However, during times of war, preparation is key, and several members within the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) noted the lack of intel in the Mediterranean and began a mission to increase their knowledge of the area using an unlikely source: the Sicilian and Italian crime families of New York. The unlikely paring led to an increase in intelligence gathering and would arguably play a small part in the successful Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943.
The Navy's involvement with organized crime during World War II was dubbed "Operation Underworld," a wartime cooperation between elements of the U.S. Navy and the American Mafia. The goal of the intelligence collected from Underworld was twofold: to gain a better understanding of the area and to assist with patrolling the New York coastline.
In February 1942 there was a fire on SS Normandie which sparked an increased desire for more and better intelligence gathering.
"A ship in New York harbor was burned, it was the SS Normandie," said U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command Historian Matthew Cheser. "There was a question of who burned it, whether it was organized crime in New York trying to get the Navy's attention. There's been talk of German sabotage, but I believe an after- war investigation said there was no sabotage by Germans or by the Mafia. However, after the burning of Normandie, certain elements of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) in New York started cooperating with organized crime."
The fire on SS Normandie, which was being converted to Navy Auxiliary Lafayette, and the repeated hassling of U.S.-flagged supply ships suffering German U-boat attacks off the New York coast, led ONI to believe rumors that there were Nazi and fascist sympathizers living in New York. ONI believed that if this was true, they were possibly supplying enemy submarines with fuel and supplies via fishing vessels to maintain their secret blockade of northeastern American ports.
It was well known at the time that underworld societies and mischief-makers had influence over the ports of New York. ONI's third district office was based in Manhattan and led by Lt. Cmdr. Charles Haffenden. Haffenden used his knowledge of the city and its inhabitants and began to seek out representatives of the American Mafia to find a solution to the Navy's problems.
"Haffenden made a connection with the underworld personality, Joe 'Socks' Lanza," said Cheser. "Through Lanza, ONI monitored the New York waterfront and the surrounding areas."
Among numerous cooperation initiatives, the mafia helped ONI agents join the United Seafood Workers Union in order to operate and collect information on docks and fishing vessels, without drawing attention from the civilians not aware of the cooperation efforts.
"In an attempt to combat foul-play off the waters of New York, ONI began working with individuals on the waterfront to try and spot any U-boats or any axis collaborators and try to root them out," said Cheser. "It came to the point where the Navy was putting intelligence officers on fishing boats through the union to better monitor was happening in the water. Cooperation with organized crime helped to get ONI a greater level of access to sources of information throughout the city."
As the war progressed, the U.S. was planning Operation Husky, the allied invasion of Sicily. The Navy wanted to collect as much information as possible about the island of Sicily, where the invasion would begin. Because much of the focus up to that point in the war had been on Japan, the U.S. didn't have much intelligence on Italy and Sicily. To fill intelligence gaps, ONI worked with the Sicilian communities residing in the U.S.
Cheser explained that the Navy hoped that through another underworld source, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, they would be able to make contacts in Sicily or find people who knew about Sicily, how much it actually helped however is debatable.
"To gain access to those communities, Lanza said that he could get ONI in contact with Charles 'Lucky' Luciano, who was extremely influential in organized crime in the United States, he was the head of The Commission, which ran organized crime in New York."
Luciano was being held in a maximum security prison in Northern New York, when the Navy sought him out, serving time for crimes committed before the war began. In order to better assist the government, in May 1942 Luciano was transferred to Great Meadow Prison in Comstock, New York. Now positioned much closer to Manhattan, the Navy asked Luciano for help, first on issues related to the waterfront, and later in obtaining sources with knowledge of Sicily, to which he agreed. Although the government did not offer Luciano any guarantee of early release or parole, the mobster's lawyer advised him to cooperate, on the hope that his assistance could later facilitate his release.
Information concerning Italy, including pictures of the Sicilian coastline and corrections to existing incorrect naval maps of Sicily, was needed. "Using Luciano's name and influence, the ONI investigators could make contacts with the community to ask these questions," said Cheser.
Operation Husky and the allied invasion of Sicily began in July 1943.
"In the lead-up to the invasion, ONI sent the ground level intelligence officers from New York who had worked with the sources in New York to the Mediterranean. This included the most famous Paul Alfieri," said Cheser. "Alfieri goes in with the invasion and obtained extremely important documents behind enemy lines. There was talk about this being a result of a cooperation with the local contacts that came from [Operation Underworld]. This information was extremely valuable, and he ends up being awarded the Legion of Merit for his contribution."
The invasion involved not only Americans like Alfieri, but forces from the United Kingdom, Canada and a token Free French contribution as well.
Cheser describes Operation Husky as the result of a compromise between American forces, who wanted to focus more on the war in the Pacific and on an invasion in northern Europe, and the British forces who wanted to open a new front in the Mediterranean. The Western allies ultimately agreed on an invasion in the Mediterranean to relieve pressure on the Soviet Union, which at the time that was the lone Allied power engaging Axis ground forces in Europe. They also hoped to put pressure on Italy's unpopular government, intending to hasten its collapse.
With the help of intelligence collected throughout the war, the allies brought special equipment to help with the difficult terrain of the Sicilian southern coast. Some of the equipment utilized was portable pontoon causeways to land forces further out to sea past naturally occurring sand bars. These would provide passage from the false beaches that would foul and trap heavier landing craft while approaching the shore. The troops could then pass from the false beaches to shore on the causeways.
Once the allies began their invasion they were met by enemy forces.
"Italian Command stationed local Sicilian coastal divisions to oppose the landing," said Cheser. "These coastal divisions mostly surrendered or didn't put up much of a resistance. The real problem came on the second day of the Operation Husky landing, when the German armored divisions on the island came down on the landing sites."
As Cheser describes the events, columns of tanks approached the American beachhead at Gela; however, U.S. Navy gun support, army divisional artillery, and American infantry divisions held off the German counter attack and were able to hold their beachhead and from there move inland. The invasion of Sicily (Invasion of Italy would come later) lasted for another month, ending August 17 with the capture of Messina.
In the end, Operation Husky was considered a success and was the beginning of large-scale fighting for the Western allies in Europe. Lessons learned from the amphibious assault of Sicily were later applied to landings in Italy and the D-Day invasions of France. After World War II ended, so did the Navy's cooperation with the mafia.
Though post-war studies debate the value of mafia assistance to the allied cause, Cheser makes reference to a letter Haffenden wrote late in the war to the New York State Government dealing with Luciano's case. In the letter, Haffenden, the ONI district head, revealed Luciano's assistance, claimed that it was important in the development of intelligence leading up to Operation Husky, and supported the mobster's parole. The letter's existence was later revealed by a New York State investigation and embroiled the Navy in scandal. Whether or not Haffenden's letter was a primary reason for Luciano gaining parole is a point of contention. Post-war investigations show definitively that ONI sought Luciano's assistance and used it. To what extent that assistance was helpful is unknown. Luciano was paroled in January 1946 and deported to Italy in February.
To learn more about Operation Husky click here
For a detailed timeline of the events of Operation Husky click here