“Lucky” Luciano and Operation Underworld:

By 1942, Charles “Lucky” Luciano had been behind bars more than six years. Prison was far from the high society life he had enjoyed as the head of organized crime. In New York, he had been declared Public Enemy Number One and in 1936, had been convicted on 62 counts of compulsory prostitution that landed him in state prison with a thirty to fifty year sentence. Although it seemed that Luciano’s luck had run out,  WWII would give him an unexpected chance to regain his freedom.

Salvatore Luciano had been born in Lercara Friddi, Sicily on November 24th, 1897. He moved with his family to New York when he was nine. By age fourteen he worked delivering hats for seven dollars a week until he learned he could make more money by gambling. He started a street gang to offer paid “protection” to other gangs in the area. During the prohibition era, Luciano ran successful bootlegging and gambling operations and by the early 1930’s was in control of organized crime in the US.


Meyer Lansky

One thing that made Luciano different than other Sicilian organized criminals was his willingness to work with outsiders. Many crime family bosses only worked with other Sicilians. Luciano cultivated relationships with Jewish and Irish gangsters which served him well in the future. As a teenager, Luciano had accosted a little kid in the street demanding “protection money”. Luciano was a head taller but the kid told him off; struck by the kid’s guts, Luciano laughed and told him he had his protection for free. The kid pulled away and told him “Shove your protection up your ass, I don’t need it.” It was Luciano’s first meeting with a Polish Jew named Meyer Lansky. In the future, Lansky and Luciano worked together to solidify their grip on New York’s underworld and in 1942, Lansky would play a vital role in regaining Luciano’s freedom.

When Germany declared war on America on December 8th, 1941, US shipping became fair game for German submarines operating in the Atlantic. From January to August of 1942, German submarines sank 609 ships in the Atlantic, totaling 3.1 million tons. US Authorities feared there might be spies along the New York waterfront, passing information on to Germany or Italy. A special unit of the Office of Naval Intelligence was formed under Commander Charles Haffenden to seek out information about possible spies in an operation codenamed “Underworld”


Lieutenant Commander Charles Radcliffe Haffenden

The problem Haffenden’s man faced in their task was that the waterfront was run like a closed society, unwelcome to outsiders, especially government agents. Meyer Lansky recalled the Navy’s efforts to try to gain information: “Everyone in New York was laughing at the way those naïve navy agents were going around the docks. They went up to a man working on the area and talked out of the corner of their mouths like they seen in the movies asking about spies” No one would talk to the Navy without Luciano’s permission. Even from prison, he still held a firm grip on his empire and he did not approve of information being given away for free when it could be used for beneficial ways in the future.

In February, 1942, the SS Normandie, a luxury liner being converted to a troop transport caught fire and sank at her mooring at the New York waterfront. Luciano later claimed he ordered the ship sunk through one of his enforcers though a board of inquiry officially stated it was an accident. The destruction of the Normandie convinced the Navy it needed Luciano’s cooperation. The head of the Naval Intelligence section, Commander Haffenden stated he “would be happy to talk to the devil if that is what it takes to take care of the New York docks.”

Haffenden contacted Thomas Dewey, the man responsible for putting Luciano and many other mobsters away. Dewey got them in touch with Joseph “Socks” Lanza, who ran the fish markets for organized crime. Lanza promised to “keep an eye out” for spies but intimated he wouldn’t do anything unless Luciano ordered it. Haffenden realized he had to approach Luciano in prison but he needed to use someone Luciano would listen to.


Charles “Lucky” Luciano

By 1942, Meyer Lansky had gone from street tough to heading the gambling and racketeering side of the Luciano Empire. A proud Jew, Lansky was no friend of the Nazis. Before the war he had used his men to break up pro-Nazi German-American Bund meetings. With Lansky, the US Navy approached Luciano and prison and started to deal. After gaining Luciano’s cooperation, the US Navy gained access and supervision of the dockyards and had no labor strikes throughout the war.

In 1943, after successfully driving the Germans out of North Africa, the Allies were working on their plan to invade the island of Sicily. However, the Americans were having difficulties finding accurate information about the terrain, tides, beaches and reefs of their planned landing sites. They sent out men to questions Sicilians living in the US but had little luck finding people who would talk. Once again, the US Navy turned to Luciano. The Mafia had little love for the fascists, who in the 1920’s and 1930’s had crushed the Mafia presence in Sicily. Luciano could use this opportunity to help the Mafia regain control of the island.

Luciano assigned a Joe Adonis, a vain, ex-enforcer, to convince people to cooperate with the military. Meyer Lansky recalled: “If the people were very nervous and reluctant, Adonis would just mention Luciano’s name and that he had given orders for them to talk.” If they still did not talk Joe would stop smiling and say “Lucky will not be pleased to hear that you have not been helpful”.

Luciano, citing his contacts on the Island, offered to parachute into Sicily with the invasion forces. Even though this was not agreed to, he and his men provided information about the invasion beaches and local terrain. When the Joint Task Force Operations Support System Force landed at the port of Licata, American intelligence forces were met by a helpful local. He took them to the secret base of the Italian Naval Command at a beach side villa and even provided gunmen to attack it. Inside, the American’s gained documents about German and Italian defenses, code books and information on Axis Naval strength around the island as well as underwater minefields. The Sicilian, it turned out later, was a mobster who was saved from the electric chair in New York by Luciano.

When Axis forces had been defeated in Sicily on August 17, 1943, the Allies needed to re-establish the local government to restore civil law to the island. Officials who had been jailed by the fascists were released and put back into power. Most of the men, it turned out, were Mafia leaders, friendly to Luciano.

After the war, Lucky Luciano was released from prison, after only serving ten years of his thirty to fifty year sentence. New York Governor Thomas Dewey agreed to commute his sentence if Luciano would not fight deportation to Italy. Luciano never returned to the US but continued his life of crime, running his empire until his death in 1962. Although the US never publicized its collaboration with organized crime, Luciano himself was never modest about it, telling anyone who would listen, that he “won the war.”


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