by lyle e davis
Doing business with the devil sometimes happens in wartime. Happens in peacetime, too, if the deal is right.
In this instance, deals were struck by the United States Government in the middle of World War II . . . but they kept it plenty quiet for a long time. But because of the deal they struck with the devil(s) . . . a lot of Allied troops survived the war that would otherwise likely have been slaughtered.
At the outset of American involvement in World War II, the winter months of 1942, the United States was already at a grave impasse. The Pacific fleet had been devastated in the Pearl Harbor attack, and on the East Coast, Nazi U-boats were sinking Allied ships. Twenty-one vessels were sunk in January, another 27 were torpedoed in February, and it was widely suspected that the Axis powers had spies and collaborators up and down the Eastern seaboard.
The clannish Italians who made up the bulk of the fishing industry were well placed to supply information critical to the war effort, but their raging distrust of outsiders, and in some cases, their mixed loyalties to America and Italy, prevented them from doing their patriotic duty.
In fact, sensing they could create a pressure point on the US government, the Mafia actually created their own sabotage by sinking, in February of 1942, the French luxury liner Normandie, at its berth on a west side pier.
Palermo, Sicily today . . . a peaceful tranquil scene
The Mafia waterfront mob twiddled their fingers, whistled a happy tune and commented on what a shame it was that someone would do something like that to a fine ship like the Normandie.
The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), not being dummies, had established contact with the Mafia, acknowledged their control of the waterfront and sought cooperation.
Enter Charlie "Lucky" Luciano.
An original American Mafioso, Luciano was cooling his heels at Dannemora Prison, in a remote corner of New York State, having been sentenced to up to 50 years for promoting prostitution. In spite of his criminal record and convictions, Luciano considered himself to be a loyal American who was devoted to Sicily, the Mafia, and the U.S. alike. But he was not above making a deal that would benefit him, his cronies, and ‘the organization.’
Naval intelligence pulled some strings behind the scenes, and the mob boss was transferred to another facility close to Albany. With his boyhood pal and criminal mastermind, Meyer Lansky, acting as go-between, the Navy enlisted Luciano to bring his power to bear on the docks, and the result was one of the great counter-espionage successes of the Allied victory.
Lansky and Luciano twisted the screws on waterfront hoods, and Naval intelligence developed thousands of informants on the Atlantic coast. Albert Anastasia, who controlled the docks, promised that no dockworker strikes would arise. The Nazi attacks stopped, allowing for the free flow of men and supplies across the ocean and into the European theater. Additionally, American Mafiosi, with their knowledge of the Mediterranean harbors and ports they used for drug smuggling, along with their ties to the Sicilian mob, greatly aided in the Allied invasion of Sicily.
The way it happened: Luciano put ONI in touch with Joseph Lanza, Mafia boss of the East Side docks, who agreed to organize effective antisabotage surveillance throughout his waterfront territory. When ONI decided to expand "Operation Underworld" to the West Side docks in 1943 they discovered they would have to deal directly with the man who controlled them: Lucky Luciano. After he promised full cooperation to naval intelligence officers, Luciano was regularly visited by military officers and underworld leaders such as Meyer Lansky (who had emerged as Luciano's chief assistant).
In return for his cooperation, Luciano was allegedly permitted to run his crime empire unhindered from his jail cell. Suddenly, sabotage on the docks stopped. Imagine that. The United States government cuts a deal with the Mafia and many of the government’s problems go away. Hmmmm. Just like in civilian life.
World War II gave the Mafia a new lease on life. While ONI enabled Luciano to resume active leadership of American organized crime, the Allied invasion of Italy returned the Sicilian Mafia to power.
