Unlikely Allies: Cooperation between the American Mafia & the U.S. Military during WWII

0

Unlikely Allies: The Cooperation between the American Mafia and the United States Military during World War II

On December 7th, 1941, after years of tenuous relations with the Japanese Empire, the United States found itself under siege.  Pearl Harbor, the home of the United States Navy’s Pacific Fleet, had been virtually annihilated.  The United States at once was at war with a foe that possessed a marked naval advantage.  While the United States was at a distinct disadvantage, all was not lost.  The Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers, the Lexington, Enterprise, and Saratoga, were not present during the attack.  Additionally, seven heavy cruisers were not present.  Of the disabled battleships, only the Arizona and Oklahoma were beyond saving.  Furthermore, the Japanese had failed to destroy Pearl Harbor’s submarine base, fuel storage tanks, and maintenance facilities.  Indeed, the carrier backbone of the fleet had survived, and the fleet, while badly bloodied, had lived to fight another day.  

Four days later, on 11 December 1941, Germany and Italy formally declared war on the United States.  At that instant a United States which was thoroughly unprepared for full-scale conflict was sandwiched between two very hostile oceans.  For several years, the German Kriegsmarine and its U-boats had wrought havoc with Allied shipping.  Yet until Germany’s declaration of war, Hitler ordered his navy to avoid attacks on U.S. vessels.  By early 1942, Britain had greatly reduced the total tonnage lost to U-boats, and had done much to eradicate Germany’s small surface fleet.  However, U-boats quickly found renewed success with the United States’ entrance into the war.

With the war in full swing, U.S. shipping became a perfectly viable target.  The U.S. had not yet organized a convoy system to protect its lamb-like merchant ships.  It also had not instituted any form of blackouts for coastal cities, making the movements of supply ships easily observable to the U-boats lurking in the darkness.  Virtually invisible, the U-boats waited for a glimpse of the American ships’ silhouettes, waiting patiently for them to emerge from port before sending them to the bottom.  

From February to May of 1942, German U-boats were sinking an average of 700,000 tons of shipping per month, the threshold Admiral Dönitz thought necessary to strangle the Allied war effort.  By June of 1942, the United States had finally organized a convoy system for its shipping, reducing the number of ships lost to the U-boat threat.  However, this is not to say that the threat had been removed altogether.  Given President Roosevelt’s adherence to a “Europe First” strategy, it became a matter of the utmost importance to secure the safety of American shipping, lest troopships headed to Europe be lost at sea.

The events of early 1942 greatly added to U.S. military concerns, particularly naval planning.  In June of that year, the German operation code named “Pastorius” came to fruition.  In the first stage of this plot, four German saboteurs, carried by U-202, arrived in Long Island.  The mission handed down to them by German Intelligence was to destroy facilities vital to the American war infrastructure.  Factories producing metals, such as the Alcoa plant were to be leveled.  Rail facilities such as the coal transporting Chesapeake and Ohio Railroads, the Hell Gate Railroad Bridge, and Penn Station, were all slated for destruction.

As the first batch of German agents arrived, a second group of four arrived in the same fashion, this time they landing at Ponte Verde, Florida.  Nine days later, two of these agents headed to Chicago while the other two made their way to New York.  The saboteurs were all English-speaking German natives.  All had lived in the United States previously, and some were even naturalized U.S. citizens.  

The saboteurs never did get a chance to insert the lump of coal shaped charges of high explosive into the designated industrial furnaces.  Within hours of their arrival on Long Island, the United States Coast Guard, and later the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was on their trail.  Saboteur George Dasch, feeling the walls closing in on him, quickly surrendered to the FBI, unveiling the entire plot in the process.  Upon his capture, fellow saboteur Peter Burger, corroborated Dasch’s story, leading the arrests of the other six German agents.  

President Roosevelt ordered the eight men tried by a military commission.  All eight were subsequently convicted of espionage and sentenced to death.  Dasch and Burger received relatively merciful sentences of 30 years and life imprisonment, respectively.  The other six weren’t as fortunate and were executed in the D.C. electric chair on August 8th of that year.

