How the American Mafia Helped the Allies Win WWII

July 2018 marked the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Sicily, aka Operation Husky...

American troops advancing to Messina, 1943.

The summer 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily was an unmitigated success, what historians term as one of World War II's major turning points.

After defeating Italy and Germany in the North African Campaign (November 8, 1942-May 13, 1943) of World War II (1939-45), the United States and Great Britain, the two leading Allied powers, decided to liberate Italy, to accomplish the vital goals of removing Benito Mussolini's fascist regime, securing the central Mediterranean, and destroying the Axis bulkhead and driving the remaining Italian and German forces to either surrender or retreat.

The Allies invaded Sicily in July 1943. After 38 days of fighting, the U.S. and Great Britain drove German and Italian troops off of Sicily and prepared to continue to assault them on the Italian mainland.

Setting the stage for Operation Husky: By May of 1943, the North African Campaign finally concluded with the surrender in Tunisia of a quarter-million German and Italian troops. (They previously had been under Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, those hundreds of thousands of prisoners had been Rommel's Afrika Corps of battle hardened troops.)

Victory in Africa freed up the massive Allied army and navy in the southern Mediterranean, giving British and American strategists two options: Transfer their forces north for the impending invasion of Europe across the English Channel, or invade Sicily and use it as a stepping stone from which to destroy the Axis armies in southern Italy, which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called "the (soft) underbelly of Europe."

 Part of naval bombardment launching Operation Husky.

After much debate and dissension, the Allies finally decided to press on to Italy via Sicily. Informing the decision was the fact that support in the form of covering fire was accessible to assist the landings; the Allies had fighter bases on British Malta, which was about 60 miles south of Sicily.

Operation Husky commenced before dawn on July 10, 1943. Combined air and sea landings of 150,000 troops stormed the beaches of South Sicily from some 3,000 ships and 4,000 planes. The Allies had a stroke of good luck — a storm beat them to Sicily. A patch of very bad weather caused the Axis defenders on the Sicilian coast to believe the wind and rain was fierce enough to preclude an amphibious invasion.

The Axis armies were unprepared. They also had lost significant men and material because Hitler believed the Allies were posed to invade elsewhere, in Sardinia or Corsica. So at the time of Operation Husky only two German divisions  were defending the island.

Lieutenant General George S. Patton, who commanded the American ground forces, and General Bernard L. Montgomery, in charge of the British ground forces, encountered only light resistance. For the next five weeks, Patton’s army hurled itself toward the northwestern shore of Sicily, then east toward Messina, protecting the flank of Montgomery’s forces as they rolled steadily up the island's east coast.

Meanwhile, the Italian fascist regime fell rapidly into disarray and on July 24, 1943, it fell, period, and Prime Minister Benito Mussolini was deposed and arrested and a new provisional government under Marshal Pietro Badoglio was installed Badoglio opposed Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany and secret armistice talks with the Allies began. (Hitler also started  strategizing on how to make the former allied nation of Italy into another piece of German-occupied territory.)

On July 25, the Italian troops began withdrawing from Sicily. Hitler had instructed his forces to engage in a fierce rearguard action to cover their own retreat. At the onset of August, Patton and Montgomery and their armies were bogged down in a battle against firmly entrenched German troops who'd dug deeply into Sicily's mountainous terrain.

U.S. and British forces continued pushing the Axis forces back, and eventually trapped them in a northeast corner of the island near the port of Messina. Over the course of several evenings, the German and Italian armies began quietly evacuating 100,000 men, their vehicles, supplies, and ammunition across the Strait of Messina to the Italian mainland.

When American soldiers moved into Messina on August 17, 1943, Patton believed  one final battle would  destroy just about the entire Axis army in Italy. He quickly realized the Axis retreat had been a strategic effort to reposition German forces in Italy.

The battle for Sicily was over. But the Allies had mistakenly allowed the fleeing armies to escape. And Hitler quickly reinforced Italy with Panzer divisions from France and the Eastern front.

When Allied forces invaded the Italian mainland in September, they would pay a high price against a tough, determined enemy. The Allies quickly bogged down at a series of Axis military fortifications bisecting southern and central Italy. Then there was the terrain of central Italy itself--rampant with hills, mountains, and major rivers--which makes it ideally suited for defense.

Field Marshal Albert Kesselring took complete advantage of all of it. Kesselring, Nazi Germany's Commander-in-Chief, South, fought a brilliant defensive action that used the terrain to stop and delay the Allies in Italy, especially near Rome at Anzio.

Kesselring, left, Herman Goering, Reichsmarschall, right.

