Brazil is, perhaps, the least-known of the Allied countries who fought during WWII. Originally declaring neutrality when the war broke out in September 1939, the Brazilian government under President Getúlio Vargas (dictator since a coup d’etat in November 1937), felt itself being slowly dragged into the war.
As a consequence of the Pan-American conference at Rio de Janeiro in January 1942, Brazil severed diplomatic ties with the Axis countries. Then, after German U-boats sank several merchant ships along its coastline, Brazil finally entered the war on August 22, 1942.
With Brazil fully engaged in the War, the US Army Air Force and Navy began operations from bases in Natal and Rio de Janeiro. Strategic raw materials from Brazil could now flow continuously to the Allied war effort. And, most importantly, Brazilian soldiers could be deployed overseas as part of the war effort — the Brazilian Army’s first international conflict since the Triple Alliance War in 1870.
The Força Expedicionária Brasileira (Brazilian Expeditionary Force or FEB) was comprised of three infantry regiments with each divided into three battalions consisting of four companies and each including supporting units such as artillery, engineers, and cavalry (reconnaissance). The FEB was under the command of General João B. Mascarenhas de Moraes (1883-1968). The first troops arrived at Naples, Italy in July 1944. Four other echelons arrived during the following months, eventually totaling 25,334 soldiers.
Upon its arrival in Italy, the FEB was assigned to the Fourth Corps of the U.S. Fifth Army, under General Mark Clark. The Brazilians’ arrival was very welcome as they were needed to reinforce Clark’s depleted army. Several of his Corps were previously detached in July for the Seventh Army’s invasion of southern France. On September 15, 1944, the Brazilian 6th Infantry Regiment went into the line facing the legendary Wehrmacht’s defensive Gothic Line.
The Italian campaign was especially brutal as the Allies had to fight continuously uphill to dislodge the Germans from commanding defensive positions. The FEB completed all the missions assigned to it and performed well as compared to the American divisions of the Fourth Corps — including the famous US 10th Mountain Division. Brazilian troops faced heavy fighting in Monte Castello (November 1944 - February 21, 1945) and Montese (April 16, 1945). The FEB suffered 426 casualties during a four-day, house-to-house battle — but they took the town.
In the following days, it fought and performed a textbook encirclement of the German 148th Infantry Division (by then the last intact Wehrmacht unit in Italy) and the Fascist Italian Monte Rosa, San Marco, and Italia Divisions. They all surrendered to General Mascarenhas on April 29-30. This surrender led to the Brazilians capturing 2 generals, 800 officers, and 14,700 soldiers. A few days later, on May 2, 1945, the remainder of the Axis forces surrendered in Italy.
Though the war was over for the Brazilian Expeditionary Force, it had amassed an impressive record. It had spent 239 days at the combat zone and had suffered 465 KIA (21 officers and 444 enlisted men), 2,722 wounded (1,577 WIAs), 35 POWs (one officer and 34 enlisted men) and 16 MIAs.
BRAZILIAN WWII DECORATIONS
The Brazilians performed very well with several of its soldiers being decorated for gallantry by the U.S. government (because the FEB was a part of a U.S. Army Group). The U.S. medals awarded included: 163 Bronze Star Medals, 30 Silver Stars, and one Distinguished Service Cross.
In addition to the U.S. medals, Brazil also awarded its own medals. One month after the first echelon of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force landed in Naples, the Vargas Government created the first medals related to country’s participation in the war. Executive Act nr. 6,795, edited on August 17, 1944, created three decorations: the Campaign Medal, War Medal, and Combat Cross. Specifics regarding each medals design and awarding rules and criteria were established by Federal Decree nr. 16,821, on October 13, 1944.
The FEB Campaign Medal
The most common FEB award is the Campaign Medal (Medalha de Campanha). It was awarded to every soldier, regardless of rank, who had been active at the Italian theater of operation, provided that he/she never had any disciplinary infractions or offenses. Active duty, retired recalled, volunteers, and conscripts were eligible. In addition, military individuals from Allied and friendly nations attached to Brazilian Forces (liaison, translators, instructors, etc.) could also receive the medal.
