After a mysterious attack and to prepare for the invasion of Sicily in Operation Husky, the U.S. turned to an unlikely source for help: Lucky Luciano and the Italian Mafia.
During World War II, the United States government became concerned about the significant number of American citizens with Japanese, Italian, or German heritage. They feared that these people may be sympathetic to the Axis cause and could pose a national security threat.
In 1942, suspicions began to focus on the Eastern seaports after the U.S. troop carrier ship the SS Normandie (which had been renamed USS Lafayette) caught fire and capsized while in harbor in Manhattan, an act that many believed to be the work of a saboteur.
In response, the government began to investigate many of the Italian-American dock workers who lived in the area. When this operation failed to bear fruits, the government sought help from an unlikely source: the Mafia.
The Navy, who was in charge of the operation, reached out to well-known Mafia boss Salvatore C. Lucania, better known as Lucky Luciano. At the time Luciano was serving a 30-50 year sentence for compulsory prostitution at the Clinton Prison facility when the Navy offered him a deal; a reduction of his sentence for information and assistance in their operation. Luciano agreed.
Luciano ordered that any suspicious activity along the docks and waterfronts be reported to the authorities. Luciano also apparently guaranteed that there would be no strikes among the dock workers.
To this day the effectiveness of this operation, known as Operation Underworld, is debated. However, it should be noted that after 1942 no other ships were destroyed and there were no strikes among the New York City dock workers.
And that’s not where it stopped.
As the war raged on, the Allies began formulating their plans to invade Italy. The U.S. took the lead on the operation and quickly decided that the island of Sicily must be taken first. To help prepare for the invasion, the U.S. government called upon their old associates: Luciano and the Mafia.
This made sense for a number of reasons. The Mafia weren’t fans of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Mussolini had brutally cracked down on the organization, essentially sending them into hiding. More importantly, though, Luciano and his associates had Sicilian contacts who would be able to provide the Americans with key information and logistical support needed for the invasion.
According to a report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this was recommended as a precursor to the invasion. The report advises “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”.
The U.S. government called upon these Mafia associates to provide drawings and pictures of the Sicilian coastline and harbors, which they promptly received in mass. This information was used to plan the Allied amphibious landing which commenced in July of 1943. Some of these Sicilian contacts even fought alongside the American forces against the Germans and Italians.
According to most accounts, Luciano was integral in facilitating this operation, codenamed Operation Husky, and even offered to personally go to Sicily to help the war effort. Thirty-eight days into the invasion, the Allies succeeded in driving the enemy out of Sicily, and the battle for Sicily was over.
To this day, the extent to which the assistance provided by Luciano and the Mafia helped in Operation Husky is hotly debated. Some, like syndicated columnist Walter Winchell, suggested that Luciano’s contributions to the war effort and Operation Husky were so extensive that he was being considered for the Medal of Honor.
Others such as scholar Selwyn Raab are more skeptical. In his book, Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Mast Powerful Mafia Empires, Raab suggests that Luciano lacked the Sicilian contacts to make a substantial difference.
The truth most likely lies somewhere in the middle. According to a Luciano’s lawyer, his client “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”.
Upon conclusion of the war in the summer of 1945, Luciano, who was still serving time behind bars, petitioned the state of New York for executive clemency. He insisted that his cooperation in both Operation Underworld and Operation Husky warranted his immediate freedom.
In January of 1946 New York Governor Thomas Dewey granted Luciano’s appeal for clemency. However, it was decided he could not stay in the U.S. and was to be deported back to Italy, where he was born. Luciano was apparently quite upset that he had to leave America, yet on Feb. 9, 1946, he was placed on a ship destined for Italy, never to return to the U.S.
Despite his exile, Lucky Luciano remained a powerful figure within the Mafia crime organization in both Italy and the U.S. until his death in 1962.