlan’s leadership was essential in the operation and his work there set the stage for his later award of two Presidential Unit Citations. It was a period of action Kurlan would never forget and one which the world would long remember as the turning point for the legend of the brave Nisei warriors.
With a tough campaign in the Vosges behind them, Kurlan and the 442nd were sent to the Maritime Alps and French Riviera for several months of rest and relaxed duty alongside the border, ensuring that German forces did not cross from Italy back into France. Kurlan, now taking over a new role as the battalion supply officer, spent most of the period, from December 1944 through March 1945, overseeing the battalion school. Set up to train replacements and veteran troops in tactics and equipment, the school was an essential element in training the Nisei in German identification, enemy weapons, bazooka use, sniper school, and much more. In some instances Kurlan did have to engage in the regular patrolling duties which were constant throughout this period, in one instance, on January 16, he even came under heavy fire from another German patrol and lost several men. Towards the end of March, however, the regiment was relieved by French forces for its return to the frontline line. This time, the destination was back to Italy.
Going back to Leghorn then north to San Martino, the 442nd was attached to the 92nd Infantry Division, another segregated combat unit, albeit composed of African-Americans, to help support the division’s offensive against the Folgorito ridge line and the coastal plain nearby. The 2nd Battalion did not lead the attack this time but instead followed the other two battalions to swing onto Mount Folgorito during the night of April 5. The Germans disagreed with their actions and a thick firefight developed which found the 2nd Battalion violently resisting for the next several days as it attempted to move from Folgorito to Mount Belvedere. It finally managed to do so on April 7, pressing the attack to Altagnana where even more heavy German forces pushed them back. The regiment managed to continue its drive as the 92nd troops supported the assault. The 2nd Battalion had more success taking Mount Grugola, with Kurlan overseeing the evacuation of prisoners, and holding the line until it finally broke on April 20. Throughout this late Italian advance, the 2nd Battalion managed to capture several major objectives and take nearly two hundred German prisoners while destroying tanks, guns, and equipment all throughout. These actions helped shore up the 2nd Battalion’s distinctions for heroism and earned it the final piece for a later Presidential Unit Citation.
With these major towns and landmarks secure, the 442nd was sent on a motor march alongside some 92nd Division troops to break through the German lines onto Genoa, taking many towns in the process and securing the surrender of thousands of German soldiers as the last days of the war signaled the end of the Third Reich forever. It was in defensive positions outside Genoa that Kurlan and the 442nd heard that the German forces in Italy surrendered, followed by the total capitulation of all German forces only days later. After years of tough combat, the war was finally over.
Kurlan and the 442nd remained in Italy for over another year serving occupation duties throughout the subcontinent, from processing German prisoners to guarding the many newly liberated territories. At some point during this stint, he received a promotion to the supply officer of the entire regiment, likely thanks to his meritorious service overseeing many of the logistical concerns of the 2nd Battalion after the loss of their S-4 during the Vosges fighting. In June 1946 he boarded the S.S. Wilson Victory alongside the rest of the regiment, arriving in New York on July 2. In an article published not long after their arrival, Kurlan called the 442nd “the best damn combat outfit in the world,” claiming that anyone who sought to challenge that statement “will have a fight on their hands.” In August both Kurlan and Lieutenant Colonel Pursall, one of the regimental commanding officers, made a special tour to Hawaii to visit the families of Hawaiian Nisei who were killed in action throughout the 442nd’s many campaigns. Expressing their deep appreciation for the valor and sacrifice of their sons, the men managed to contact the families of over three hundred casualties, making a personal connection to the many suffering from the loss of their sons, husbands, and fathers across the world. It was not until February 1947 that Kurlan, now a seasoned and decorated captain, would leave the military service for good.
In the years after his separation from the military Kurlan dedicated much of his life to promoting the cause of Nisei equality and advocating the legendary legacy of the fighting men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Going on speaking tours around the country telling of their courage, Kurlan described his hopes for “no second-class citizenship or social or economic discrimination” for Japanese-Americans after the bravery of the 442nd proved their loyalty and worth. “They are men of whom the whole United States should be proud,” he said, discussing how willing they were to give their lives to save the lives of others, especially the caucasian soldiers of the 36th Division’s lost battalion. They deserved far better treatment than they often got, Kurlan claimed, saying how “in spite of the heroism and sufferings of these young Americans, a few unreasoning individuals still attack them.” Even so, Kurlan concluded his sentiments by explaining how “the men of the 442nd RCT are a fine type of American Citizen… [who won] their honors the hard way: with blood, sweat, and tears.”
Kurlan married his wife, Gertrude, in 1947 and finished up his schooling before beginning a career in the New York City business world. Even so, his 442nd service was still critical to his identity. In 1951 he was featured briefly in the film “Go For Broke,” which focused on the 442nd, and in 1952 became secretary of the 442nd Veterans Club Association. By 1954 he was serving as president of the association and for the rest of his life spent his days advocating the social advancement of the Nisei while praising their valorous service in the European Theater. In 1987 Kurlan passed away and, maintaining his pride in service, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery alongside dozens of other Nisei of the unit he loved. Although now gone, Kurlan leaves behind a legacy of service, sacrifice, and leadership in one of our nation’s most revered combat units. A commander and an activist, Kurlan embodied the pride of 442nd officers in their men and the incredible adversity they overcame to become the most decorated and celebrated unit in U.S. Army history.