Fears of espionage and sabotage were a grave concern prior to Operation Pastorius.  In February of 1942, the ocean liner SS Normandie, in the process of being converted into a troopship, caught fire and was lost in New York Harbor.  Naval Intelligence immediately thought that the ship had been sabotaged by Axis sympathizers.  Government officials also suspected that aid and supply was being given to enemy U-boats via fishing boats.  William B. Herlands, who investigated the connection between the underworld and the United States military during World War II, stated the following in his 1954 report,

“The intelligence authorities were greatly concerned with the problems of sabotage and espionage…Suspicions were rife with respect to the leaking of information about convoy movements.  The Normandie, which was being converted to war use as the Navy auxiliary Lafayette, had burned at the pier in the North River, New York City.  Sabotage was suspected.”

Along that line of thought, Lt. Commander Charles Haffenden, the navy officer in charge of the Third District Office of Naval Intelligence based out of Manhattan, had feared that information regarding the movements of supply ships and even the supplying of German U-boats was being facilitated by the German and Italian criminal elements operating within New York.  Haffenden’s theory wasn’t entirely far-fetched.  A popular rumor, one that persists even today, is that the burning of the Normandie was a message from the American Mafia to the federal government that they would be well-advised to avoid any sort of interference with the waterfront rackets.

It has been argued that Albert “Lord High Executioner” Anastasia, the Underboss of New York’s Mangano Crime Family, and former head of Murder Inc., came up with the idea of causing strife at the docks.  Proponents of this theory allege that Anastasia and his brother “Tough” Tony Anastasio, set fire to the Normandie as clear signal to the government that security of New York Harbor could only be guaranteed by the Mafia and its imprisoned leader, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the American Mafia’s unofficial “Boss of Bosses”.

After his initial meeting with Lt. Commander Haffenden, Meyer Lansky, the most powerful Jewish mobster in the nation and Luciano’s trusted advisor, is reported to have stated, “I told Albert Anastasia face-to-face that he mustn’t burn any more ships.  He was sorry—not sorry that he’d had the Normandie burned, but that he couldn’t get at the Navy again.  Apparently he had learned in the Army to hate the Navy.”  To be clear, there is no credible evidence that the Mafia sabotaged the Normandie.  Rather, a more plausible theory is that a welder’s torch ignited a pile of life jackets, starting a blaze that quickly spread throughout the ship.  

While the Mafia did not burn the Normandie, such a rumor speaks volumes about the level of power that the early 1940s American Mafia wielded, particularly on the docks.  This overwhelming power and widespread control of New York City created notable problems for Haffenden and the Office of Naval Intelligence.  While acutely aware that they needed to keep an accurate pulse on New York Harbor and its hundreds of Italian longshoremen, their efforts to breach the tight-lipped Italian domination of the docks were generally unsuccessful and thereby forced Naval Intelligence to seek an unlikely ally, the Mafia.

Naval Intelligence officials met with Manhattan District Attorney, Frank Hogan, whose racket investigators were intimately familiar with the mobsters who lurked about the waterfront.  Both agencies had decided that “some underworld characters might be of assistance with the problems confronting Naval Intelligence”, and that they needed to “set up a flow of information from the underworld to combat the possibility [of sabotage]”.

The first step in cultivating the unusual partnership was a meeting between the Naval Intelligence officers and one of New York Harbor’s known kingpins, Joseph “Socks” Lanza, a captain or “Capo” in the Luciano Crime Family.  Surprisingly, Lanza was willing to cooperate, but his influence was largely limited to the Fulton Market on the East River in Lower Manhattan.  As such Lanza’s grip did not extend into the West Side and Brooklyn piers.  

Regardless, Joseph Lanza proffered a plan.  He calmly told the Naval Intelligence officers present that the man they needed to speak with was “Lucky” Luciano, who Lanza said could “snap the whip in the entire underworld”.  The navy quickly latched onto Lanza’s plan, having Hogan’s top aide, Murray Gurfein, relay the navy’s request to Luciano’s attorney, Moses Polakoff.  In an exchange between Gurfein and Lansky, the former informed Lansky that “the Navy wants more prominent Italians to get active in the movement to stop sabotage”.  Lansky responded by reiterating the need to speak with Luciano, stating, “the man you want is Lucky Luciano”.  Lansky continued by saying, “only one man was going to give the OK to the Italians talking to the Navy”.

