Mafia Boss Lucky Luciano Helped the US Invade Italy from a Prison Cell
Mafia Boss Lucky Luciano Helped the US Invade Italy from a Prison Cell

Mafia Boss Lucky Luciano Helped the US Invade Italy from a Prison Cell

Wyatt Redd - July 6, 2018

Mafia Boss Lucky Luciano Helped the US Invade Italy from a Prison Cell
Lucky Luciano’s mugshot. Wikimedia Commons.

By 1931, Luciano was chafing under the Marazano’s leadership. The time had come to have him dealt with. Using his connections to Meyer Lansky, Luciano hired four Jewish gunmen to visit Marazano’s office and gun him down. With Marazano’s death, Luciano took control over the Mafia. But unlike earlier bosses, he took a more hands-off approach to management. He encouraged other mafia families to make decisions collectively and avoid war by resolving disputes by negotiation instead of violence. In many ways, Luciano’s leadership set the stage for the development of the modern Mafia.

Things were good for Luciano for a time. He was making huge amounts of illegal money, and in spite of all their efforts, the police couldn’t seem to do anything about it. His nickname, “Lucky,” is often said to have been a reference to the fact that he seemed to be able to avoid prison time no matter how many times he was charged with a crime. In fact, this is probably not the case. No one is sure where he got his nickname. It might actually just be derived from the American pronunciation of “Luciano.” But the story does demonstrate how easily he seemed to be able to avoid justice.

Unfortunately for Luciano, that changed in 1936 when Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey organized a massive raid on Luciano’s brothels. By setting the bails of Luciano’s associates whom he arrested higher than they could pay, he convinced many to testify against their boss in exchange for release. With the evidence, the charges stuck, and Luciano was sentenced to more than 30 years in prison. He continued running his family from jail as he appealed the sentence. But after the appeal was finally denied by the Supreme Court, he stepped down. It seemed as though Luciano might die in prison.

But then the US joined WWII. And the government was suddenly willing to look at some “non-traditional” strategies if it meant victory. One of the things that concerned them the most was the idea that the Italians or Germans might try to sneak spies into New York City through the ports or that the labor unions on the dock might suddenly strike, bringing the operation of the ports to a halt. Knowing that the Mafia had long controlled the unions and the docks themselves, they began reaching out to known organized crime figures for help, including Luciano.

Mafia Boss Lucky Luciano Helped the US Invade Italy from a Prison Cell
The Normandie aflame in New York’s port. Wikimedia Commons.

Whether or not the idea was a good one or even really necessary is a matter of some dispute. But there are some reasons that it would have seemed so to the government at the time. In 1942, a French ship, the Normandie, was being refitted in New York to serve as a troop transport craft when it suddenly caught fire. Given the atmosphere, it was reported that the fire was the work of German spies. Although ironically, a Mafia boss later claimed to have organized it. The truth, of course, is that the fire was probably an accident. Still, it made important people nervous, and “Operation Underworld” was born.

Mafia Boss Lucky Luciano Helped the US Invade Italy from a Prison Cell
The Queen Mary pulling into New York Harbor during the war. Wikimedia Commons.

“Operation Underworld,” was a Naval Intelligence plan that called for operatives to make contact with Jewish and Italian organized crime figures and enlist their help in keeping the ports safe and productive. In New York, Joe Lanza, a member of the Genovese crime family was recruited and he, in turn, reached out to Luciano. Luciano agreed to help under the condition that he be released from prison early. This proved difficult; it required a long period of negotiation to work out a deal that both sides were satisfied with.

But once the deal was struck, Luciano put out word among his contacts that the Mafia would now take the lead in keeping the waterfront safe. Even from prison, his grip on the docks was powerful, as his family had infiltrated many of the unions of dockworkers and teamsters. Since the U.S. was at war with Italy, the Navy worried that there would be Mussolini sympathists among the Italian-American dockworkers. Luciano agreed that his men would keep an ear out for anyone voicing any pro-fascist opinions. Exactly what would have happened had they found any isn’t clear. Presumably, the Mafia would have handled it in typical fashion.

There’s no real evidence that the scheme had any effect in preventing sabotage attempts along the docks. In fact, there’s no conclusive evidence that the Germans or Italians made any serious effort to sabotage ships in New York’s ports. While there were undoubtedly Axis intelligence operatives in the US, and likely at least a few people on the docks who might have been secretly sympathetic to the Axis cause, it’s hard to say if the Mafia’s influence had any real impact in foiling their operations. Either way, there were no ships sabotaged in New York during the rest of the war.

With the Invasion of Sicily in 1943, Luciano’s efforts proved a bit more productive. He had contacts among the Sicilian Mafia, who even in 1943 had a lot of influence on the island. Mussolini had made serious and sometimes effective efforts to break the grip of organized crime on Sicily before the war. Now it backfired as many Sicilian Dons were eager to see his government overthrown. With Luciano’s help, they provided important intelligence to the Allies including maps, photographs, and many used their influence to ensure that the Allied troops met little opposition from the populace.

Mafia Boss Lucky Luciano Helped the US Invade Italy from a Prison Cell
The Invasion of Sicily underway. Wikimedia Commons.

While it’s probably an exaggeration to say that Luciano was instrumental in the success of the invasion, he certainly tried to help. And with the war winding down in 1945, he made an official appeal to the Governor of New York, at this point the same Thomas Dewey who helped put him away, for clemency. It was granted, and Luciano was deported to Sicily. He continued to run his rackets from Italy and spent the rest of his life in a series of tangles with the law. Luciano finally died of a heart attack in 1962. His body was returned to New York, where it rests today in the city he both preyed on and briefly tried to protect.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Lucky Luciano”. The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. March 2018.

“Review: Operation Underworld by Paddy Kelly”. Hilary White, The Independent. April 2010.

“Allied Invasion of Sicily”. Adrian Gilbert, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. March 2017.

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