The mafia is a world we rarely see and has its own rules and language but it wasn’t spared from World War II and during that conflict Office of Naval Intelligence teamed up with organized crime in Operation Underworld.
The origins of Operation Underworld
American production capabilities and the ability to ship goods to the European theater were incredibly important to the war effort. The port of New York City was one of the biggest shipping hubs so it was a potential target for Axis attacks.
In 1942, SS Normandie, a French luxury ship that was being refitted as a troop carrier at New York harbor, burned and sank. Although authorities claimed it was an accident, many thought it was sabotage.
Fear of spies and saboteurs spread throughout New York and the United States. This led to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and Frank Hogan, the Manhattan district attorney, considering something unconventional. So, the Navy met with a man named Joe “Socks” Lanza who was involved in organized crime and was also a labor racketeer who reigned over the Fulton Fish Market.
Operation Underworld started when Socks agreed to use his fishing fleet and control of the fish market to find U-boats in New York’s coastal waters.
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The players of Operation Underworld
But Socks’ fishing fleet couldn’t protect the harbor from land-based attacks, so ONI approached Meyer Lansky who was a key member of the Jewish Mafia and not partial to Nazis. In the 1930s, he and his gang made it a habit to target the Nazi German-American Bund. They broke up their rallies and beat up their members. It wasn’t hard to sell Lansky on Operation Underworld.
Lansky was powerful, but who ONI really needed was one of the bosses of the five families, Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Meyer was friends with Luciano, but the problem was that Luciano was serving 30 to 50 years in prison. The Navy reached out, and Luciano agreed to help on the condition he was released from prison at the end of the war.
The U.S. government agreed, on the condition that when the war was over, and he was freed, they’d deport him back to Italy. Everyone agreed on the terms, and the Luciano and Lansky network became the premier private intelligence-gathering operation.
Luciano’s mafia ties put his ear in every bar, gin joint, brothel, and with every criminal in the underworld that didn’t want to end up wearing a pair of concrete boots. If you were a German agent, saboteur, or spy, any conversation or move you made might be overheard.
However, it is difficult to know whether the mafia actually prevented any attacks.
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Was the fix in from the start?
However, everything might not have been as it seemed. Back in 1939, Luciano was serving his prison sentence, and the Normandie had set sail from France to New York.
Luciano had a meeting with three visitors, including Meyer Lansky, his right-hand man Frank Costello, and his lawyer Moe Polakoff. The purpose was to figure out how to get Lucky out of prison. That plan reportedly involved the Normandie.
After Pearly Harbor, when it was clear that America was going to war, Luciano met with the men once more and discussed the fears Americans had of German saboteurs.
There they came up with an idea. A false flag attack of some sort. Make these boogeymen real, and then through some creative massaging, make the American government need Luciano. A bit later, Costello visited the mobster again and told him that Albert Anastasia and his longshoremen brother, Tough Tony, had a plan.
In 1942 SS Normandie was burned and sank. The Axis didn’t claim responsibility, and after the war, no records were found that indicated that the Axis had sunk the ship.
Reportedly later, Anastasia took responsibility for the sinking of the Normandie, but some say he did that to get the credit for freeing Luciano and the American government continued claiming there were no signs of sabotage and that the sinking was an accident. That might be true, or maybe the Axis did indeed attack the ship and the government wanted to avoid panic. Or the mafia had a hand in it and the government didn’t want to admit it got conned and allowed a mobster to orchestrate his own freedom.
We still don’t know the answer.
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