Shortly thereafter, Luciano was transferred from the maximum security prison in Dannemora to Great Meadow Prison in Comstock, New York.  As an additional gesture of goodwill, federal authorities allowed the imprisoned Mafia Boss to meet with current Luciano Crime Family Boss, Frank Costello; Luciano Crime Family Capo, Joseph Lanza; and Meyer Lansky.  Critics argued that the Navy had long neglected the intelligence sector leading up to the war, and that utilizing the nation’s leading criminal element was an act of utter desperation.  In explaining potential sources of information, Haffenden stated, “I’ll talk to anybody, a priest, a bank manager, a gangster, the devil himself, if I can get the information I need.  This is a war.  American lives are at stake.”  Haffenden’s own words transmit a hint of desperation, yet upon a deeper examination a partnership between the Mafia and the federal government was seemingly a logical move.  

With their teeth sharpened by the volatility and brutality of Prohibition, and the ease of operation provided by minimal law enforcement scrutiny, the Mafia in 1942 reigned supreme.  Even today, after decades of incredible law enforcement pressure, the FBI still considers the Mafia to be “the foremost organized criminal threat to American society”.  Beyond their expansive reach, the Mafia, including its Jewish elements, and even the Sicilian Mafia, had all clearly demonstrated their disdain for Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.  To be sure, these criminal organizations and the United States itself shared a common set of enemies.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization, began holding rallies along the East Coast.  Lansky recalled his first glimpse of them, stating, “A pro-Nazi organization that spread Nazi-style anti-Semitic slogans.  They strutted around and made threats, like throwing all Jews into concentration camps.”  Lansky supplied a story about how he was approached by Jewish community leaders to help solve the growing Nazism problem, saying,

“I was always very sensitive to anti-Semitism, but during those years other people also became worried.  Important WASPs, as we would call them now, openly made anti-Semitic statements, and some magazines and papers backed them.  This worried Jewish leaders, including the most respected of all, Rabbi Stephen Wise.  He sent me a message asking me to do something about this dangerous trend.  Another Jewish leader who was worried was a respected New York judge, an important member of the Republican Party.  We knew each other, and one day in 1935 he came to see me and said ‘Nazism is flourishing in the United States.  The Bund members are not ashamed to have meetings in the most public places.  We Jews should be more militant.  Meyer we want you to take action against these Nazi sympathizers.  We’ll put money and legal assistance at your disposal, whatever you need.  Can you organize the militant part for us?’”

Shortly thereafter, the German American Bund held a rally in the Upper East Side neighborhood of Yorkville.  Lansky and his associates quickly crashed the party.  Lansky recalled, “We found several hundred people dressed in brown shirts.  The stage was decorated with pictures of Hitler.  The speakers started ranting.  There were only about fifteen of us, but we went into action.  We attacked them in the hall and then threw some out the windows.  There were fistfights all over the place.”  Lansky, who despite being largely identified as a criminal mastermind had began his criminal career as a typical street tough, continued by relating the sense of satisfaction he gained from pulverizing Nazis, stating, “We knew how to handle them.  The Italians I knew offered to help, but as a matter of pride, I wouldn’t accept.  I must say I enjoyed beating up Nazis.  There were times when we treated some big anti-Semite in a very special way, but the main point was to teach them that Jews cannot be kicked around.”

By no means was Lansky the only powerful Jewish gangster and high ranking Mafia associate to demonstrate his complete hatred for Nazis.  One particularly sensational story involves the infamous Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.  In 1938, he traveled to Mussolini’s Italy with then mistress, Countess Dorothy Taylor di Frasso.  While in the company of the Italian Fascist Party hierarchy at Villa Madama, Siegel and di Frasso were said to have seen Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels.  Upon recognizing them Siegel’s notorious temper flared, angrily saying to di Frasso, “I saw you talking to that fat bastard Goering.  Why do you let them come to our building?”  With self-propelling rage, Siegel continued, stating, “I’m gonna kill him, and that dirty Goebbels too.” His companion tried to calm him and dissuade him from such a course of action, to which Siegel retorted, “Sure I can.  It’s an easy set-up the way they’re walking around here.”  