An excellent summary of this long-time secret was outlined by writer, John William Tuohy:
"It was the Second World War that set Charlie Luciano free from jail. By 1942, German U-boats had sunk over almost 70 vessels, mainly freighters carrying valuable and essential cargo en route to and from New York to the war effort in Europe. The attacks were exact and final, and it appeared that the Nazis knew every attacked ship's schedule and freight. Naval Intelligence suspected that German and Italian spies were operating along the New York docks and approached Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan in order to get connected to Genovese, who controlled the docks, and enlist them in the fight. It was a huge mistake. Sensing the importance of the subject, the Mafia actually created their own sabotage by sinking, in February of 1942, the French luxury liner Normandie, at its berth on a west side pier. The work was apparently carried out by Albert Anastasia on Lucky Luciano's orders. The sinking made international headlines and the Navy placed all its efforts into securing the dock. Its agents, through the District Attorney's Office, contacted Joseph 'Socks' Lanza, a semi-literate hood who controlled the Fulton Fish Market, then the biggest fish wholesale outlet in North America. Lanza agreed to cooperate and offered to help Naval Intelligence agents infiltrate the market and set up listening and communications devices in fishing boats, however, he said, he could only offer to help, he couldn't actually do it. In order to put the plan to work, Lanza said he would need a direct order from the Boss, Lucky Luciano himself and that order would only come with a price. The price was freedom for Lucky Luciano, who was moved from Dannemora, at the extreme northwest east corner of New York State, to Sing Sing Prison, which is about an hour and a half outside of Manhattan. There, at a meeting attended by Costello, Lansky, and Haffenden and a representative of Dewey's office, a deal was hammered out. It was agreed that, in return for his help, Charlie would get his parole at the war's end, but also that he had to accept deportation, voluntarily, back to Sicily. On January 3, 1946, Thomas E. Dewey, the onetime racket-busting D.A. who had jailed Luciano in the first place, was now the Governor of New York and he detested his next move, a move that Naval Intelligence had forced him into. That afternoon, Dewey signed an executive order declaring that Charlie Luciano would be set free on parole to his birthplace in Sicily. The country was shocked, and for those not in the know, which was virtually everyone in the world, the whole affair smelled like political corruption."
—John William Tuohy, AmericanMafia.com, "The Short Return of Charlie Lucifer (Part 1)", July 2001
On the night of July 9, 1943, 160,000 Allied troops landed on the extreme southwestern shore of Sicily. After securing a beachhead, General George Patton's U.S. Seventh Army launched an offensive into the island's western hills, Italy's Mafialand, and headed for the city of Palermo. Although there were over sixty thousand Italian troops and a hundred miles of boobytrapped roads between Patton and Palermo, his troops covered the distance in a remarkable four days. The Sicilian Mafia had put the word out. The Allied troops were to enjoy their protection.
The Defense Department has never offered any explanation for the remarkable lack of resistance in Patton's race through western Sicily and pointedly refused to provide any information to Sen. Estes Kefauver's Organized Crime Subcommittee in 1951. However, Italian experts on the Sicilian Mafia have never been quiet about the operation.
Five days after the Allies landed in Sicily an American fighter plane flew over the village of Villalba, about forty-five miles north of General Patton's beachhead on the road to Palermo, and jettisoned a canvas sack addressed to "Zu Calo." "Zu Calo," better known as Don Calogero Vizzini, was the unchallenged leader of the Sicilian Mafia and lord of the mountain region through which the American army would be passing. The sack contained a yellow silk scarf emblazoned with a large black L. The L, of course, stood for Lucky Luciano, and silk scarves were a common form of identification used by mafiosi traveling from Sicily to America.
It was hardly surprising that Lucky Luciano should be communicating with Don Calogero under such circumstances; Luciano had been born less than fifteen miles from Villalba in Lercara Fridi, where his mafiosi relatives still worked for Don Calogero.
Two days later, three American tanks rolled into Villalba after driving thirty miles through enemy territory. Don Calogero climbed aboard and spent the next six days traveling through western Sicily organizing support for the advancing American troops. As General Patton's Third Division moved onward into Don Calogero's mountain domain, the signs of its dependence on Mafia support were obvious to the local population. The Mafia protected the roads from snipers, arranged enthusiastic welcomes for the advancing troops, and provided guides through the confusing mountain terrain.
While the role of the Mafia is little more than an historical footnote to the Allied conquest of Sicily, its cooperation with the American military occupation (AMGOT) was extremely important. Although there is room for speculation about Luciano's precise role in the invasion, there can be little doubt about the relationship between the Mafia and the American military occupation.
