By Newark, Tim
History Today , Vol. 57, No. 4
DESPITE MUSSOLINI'S SUCCESSFUL crusade against the Mafia in the 1920s, it survived in Sicily and twenty years later Sicilian gangsters commanded tremendous influence in Europe and America. After Pearl HarbOr and Germany and Italy's declaration of war on the US in December 1941, there were huge fears about an attack on America's Eastern seaboard. To protect New York and its docks, US government security agencies were anxious to talk to anyone who might help including the Mafia.
There are many anecdotes that support the notion that the US struck a deal with the Mafia to help them conquer Sicily. The most famous is that Allied troops and tanks rolled into Sicily in 1943 bearing yellow flags emblazoned with the letter 'L'. The 'L' stood for Sicilian-born gangster Charles 'Lucky' Luciano--king of the New York underworld in the 1930s. Luciano was in prison in New York State in 1942, but he still exerted tremendous influence. It is often claimed that, as a result of the deal he made with the US government to secure' New York's docks from Nazi or Fascist sabotage not a single shot was fired by Italian troops at the invading Americans in Sicily.
The Second World War still casts shadows on the streets of Palermo. Near the harbour, around Piazza Fonderia, you can see the bomb shattered remains of buildings hit by the Allies in preparation for their invasion of the island. Along the Via Roma, you can step into the foyer of the Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes, little changed in its marble and mirrored luxury since Luciano stayed there in 1946, after being deported from the United States for mysterious wartime deals.
Sicilians remember the delight of their parents at being liberated from Fascist rule and German occupation by the Allies in 1943. But they have a different view of what happened between the Mafia and the Allies: 'They made a deal with the bad guys and then we got stuck with the Mafia back in control' said one Palermo resident, whose parents saw the bombs rain down on their city. But how true is this claim?
The collaboration between the US government and the underworld to defend America's East Coast against sabotage is recorded in the Herlands report of 1954. This was an investigation carried out at the direction of the Governor of New York Thomas E. Dewey to record the exact detail of the contact between US Naval Intelligence and New York's Mafia mobsters. The US Navy were not happy with its findings, however, and the report remained secret for many decades afterwards. It is still unpublished.
It was the job of Naval Intelligence to get a grip on the security situation in the New York docks. Lieutenant Commander Charles Radcliffe Haffenden was put in charge of the Third Naval District's investigations section, based in downtown Manhattan, As he expressed it:
I'll talk to anybody, a priest, a bank manager, a gangster, the devil himself, if I can get the information I need. This is a war. American lives are at stake.
But initial attempts were scorned by the underworld who controlled the docks. Luciano's fellow mobster Meyer Lansky, recalled:
Everybody in New York was laughing at the way those naive Navy agents were going around the docks. They went up to men working in the area and talked out of the corner of their mouths like they had seen in the movies, asking about spies.
Luciano was later quoted on the subject:
As far as Haffenden was concerned, he didn't know nothin' that was goin' on except that he was sittin' there with his mouth open, prayin' I would say yes and help his whole department ...
It took a spectacular disaster to get both sides talking seriously about protecting America's East Coast and this happened on the afternoon of February 9th, 1942. While it was in the process of being converted into a troopship, the luxury ocean liner, Normandie, mysteriously burst into flames with, 1,500 sailors and civilians on board. …