During this period Nazi sympathizers also held rallies in Newark, New Jersey. The city’s Jewish crime boss, Abner “Longy” Zwillman, who had battled with anti-Semites as a youth, refused to allow anti-Semites to assemble in his city with repercussions. In 1933, Zwillman had formed and supported an anti-Nazi group dubbed “The Minutemen”, which was composed of Jewish boxers and gangsters.  In less than covert fashion, this group used violence to disperse any sort of pro-Nazi rally. Later, Zwillman aligned his Minutemen with the Newark branch of the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League. Under that arrangement, the Anti-Nazi League took political and economic action while the Minutemen literally cleared the streets.

At the same time in Minneapolis, William Dudley Pelley and his pro-Nazi organization, the Silver Shirt Legion, began holding rallies. One day prominent Jewish gangster, Dave Berman, heard that the Silver Shirts were holding a rally nearby. He and his associates quickly crashed the party, assaulting those in attendance.  After ten minutes of savage beatings, the gangsters had cleared the hall. Berman, his suit covered in blood, grabbed the microphone and yelled, “This is a warning.  Anybody who says anything against Jews gets the same treatment. 

Only next time it will be worse.”  In addition to physical force, Berman and Minneapolis’ criminal kingpin, Isadore “Kid Cann” Blumenfeld, protected rally breakers from legal consequences.

The Italian Mafia’s predisposition for being a suitable wartime ally of the United States government is more complex than that of the self-evident case of Jewish mobsters.  Aside from the benefits a criminal organization could find in a cozy relationship with its chief nemesis, the roots of the Mafia’s hostility toward constituent members of the Axis nations lies in Sicily.  In the early 1920s, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party seized control in Italy.  Mussolini, although a Northerner, was well aware of the power the Mafia wielded in Sicily, and its centuries old contempt for any national government in Rome.

The collision between Mussolini’s government and the Sicilian Mafia was arguably sparked in 1924 when Mussolini traveled to Piana dei Greci in Sicily.  Mussolini rose to speak to the city and abruptly found that the city’s piazza was empty, save a few beggars.  The head of the local Mafia clan, Don Ciccio Cuccia, had arranged for Mussolini to receive such an insulting reception.  In another Sicilian town, Mafia members managed to circumvent Mussolini’s bodyguards and steal his hat.

With such open displays of hostility and utter contempt, Mussolini moved quickly to obliterate the Sicilian Mafia.  He endowed Cesare Mori with totalitarian police powers and sent him to Sicily with one goal, to wipe out the Mafia.  Suspected Mafia members were unceremoniously rounded up, held in steel cages as a form of humiliation, and even tortured.  Mori’s purge resulted in the incarceration of approximately 1,200 Mafiosi, most of them under the obscure charge of “banding together for criminal purposes”.

During the purge of the Sicilian Mafia in the mid 1920s, many Mafiosi who were not driven underground fled to the United States, bolstering the ranks of the nation’s many Italian gangs, relatively loose groups that within a decade would evolve into large organized crime families.  One such example is that of Joseph Bonanno.  Born to a Mafioso father in the Mafia bastion of Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily, he was sent to the United States in 1924 at age 19 in order to escape the purge.  Seven years later when “Lucky” Luciano formally organized the American Mafia, Joe Bonanno was chosen to be the Boss of the Bonanno Crime Family, one of New York’s “Five Families”, a Mafia borgata that retains his name to this day.

With a proven record of often violent clashes with Axis sympathizers and realistic threats posed to the United States’ logistical base, the United States government, namely the Office of Naval Intelligence had found an ally, and “Operation Underworld” was duly launched.  Almost immediately after being approached and consenting to cooperate, “Lucky” Luciano fielded regular visitors, both of the federal and criminal variety.