The Brazilian War Medal
In August 1944, the Brazilian Government introduced the second medal: The War Medal (Medalha de Guerra). It was awarded for any civilian or military personnel, on the home front or abroad (including the combat zone), who rendered distinguished services in support of the war effort. This would include troop instruction or special assignment by request of the government. Eligibility was retroactive to August 22, 1942, when Brazil declared war against the Axis, until the end of the war. Initially, in regard to military personnel, only officers were eligible for this award. Later, the award was extended to NCOs, and then was ultimately awarded to all personnel of all ranks who were sent to Italy.
Although some medals had reached the theater of operation in time to be awarded to fighting troops, most were not awarded until many years after the war had ended. In spite of its beautiful design, this medal was not well-regarded by the true combat veterans. Because it was awarded to many officers and NCOs who never had any combat experience or had left the security of the homeland, it gained the mocking nickname “Sunny Beaches Medal.”
The Brazilian Combat Cross
The final medal introduced by the Brazilian Government during the WWII was also the only one created to recognize bravery or merit performed in combat against enemy forces. Hence, it was properly called the Combat Cross (Cruz de Combate).
It consisted in two classes: Combat Cross 1st Class (Cruz de Combate de 1a Classe) and the Combat Cross 2nd Class (Cruz de Combate de 2a Classe). The 1st Class Cross was awarded to military personnel, regardless of rank, who had performed individual acts of bravery or had made a personal sacrifice beyond the call of duty while engaging enemy forces. In turn, the 2nd Class Cross was awarded to soldiers and officers alike, who distinguished themselves in a collective action while in combat (as opposed to an individual act).
Upon introduction, Combat Crosses were intended to have the recipient’s name engraved on the reverse along with the date of the act of bravery. This, however, was never implemented because the decree creating the award was altered a couple months after it was enacted resulting in a configuration and design change. In spite of rumors, not a single medal with the originally intended design has ever been authenticated. It is doubtful that any were manufactured. However, most of the associated medal certificates had a description of the act performed that led to the medal being issued.
A detailed study published by Brazilian Army Lt. Col. Julio Fidalgo Zary identified two major strikes of this medal. The first, struck in late 1944 or early 1945, comprised 600 pieces of each class (totaling 1,200 medals) that were awarded between 1945-1948. There was a second production run in late 1951, with another 600 2nd Class and 100 1st Class Crosses made. These medals were awarded until 1961. These are the only strikes considered to be “collectible.” Officially, 643 1st Class Crosses and 1,117 2nd Class Crosses were awarded.
Blood of Brazil Medal
Soon after the first veterans returned home, the Brazilian Government created a decoration to honor those who, regardless of rank, were wounded or killed in action during the Italian campaign. Introduced by the Executive Act nr. 7,709, dated July 5, 1945, the award was named “Blood of Brazil Medal” (Medalha Sangue do Brasil). It was the FEB counterpart to the U.S. Purple Heart.
Just as with the original Combat Cross design, the initial award regulation established that the reverse of the medal was to have the recipient’s name engraved on it along with the date of injury or death. However, this provision was removed by Executive Act nr. 8,052, dated October 8, 1945, which also set the final design. It is probable that none of the earlier design was ever made as there are no known examples.
The whole production was made locally in Brazil in two major strikes. The first was during 1946-48 and other in 1960. No replacements were made after that. Many veterans never received their awards, and most of the original production remained locked in warehouses for decades, until finally being released and entering the collector’s market in the early 2000s.
In 2015, the Brazilian Army reestablished the “Blood of Brazil Medal” with the same award criteria, in order to recognize soldiers wounded or killed while fighting drug lords or on UNO missions abroad. Very few have been awarded. The quality of the new medal is clearly inferior to the older strikes, especially the enamel work.
Brazilian Police Distinguished Service Cross
The Distinguished Service Cross (Cruz de Serviços Relevantes) is the least-known and rarest medal related to the Brazilian Army’s participation in WWII. Because of the low number of medals made, the fact that it was awarded more than two decades after the war’s end, and that it is connected to a specific unit of the FEB, it is one of the most fascinating Brazilian military medals.
Until 1943, the Brazilian Army lacked a military police (MP) force of its own. Police duties were performed by cavalry units. When the Brazilian Expeditionary Force was activated, its whole structure was reformed to comply with the U.S. Army Table of Organization and Equipment (TOE). This required the FEB to have at least one MP Company for the division.
In a smart move to save time on training, General Mascarenhas de Moraes, simply picked up an entire Police Company from the one of the branches of the State of São Paulo’s Police Force. This branch, called Guarda Civil (Civil Guard), was modeled after the New York City Police and was known for its strong esprit de corps and rigor while enforcing the law.
Seventy eight Guarda Civil policemen from State of São Paulo left Brazil as the first members of the Brazilian Military Police in the first echelon of the FEB. As more soldiers arrived, the number of Brazilians MPs filled a company with around 180 men — the policemen from São Paulo forming its core. Hated by the other troops, the Brazilian MPs carried out their duties with vigor. At times severe, their comrades in arms gave them the nickname, “Brazilian Gestapo.”
All members of the Guarda Civil wore the U.S. dark navy armband with white “MP” letters on their left uniform sleeve. Their M1 helmets had a red band painted around with the Fifth Army insignia on the right side and the Brazilian national flag between the initials “MP.”They also adopted the U.S. insignia of crossed flintlock pistols insignia on their shirt collars (made of gray cloth, instead of the U.S. Army yellow). Interestingly, when they returned, the São Paulo Police adopted the crossed pistol insignia, which is still in use today. The Brazilian Army ultimately established a permanent Military Police Company, officially called “Army Police” (Polícia do Exército or simply “PE”).
Many years after the end of WWII, the State of São Paulo government created the Distinguished Service Cross (Cruz de Serviços Relevantes) by State Decree nr. 48,109, dated June 12, 1967. It was created to recognize the service of the first 78 police officers who went to Italy as members of the FEB Military Police Company.
Although other individuals could be eligible for this medal as the result of relevant service or bravery, the Guard Commander-in-Chief declared that no more than 100 medals were to be made and less then 80 awarded. By 1969, this medal was no longer available.
Practically all of the awarded crosses were issued to former MP veterans. With the reorganization of the São Paulo Police in 1970, the Civil Guard was disbanded, and the cross was no longer available to be awarded.Currently, this medal is so rare — even in Brazil — that an example for this article could only be located in the São Paulo State Police Museum collection.
Upon its return to Brazil, during the summer of 1945, the Brazilian Expeditionary Force was quickly demobilized. The Vargas dictatorship was afraid that such a highly trained and combat-hardened force could be used to overthrow the government. For military personnel and civilians, it was a paradox to have sent troops to fight against the Axis’ fascist dictatorships while Brazil had a similar authoritarian government. Vargas was indeed correct to have this fear. In spite of his efforts, he was deposed in a bloodless coup in October 29, 1945. It can be said this was the ultimate FEB accomplishment.
In his 1947 memoirs, the former FEB C-in-C, General Mascarenhas, bitterly complained about how the delay to award decorations while the Brazilians were still fighting negatively impacted morale. Most of the medals were awarded after the war (always with a certificate), with the last ones being issued in 1961.
Among collectors, the strikes made through the 1950s are considered as the most collectable pieces. The quality of these early strikes is far superior to later medals made as replacement for veterans and their families.
A special thank you goes to the Director of the São Paulo Military Police Museum –Colonel, MP, (retired) Galdino Vieira Da Silva Neto.
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