Kesselring conducted an uncompromising defensive campaign against the Allied forces in Italy until he was injured in October 1944. (In the final campaign of the war, he commanded German forces on the Western Front. He won the respect of his Allied opponents for his military accomplishments, but his record was marred by massacres committed by troops under his command in Italy. After the war, Kesselring was tried for war crimes and sentenced to death. The sentence was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment. A political and media campaign resulted in his release in 1952, ostensibly on health grounds.)

Charles "Lucky" Luciano was serving a 30- to 50-year sentence in an upstate New York prison for running a prostitution racket. Luciano still wielded power and influence over the Mafia in America. A relationship formed between Luciano and the U.S. government after December 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, which finally thrust the full might of America's armed forces into the war against the Axis powers, which began when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.

Not long after the tragedy in Hawaii, the S.S. Normandie, a U.S. troop carrier, was docked in Manhattan. It caught fire and capsized, causing some 1,500 workers and sailors to flee the sinking ship. (One person died.) The Normandie disaster happened while the U.S. government had a growing concern about immigrants arriving in the U.S. from the Axis nations (The term "Axis powers" stemmed from the Tripartite Pact, which was signed by Germany, Italy, and Japan in September 1940, in Berlin. Other nations also joined it over the next year: Hungary (November 1940), Romania (November 1940), Slovakia (November 1940), and Bulgaria (March 1941).

It was believed some of these Germans, Italians, and Japanese could pose a national security threat after arriving here. And many of them reached American shores in New York. This helped fuel the belief that the sinking of the ship was an act of sabotage. (Tim Newark's Mafia at War and Boardwalk Gangster: The Real Lucky Luciano detail this.)

 Picture released in November 1954 of Luciano.

Law enforcement commenced a probe of Italian-American dock workers who lived and operated in the New York City area, though leads were difficult to uncover. From interviews around the docks, law enforcement officials decided to reach out to Luciano for help because of his supposed still-strong influence and contacts around the docks.

The agreement was given the code-named Operation Underworld. As per the deal, Luciano ordered the Mafia to actually closely watch the docks for suspicious activity. In return, Luciano had his sentence commuted.With 20 to 40 years left on his sentence at the end of the war, Salvatore Lucania was pardoned by Dewey in January 1946 and deported to his native Sicily. He died in Naples in 1962. Some believe he'd been murdered but his old cohorts from America.

Some historians believe Luciano assisted the Allies in Operation Husky by providing maps, photographs of the coastlines, and lists of names of mob bosses in Sicily.

"Luciano’s contacts even assisted in the Allies’ 1943 amphibious invasion of Sicily by providing maps of the island’s harbors, photographs of its coastline and names of trusted contacts inside the Sicilian Mafia, who also wished to see [Italian dictator Benito] Mussolini toppled," noted

The extent to which Luciano actually helped the Allies is open to debate. Luciano certainly wasn't physically in Sicily. "Although offering help for the Allied invasion of Sicily, he was of little practical use there, despite the myths that continue to surround this," Newark told InsideEdition. "His gangster colleagues helped facilitate the gathering of information about Sicily from Italians living in New York for U.S. naval intelligence in preparation for the invasion."

While some Americans--perhaps foremost among them, the journalist Walter Winchell, voiced a belief that Luciano should receive the Medal of Honor, others contend Luciano never helped Operation Husky.

Selwyn Raab, author of Five Families, told InsideEdition that Luciano being a valuable part of Operation Husky was a “total myth."

“He asked his minions to provide whatever aid they could for the invasion of Sicily, but it was essentially limited to picture postcards of ports," Raab added.

"Before and after Luciano's release, there were flimsy news stories about his assistance — mostly exaggerated,” said Raab. “Frank Costello, who was running Luciano's family and his loyal follower, reportedly spread stories to reporters exaggerating Luciano's role.

“Costello lived in the same elegant apartment building with … Winchell, then one of the most influential columnists in the U.S., and Winchell hinted that Lucky had helped the Allies. Strange coincidence," he added.

Records, however, appear to suggest Luciano actually did play a more active role than detractors think.

The Herlands Report of 1954, which had been ordered by then-New York Gov. Thomas Dewey and carried out by State Commissioner of Investigation William Herlands, credited Luciano with enlisting "numerous" informants who aided the Sicily campaign.

In 1977, the New York Times reported (most of the article follows):

A report of an intensive New York State investigation‐ordered in 1954 by Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, and long suppressed at the request of the Navycredits Charles (Lucky) Luciano and other underworld leaders with a wide variety of valuable aid to the Government in World War II.