At the outset of “Operation Underworld”, the code name for Naval Intelligence’s collusion with the Mafia, the Mafia’s puppet master, “Lucky” Luciano, made it abundantly clear that his cooperation came with a price.  Having sat in prison for six years of his thirty year sentence, he demanded a reduction.  He also wanted his cooperation to be kept secret, fearing that as an Italian national that he could be deported and fall into the hands of Mussolini’s henchmen.  Luciano later chuckled about the eagerness Naval Intelligence exhibited in their efforts to recruit his services, stating, “As far as Haffenden was concerned, he didn’t know nothin’ that was goin’ on except that he was sittin’ there with his mouth open, prayin’ I would say yes and help his whole department.”

The first order of business for Naval Intelligence’s new partner was to secure New York Harbor.  Lansky, who often acted as Luciano’s medium for Naval Intelligence and the mobsters on the street, recalled Naval Intelligence’s early efforts to penetrate the docks singlehandedly, stating, “Everybody in New York was laughing at the way those naïve Navy agents were going around the docks.  They went up to men working in the area and talked out of the corner of their mouths like they had seen in the movies, asking about spies.”  

True to form, the Mafia wasted little time in tightening up any potential information leaks emanating from New York Harbor.  Lansky called upon feared Irish gangster and enforcer, John “Cockeye” Dunn, to help ferret out potential Axis sympathizers and “persuade” the rest to remain silent.  Lansky later said,

“I gave Cockeye the orders.  Go down to the piers and find out who is loyal and who is not loyal.  You have to see that there are no strikes and that the job is done quickly when military stuff is loaded.  And we have to make sure everybody keeps his mouth shut about troop movements.  That means going into bars to make sure the crews and longshoremen don’t start sounding off when they get drunk.”

Lansky told Naval Intelligence officers, “I can promise you one thing.  There will be no German submarines in the Port of New York.”  He went on to state, “From the moment when I went to see Lucky and got his cooperation, nothing went wrong in the Port of New York.  No sabotage, no strikes, no ships delayed.  No enemy agents as far as I know ever got any important information from the men who worked there, and no suspicious characters were allowed anywhere near the loading docks.”  Lansky continued, “There was peace on the waterfront.  It was kept with rough methods.  But that’s what the Navy asked us to do and that’s what the Navy got.”

Aside from physically rooting out any suspected Axis sympathizers, the Mafia provided what possibly could have been considered to be a greater service regarding port security.  The Mafia, through its stranglehold, and as Lansky stated, kept the docks running smoothly.  In the year leading up to the war, harbors across the East Coast suffered routinely from work interruptions.  In a time of war, the docks, particularly those of New York, could not be allowed to succumb to the paralysis resulting from labor strikes.  

In May of 1941, Boston’s harbor witnessed a strike, as did the Philadelphia Navy Yard.  From May to August of the same year there were numerous shipbuilding strikes in New York Harbor.  In early August, there was a strike in Kearney, New Jersey.  A month later, a small company in Greenport, Long Island that manufactured minesweepers was hit by a strike.  On October 10th, union members wildcatted one of Brooklyn’s largest repair firms, the Robins Dry Dock and Repair Company.  

Perhaps most interestingly, an electricians strike, spearheaded by IBEW Local 3, found its way to the Brooklyn Navy Yard in July of that year.  This particular union had longstanding connections to the Mafia.  Throughout the 1930s it had been controlled by former Murder Inc. Boss, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, and fellow Murder Inc. hit man, Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro.  Even “The Beer Baron of the Bronx” “Dutch” Schultz tried to muscle in on Local 3, shortly before he met his unfortunate end, the assassination allegedly orchestrated by “Lepke” Buchalter.

Further union penetration by the Mafia existed in the form of their control over the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA).  At this point, the Mangano and Profaci families, today known as the Gambino and Colombo families respectively, ruled over the ILA with an iron fist.  The Mafia, largely through members of these two crime families, supplied Naval Intelligence agents with ILA union cards, something that greatly enhanced the ability of the government agents to mingle around the docks without arousing excessive suspicion.