This alliance developed when, in the summer of 1943, the Allied occupation's primary concern was to release as many of their troops as possible from garrison duties on the island so they could be used in the offensive through southern Italy. Practicality was the order of the day, and in October the Pentagon advised occupation officers "that the carabinieri and Italian Army will be found satisfactory for local security purposes.” But the Fascist army had long since deserted, and Don Calogero's Mafia seemed far more reliable at guaranteeing public order than Mussolini's powerless carabinieri. So, in July the Civil Affairs Control Office of the U.S. Army appointed Don Calogero mayor of Villalba. In addition, ANIGOT appointed loyal mafiosi as mayors in many of the towns and villages in western Sicily.
As Allied forces crawled north through the Italian mainland, American intelligence officers became increasingly upset about the leftward drift of Italian politics.
Between late 1943 and mid 1944, the Italian Communist party's membership had doubled, and in the German-occupied northern half of the country an extremely radical resistance movement was gathering strength; in the winter of 1944, over 500,000 Turin workers shut the factories for eight days despite brutal Gestapo repression, and the Italian underground grew to almost 150,000 armed men.
Rather than being heartened by the underground's growing strength, the U.S. army became increasingly concerned about its radical politics and began to cut back its arms drops to the resistance in mid 1944. "More than twenty years ago," Allied military commanders reported in 1944, "a similar situation provoked the March on Rome and gave birth to Fascism. We must make up our minds-and that quickly-whether we want this second march developing into another 'ism.'
In Sicily the decision had already been made. To combat expected Communist gains, occupation authorities used Mafia officials in the AMGOT administration. Since any changes in the island's feudal social structure would cost the Mafia money and power, the "honored society" was a natural anti-Communist ally. So confident was Don Calogero of his importance to AMGOT that he killed Villalba's overly inquisitive police chief to free himself of all restraints.
In Naples, one of Luciano's lieutenants, Vito Genovese, was appointed to a position of interpreter/liaison officer in American Army headquarters and quickly became one of AMGOT's most trusted employees. It was a remarkable turnabout; less than a year before, Genovese had arranged the murder of Carlo Tresca, editor of an anti-Fascist Italian-language newspaper in New York, to please the Mussolini government.
Genovese and Don Calogero were old friends, and they used their official positions to establish one of the largest black market operations in all of southern Italy.
Don Calogero sent enormous truck caravans loaded with all the basic food commodities necessary for the Italian diet rolling northward to hungry Naples, where their cargoes were distributed by Genovese's organization. All of the trucks were issued passes and export papers by the AMGOT administration in Naples and Sicily, and some corrupt American army officers even made contributions of gasoline and trucks to the operation. In exchange for these favors, Don Calogero became one of the major supporters of the Sicilian Independence Movement, which was enjoying the covert support of the OSS.
As Italy veered to the left in 1943-1944, the American military became alarmed about their future position in Italy and felt that the island's naval bases and strategic location in the Mediterranean might provide a possible future counterbalance to a Communist mainland. Don Calogero supported this separatist movement by recruiting most of western Sicily's mountain bandits for its volunteer army, but quietly abandoned it shortly after the OSS dropped it in 1945.
Don Calogero rendered other services to the anti-Communist effort by breaking up leftist political rallies. On September 16, 1944, for example, the Communist leader Girolama Li Causi held a rally in Villalba that ended abruptly in a hail of gunfire as Don Calogero's men fired into the crowd and wounded nineteen spectators.
By the beginning of the Second World War, the Mafia was restricted to a few isolated and scattered groups and could have been completely wiped out if the social problems of the island had been dealt with . . . the Allied occupation and the subsequent slow restoration of democracy reinstated the Mafia with its full powers, put it once more on the way to becoming a political force, and returned to the Onorata Societa the weapons which Fascism had snatched from it.
In 1946, as a reward for his wartime cooperation, Luciano was paroled on the condition that he depart the United States of America and return to Sicily. He accepted the deal, although he had maintained during his trial that he was a native of New York City and was therefore not subject to deportation; he was deeply hurt about having to leave the USA, a country he had considered his own ever since his arrival at age ten.
Luciano's confederates saw him off at the docks with envelopes stuffed with cash, reportedly as much as $400,000.