The report describes how the Navy first obtained. Joseph (Socks) Lanza, rackets boss at Fulton Fish Market, to enlist fishermen on.a submarine watch. Mr. Lanza eventually said he would need the wider influence of Mr. Luciano, serving a 30‐to-50‐year sentence for running a prostitution ring, and Mr. Luciano then assigned Meyer Lansky another racket leader, to oversee the venture, the report says.

The estate of Governor Dewey, who died in 1971, has permitted the report by William B. Herlands who in 1954 was State Commissioner of Investigation, to be used as basis for a book ...

... on Nov. 22, 1954, the Pentagon's then director of Naval Intelligence, Rear Adm. Carl F. Espe, successfully asked that the Herlands report —which he termed “thorough” and “admirably” documented—be withheld from the public.

His letter said it “might jeopardize operations of a similar nature in the future,” and 'there is potential for embarrassment to the Navy public relationswise.”

In his investigation from Jan. 28 to Sept. 17, 1944, Mr. Herlands compiled 2,883 pages of statements from 57 major witnesses plus back‐up files and a 101page summary report. He took sworn statements from Mr. Lanza, Mr. Lansky and Mr. Luciano's lawyer, Moses Polakoff, and from 31 Navy personnel, including four captains.

Mr. Luciano initially asked executive clemency on the day of Allied victory in Europe, May 8, 1945, with Mr. Polakoff then asserting the crime boss had given war aid. On Jan. 3, 1946, Governor Dewey commuted Mr. Luciano's sentence to the nearly 10 years he had already served, contingent on deportation to Italy, and said Mr. Luciano had given aid sought by the armed services “concerning possible enemy attack,” the value of which was “not clear.”

Years of controversy followed. In 1947, Murray L. Gurfein, former assistant district‐attorney, said Mr. Luciano had been asked to help “port security matters,” but Charles R. Haffenden, wartime Naval Intelligence investigator in New York, said Mr. Luciano's aid was nothing extraordinary.

Governor Dewey's commutation brought him under attack in his 1950 reelection campaign. The armed forces told the Estes Kefauver Senate committee on crime in 1951 that Mr. Luciano had made no significant contribution to the war effort.

In 1954, a Democratic Assemblyman's charges of a “payoff” for Luciano's deportation led to state Correction Department release of a list of his prison visitors, including racket figures but no military personnel.

Governor Dewey, in the memoirs published after his death, said that he had been infuriated by charges that “there might have been something crooked about my action.” He said he ordered a Herlands investigation to see if he had been justified, but “since the Navy allowed the officers to testify only with the expressed wish that the report not be made public, I never released it.”

Mr. Herlands’ summary report, which a reporter was able to read with permission of R. Burdell Bixby, co‐executor of the Dewey estate with the Chase Manhattan Bank, summarized its findings as follows:

“As a result of the activities of Luciano and his intermediaries, a network of contacts and informants was made available to Naval Intelligence.

“They performed such services as obtaining information about and reporting suspicious activities on the waterfront; keeping an eye out for sabotage and espionage; obtaining union books and union cards so that Naval Intelligence agents could be placed (ostensibly as employees) in hotels, restaurants, bars and grills, piers, docks, trucks, factories and elsewhere.

“They were used on the Brooklyn waterfront to prevent trouble that Naval Intelligence thought might be created when Harry Bridges (West Coast longshore union leader) came to the East Coast.

“Numerous Italians of Sicilian birth or background and their relatives were enlisted to provide Commander Haffenden and his assistants information about the terrain, harbots, etc., of Sicily in anticipation of the Allied invasion there.

“Through these contacts and informants, the names of friendly Sicilian natives and even Sicilian. underworld and Mafia personalities who could be trusted were obtained and actually used in the Sicilian campaign.

‘The wartime head of the Naval Counter‐Intelligence Section expressed the opinion that the information so obtained turned out to be 40 percent correct, upon eventual checkup and on the basis of actual experience.”

Mr. Campbell said the Herlands documents established that between March 7, 1942; and May 1, 1944, “up to 73 naval officers and 82 naval enlisted men and civilian agents in the Third Naval District were actively, continuously and effectively engaged in secret intelligence operations that required the complete cooperation of the Mafia.”

The first underworld member to cooperate was Mr. Lanza, then under indictment for extortion, even though he and the others were warned they would get no consideration from prosecution. Mr. Lanza enlisted Benjamin A. Espy, an associate, and they traveled from Maine to Virginia setting up contacts with fishermen.