Here’s What You Need to Know: Operation Underworld was the semi-official government designation or codename for what were actually a series of mafia-backed operations.
Throughout the history of organized crime, gangsters and other criminal enterprises have been forced to forge uneasy alliances in the name of business. During the Second World War, the New York’s criminal syndicate formed such an alliance not with other gangsters but with the U.S. government.
The “mob” didn’t provide soldiers to fight in any battles, and no mafia hit men were called up to assassinate Axis leaders—although someone probably thought of the idea. Rather, the U.S. government called for assistance in something a bit more mundane, protecting vessels around the New York waterfront and other port cities.
Operation Underworld was the semi-official government designation or codename for what were actually a series of mafia-backed operations that took place between February 1942 and May 1945. The operation primarily involved cooperation from Italian and Jewish organized crime leaders, and began to counter Axis spies and saboteurs along the U.S. northeastern seaboard ports, but it was also to help avoid wartime labor union strikes and even to limit theft of vital wartime supplies and equipment by black marketers.
The plan to call upon help from gangland began after a fire consumed the French luxury liner SS Normandie on February 9, 1942 while the ship was being converted into an American troop transport. While it was probably an accident, and witnesses even reported that sparks from a worker’s acetylene torch likely started the fire, fears spread that it was the work of Nazi saboteurs.
Only weeks earlier some thirty-three German agents, who were part of the Duquesne Spy Ring, had been arrested, so it was easy for rumors to spread. The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence became concerned that enemy spies were operating along the waterfront and looked for help from what was truly an unlikely ally—the New York mafia. Commander Charles R. Haffenden of the ONI of the third Naval District set up a special security unit.
Operational Underworld actually began slowly and on a small scale. In March 1942, Fulton Fish Market “kingpin” Joseph “Socks” Lanza was recruited to help counter the threat of spies operating in the area. Lanza agreed to provide undercover agents with union cards, which allowed them to work in the market and aboard coastal fishing fleets. It wasn’t actually German saboteurs that were the only concern. Authorities wanted to monitor the activities of pro-fascist sympathizers among the Italian immigrants who worked as longshoremen throughout New York City.
Lanza also recommended that the feds go to imprisoned mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano for assistance. Not surprisingly Luciano agreed to co-operate with the authorities in hopes of being granted an early release from prison. The mobster ordered his capos to act as lookouts along the docks of New York, and reportedly reached out to gangsters in other cities as well, to report suspicious activity. While it is unclear if Luciano actually helped stop any sabotage is unclear, but authorities noted that there were no dock strikes after Luciano’s attorney, Moses Polakoffi, contacted underworld figures who had influence over the longshoremen and their unions.
Luciano’s contacts may have played a slightly more important role in the Allies’ 1943 amphibious invasion of Sicily as his contacts provided maps of the island’s harbors, and photos of the coastline, while names of trusted contacts within the Sicilian Mafia were provided. Vito Genovese, another Mafia boss, even offered his services directly and became an interpreter and advisor to the U.S. Army military government in Naples.
For his assistance Luciano was transferred to a far more comfortable open prison in Great Meadows. After the war, his sentence was commuted, and he was deported to his native Italy.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
This article first appeared in February 2021.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
The U.S. Military’s Secret World War II Alliance with the Mafia is written by Peter Suciu for nationalinterest.org