The Mafia’s mastery of the rough art of racketeering further aided Naval Intelligence. Mafia associates who owned restaurants in Yorkville, a neighborhood frequented by the German American Bund and other Nazi sympathizers, were persuaded to hire German-speaking Naval Intelligence officers as restaurant staff in order to facilitate enhanced information collection.  In a later interview, Lansky laughed about how Naval Intelligence indirectly wound up servicing Mafia-owned vending machines.  Lansky praised their professionalism, stating, “They handed over the money they collected and were always honest in their dealings…I think this must be the only time the U.S. Navy ever directly helped the Mafia.”

As the Allies drove the Axis forces Northward through Africa, preparations for an invasion of Italy began in earnest.  The first step was conquering Sicily.  With this monumental task in mind, intelligence agents required as much information on the Italian island as possible.  Even prior to approaching Luciano for assistance, Haffenden had assembled a collection of materials from Sicilian immigrants, however, the fruits from these limited efforts were minimal.  Naval Intelligence agents had tried every trick in the book, a young agent, Lieutenant Anthony Marsloe, who doubled as an interpreter, recounted his experiences with skeptical Italian immigrants, stating,

“I was mostly interested in the pictures and names of their relatives back in Italy, where they lived and what they did for a living.  They gave us whatever they could.  Some of them were hostile and I’d tell them that America was the land where they were making a living, where they owned a house and therefore owed it their livelihood.  It was their duty to do anything they could to save an American boy’s life.”

Despite their patriotic pleas and best efforts to honestly convince elusive Italian immigrants of the duty to their new home, a more convincing approach was needed.  This task was assigned to the Mafia.  Luciano, quickly sent word to several powerful mobsters, among them was gambling czar Joe Adonis.  After Luciano’s edict was delivered to the streets, gaggles of Italians began appearing at the headquarters of Naval Intelligence, providing a wide array of information concerning their former home, including snapshots of the Sicilian coast.  Adonis is even said to have personally delivered scores of Italians to Church Street in order to offer corrections to preliminary Naval Intelligence maps of Sicily.

Naval Intelligence was interested in more than Sicilians and mainland Italians residing in the United States.  If possible they desired information from Sicily’s current inhabitants.  Luciano had limited contacts in Sicily, he had been brought to the U.S. as a child, however, he knew many mobsters that had the contacts he lacked.  From his prison cell, he recruited the help of three exceptionally powerful mobsters.  These men were Vincent Mangano, Joe Profaci, and Joe Bonanno. Aside from each being the boss of one of New York’s Five Families, these men had extensive contacts in Sicily, and if necessary, could have messages sent.

Despite Luciano’s limited contacts in Sicily, there is evidence that the first New York-based Naval Intelligence officers to arrive in Sicily, Lieutenants: Anthony Marsloe, Paul Alfieri, Joachim Titolo; and Ensign James Murray, directly benefitted from Luciano. One of Lieutenant Alfieri’s first contacts in Sicily was a man who at the age of 16 had killed a police officer in New York.  Facing the electric chair, the boy’s mother—Luciano’s cousin, appealed to the powerful gangster.  Luciano is said to have arranged for the boy to escape to Sicily via Canada.  This boy had grown to become the leader of a local Mafia clan who had kept in touch with other Sicilian criminals who had been deported from the United States.  Furthermore, it is argued that this local Mafioso arranged for the attack on the headquarters of the Italian Naval Command.

One of the intangibles of Luciano’s aid was that it bizarrely reinforced a positive attitude by American officials towards the Sicilian Mafia, whose members were then described as having strong senses of “chivalry and justice”.  In fact, an April 1943 report entitled, “Special Military Plan for Psychological Warfare in Sicily” advocated “The establishment of contact and communications with the leaders of separatist nuclei, disaffected workers, and clandestine radical groups, e.g., the Mafia, and giving them every possible aid.”  Additionally, as the invasion progressed, intelligence agents gained the trust of many Sicilians who desperately wanted to fight Fascism.  Some of these people even carried out acts of sabotage.  Intelligence agents later described these individuals as “devoid of any moral scruples”. While Luciano and the American Mafia did not foster the whole of this strange relationship, they did indeed arrange the first meetings.

