Why Did the U.S. Navy Make a Secret Pact With the Mafia During World War II?

Lucky Luciano at the Excelsior Hotel, Rome, in 1948. Remo Nassi. Public domain.

Why Did the U.S. Navy Make a Secret Pact With the Mafia During World War II?

Meet the spies of Project Underworld.

F-Target Section: Planning the Invasion of Sicily With the Mafia

With the ports secured and North Africa ready to fall to Allied forces, the Casablanca Conference convened on January 14, 1943, at the Anfa Hotel in Morocco. For 10 days, Churchill and his aides badgered President Franklin D. Roosevelt into submission over the next military objective. The conference closed with a decision that radically altered the course of Project Underworld.

Allied generals, admirals, and strategists prepared for a savage dagger thrust into the Axis underbelly, Sicily. Surprisingly, a deficiency of intelligence existed. Long considered an area primarily under British surveillance, the Navy lacked even the most perfunctory details on the island.

The president of the Naval War College, Rear Admiral William Pye, chalked the lack of information up to “a feeling among many Americans that intelligence duty is somewhat akin to spying and, therefore, in times of peace, is an undignified and unworthy occupation.” The mob had no such moralistic problems.

The machinery of Project Underworld quickly spun toward the new strategic goal. While still in command of the B-3 investigative section, Haffenden formed the F-Target Section, a group dedicated to gathering data on the invasion zone. Sadly, the Navy’s most ardent supporter would have to sit this mission out.

On January 29, 1943, Judge James Wallace smacked Socks Lanza with a sentence of 7 to 15 for six counts of extortion. The flabbergasted Haffenden cursed the decision. Naval Intelligence required Luciano’s help more than ever before. ONI’s spymaster summoned Meyer Lansky to relay the invasion plans at Great Meadow.

The Navy desired Sicilian nationals who knew the island’s terrain. They wanted pictures, postcards, maps, and any kind of information to help plan the amphibious assault. Of particular importance was a list of possible Sicilian mafiosi willing to join a guerrilla insurgent army.

Lucky loved the idea. His narcotics smuggling network had close ties with the Sicilians. The boss even volunteered to lead the Mafia resistance and offered his services, suggesting that he “was prepared to be parachuted into the island….” High Command vetoed the idea. They reasoned the release of an arch criminal could be a public relations nightmare.

Joe Adonis and George Tarbox

To gather topographic data, the imprisoned boss brought in his lieutenant, Joe Adonis. A strikingly handsome ruffian, Adonis racked up arrests for nearly every crime conceivable, but astonishingly his rap sheet never listed a single conviction. Adonis then brought the situation to the attention of Vincenzo Mangano, the elderly don of one New York’s five families. Among members of all the families, the old don held the closest ties to Sicily through his massive import business that traded in cheese, pasta, olive oil—and most importantly—morphine base.

Adonis hauled hundreds of Italians into Naval Intelligence headquarters. He even kidnapped a man who was once mayor of a village in the old country. Meyer Lansky later testified, “Sometimes some of the Sicilians were very nervous. Joe would just mention the name of Lucky Luciano and say he had given them orders to talk. If the Sicilians were still reluctant, Joe would stop smiling and say, ‘Lucky will not be pleased to hear that you have not been helpful.’” The threats worked, and the information poured in.

To make sense of the gathered data, Target Section enlisted civilian agent George Tarbox. A cartographer and artist by trade, Tarbox crafted an enormous four-by six-foot map of Sicily with a clear plastic overlay that detailed strategic points in India ink. The overlay marked airfields, naval bases, and power plants. With the intelligence survey completed, the Sicilian D-day, Operation Husky, loomed large.

Project Underworld Commandos Land in Sicily

By May, Project Underworld was winding down. The ports were safe thanks to the mob’s brutal tactics, and the Mafia provided intelligence for the assault on Sicily. With no work left for Haffenden’s most skilled operatives, they embarked on a bold new endeavor.

In preparation for the assault, ONI formed a pair of two-man commando squads with two alternates from Project Underworld operatives. The squads included Lieutenant Marsloe, Haffenden’s language expert; Lieutenant Titolo, B-3’s former analyst; Lieutenant Alfieri, the commander’s safecracker; and Ensign Murray, a former police officer.

On May 15, 1943, the teams boarded a plane and flew to Mers-el-Kebir, Algeria, for the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps commando school. The operatives took with them a list of names provided by their underworld associates. The list, which according to the Herlands report proved 40 percent effective, contained the names of imprisoned mafiosi, hill country bandits, and deported American gangsters.

Just three hours before midnight on July 10, 1943, the fishing villages of Licata, Gela, Marzamemi, and Pachino awoke to a cacophonous roar of Allied warships commencing a pre-invasion bombardment. Within three days, General George S. Patton’s Seventh Army and General Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army put ashore 181,000 men, 600 tanks, 14,000 assorted support vehicles, and over 1,500 artillery pieces. Among the first to storm the beaches were Haffenden’s officers.

Agents Marsloe and Murray landed between Torre di Gaffe and Punta due Rocche with General Truscott’s 3rd Infantry Division and a Ranger battalion. Alfieri and Titolo put ashore in the Gulf of Gela in the midst of General Terry Allen’s 1st Infantry Division and two Ranger battalions. With lead flying all around them, the naval operatives donned civilian clothing and infiltrated the enemy lines.

Raid on Italian Naval Command

The agents recalled that Luciano’s name acted like a magic key that when spoken unlocked the hearts and minds of the island’s mafiosi. In one instance, Alfieri located a cop killer whom Luciano rescued from the electric chair by smuggling him to Italy. The island’s men of honor proved particularly useful for Alfieri, for they identified the headquarters of Italian naval command. Together with a posse of Sicilian bandits armed with shotguns and hunting rifles, agents Alfieri and Titolo raided the headquarters. Under the covering fire of his Mafia guards, Alfieri crept into the base.

Alfieri’s experiences breaking and entering during the New York phase of Project Underworld paid off. With the skills of a master cat burglar, he blew the enemy’s safe and seized hundreds of classified documents, codebooks, and maps. For his work, Alfieri earned the Legion of Merit.

While Titolo and Alfieri raided the naval headquarters, Marsloe and Murray set about building an insurgent army. Unfortunately, the plan never took root. The mafiosi were willing to fight, but the competitive race between Patton and Montgomery for Messina in an effort to cut off Axis forces on Sicily exceeded all expectations.

Destroying the Evidence

On July 22, Patton captured the Sicilian capital of Palermo just two hours before Monty. A scant 19 days later, Allied troops entered Messina and ended the Sicilian campaign and with it Operation Underworld.

The Navy immediately burned all evidence of its cooperation with organized crime. On the same day as the armistice, Charlie Luciano applied for executive clemency on the grounds of his cooperation with the Navy. His request was granted, and on January 9, 1945, the aging racketeer was released and deported.

This article by Gregory Peduto first appeared in the Warfare History Network on January 13, 2017.

Image: Lucky Luciano at the Excelsior Hotel, Rome, in 1948. Remo Nassi. Public domain.

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