One should be careful not to paint the Mafia’s participation in World War II as an entirely patriotic service.  The Mafia is at its core, a business. A brutal game played by ruthless competitors.  To be sure, the Mafia prospered during the war. A law enforcement atmosphere that was already lax, loosened even further, allowing mobsters to seek out new revenue sources with greater impunity. Joe Valachi, the first “made” member of the Mafia to become a federal informant, spoke on the bustling wartime business of counterfeiting ration stamps.  Valachi told of prodigious ration stamp profiteer Carlo Gambino, then a Capo in the Mangano family, stating, “Him and his brother Paul…made over a million from ration stamps during the war.  The stamps came out of the OPA’s offices. First Carlo’s boys would steal them. Then, when the government started hiding them in banks, Carlo made contact and the OPA men sold him the stamps. He really got rich on that.”

Perhaps a better example of the Mafia’s inherent opportunistic nature rests with the story of Vito Genovese.  Forced to flee from the United States to his native Naples in 1937 in order to avoid being prosecuted for murder, Genovese worked diligently to stay in the good graces of Mussolini.  Genovese, the self-appointed Underboss of the Luciano Crime Family at the time of his exodus, even donated $250,000 to construct the new Fascist Party headquarters in Naples.  In order to maintain his friendly ties to Mussolini, Genovese arranged the murder of Mussolini’s foe, anti-Fascist reporter, Carlo Tresca, in January of 1943.  When the war in Italy decidedly turned against Mussolini, Genovese offered his services to the Allies. Genovese subsequently became an interpreter for the American government in Naples.  In true mobster fashion, Genovese enriched himself by bootlegging rationed goods at the same time.

From the launch of Operation Husky in July of 1943 to the German surrender in Italy on May 2nd, 1945, the Allies had used information from the Mafia to coordinate and further its operations.  However, the extent and importance of the Mafia’s role in the Second World War remains a topic of considerable debate.  Citing the words of Luciano’s attorney, The New York Times reported that Luciano’s intelligence “led to the locating of many Sicilian-born Italians who gave information of military value on conditions in Sicily”, and that he “aided the military authorities for two years in the preliminaries leading to the invasion of Sicily.”  Syndicated columnist Walter Winchell played up this angle even further in 1947, saying that Luciano’s services were so valuable that he was being considered for the Congressional Medal of Honor.  The installation of this preposterous and impossible notion into Winchell’s head is often thought to be attributable to Winchell’s neighbor, Luciano’s close friend and heir to his crime family, Frank Costello.

In contrast, the 1951 Kefauver hearings found that Luciano’s aid was not substantial enough to merit the gubernatorial commutation that he received from Governor Dewey.  The Herlands Report was also skeptical of Luciano’s contribution.  It stated,

“No practical purpose would be served by debating the technical scope of Luciano’s aid to the war effort…Over and beyond and precise rating of the contribution is the crystal-clear fact that Luciano and his associates and contacts during a period when ‘the outcome of the war appeared extremely grave’, were responsible for a wide range of services which were considered ‘useful to the navy’.”

Unfortunately, the clearest indication of the value of Mafia’s role in World War II is rather murky.  The relationship between Naval Intelligence and the Mafia during the war and value of their collaboration may very well be best summarized by the words of the man who put Luciano in prison in the first place, New York Governor Thomas Dewey.  Dewey stated, “Upon entry of the United States into the War, Luciano’s aid was sought by the Armed Services in inducing others to provide information concerning possible enemy attack. It appears that he cooperated in such effort, although the actual value of the information procured is not clear.”




Share.

About Author

Jesse Heitz is a military and diplomatic historian who has written and presented over a dozen research papers at domestic and international conferences, and has had numerous pieces published in mediums ranging from traditional print to television. He obtained his BA in History from the University of St. Thomas in 2010, and an MA in War in the Modern World from King's College London in 2014. He is currently in the final year of a MSt in Building History from the University of Cambridge, and recently began studying for a MA in International Relations from the University of Oklahoma. Beginning in September 2016, he will start studying for a Ph.D. in Modern History at the University of St. Andrews.

Let us know what you think: