Pact With the Devil?
One of the great conspiracy theories of the Second World War is that the Americans struck a deal with Mafia mobsters to conquer Sicily. Tim Newark exposes the truth behind this notorious story of Mafia collaboration.
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 naïve 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. All but one escaped but 128 were injured and by the next day it was a smoking hulk. In his report, twelve years later, William B. Herlands, Commissioner of Investigation, made the case for the US government talking to top criminals:
The Intelligence authorities were greatly concerned with the problems of sabotage and espionage ... Suspicions were rife with respect to the leaking of information about convoy movements. The Normandie, which was being converted to war use as the Navy auxiliary Lafayette, had burned at the pier in the North River, New York City. Sabotage was suspected.
It was a bitter blow to the American war effort – but it pushed Lucky Luciano, Lansky, and Naval Intelligence together. Some time between May 15th and June 4th, 1942, Meyer Lansky and a lawyer visited Luciano in prison to discuss working with Naval Intelligence. Luciano later claimed that Haffenden was there also, and that he spoke to him directly. Having presented Luciano with a hamper of food containing, among other things, his favourite kosher green pickles, Lansky explained that by co-operating with Naval intelligence, Lucky might well get a reduction of his sentence. Otherwise he would have to wait until 1956 for his first chance of parole. Luciano said he was happy to help the government. He knew the important people on the waterfront and if he asked them to get interested in the war effort – then they would.
The Mafia network of enforcers and informers was so effective that, Lansky claimed, it was they who first got information about Operation Pastorius – the landing of German agents by submarine at Long Island in June 1942. Lansky said he was approached by the brother of an Italian fisherman who’d seen the four agents clamber out of the U-boat and row ashore. He then told Haffenden who passed on the information to the FBI.
Associates who owned restaurants in Yorkville were persuaded to hire German-speaking Navy agents as waiters to spy on Nazi-sympathizers in New York. So intimate did the relationship between Lansky and Haffenden become that Navy agents apparently ended up servicing Mafia-run vending machines in clubs. ‘They handed over the money they collected and were always honest in their dealings’ recalled Lansky. ‘I think this must be the only time the US Navy ever directly helped the Mafia.’
There is no doubt that Luciano, Lansky, and their associates provided vital assistance that kept the East Coast docks working efficiently. They formed a frontline of intelligence against any agents sent by the Axis to sabotage Allied shipping. The end result was that Allied convoys could carry on their vital job of moving soldiers and supplies to Europe to fight the war.
However, the Herlands report does not admit that this was achieved by gangsters using violence and illegal methods. This detail is left to the personal memoirs of Luciano and Lansky. Instead the report concluded:
No practical purpose would be served by debating the technical scope of Luciano’s aid to the war effort ... Over and beyond any precise rating of the contribution is the crystal-clear fact that Luciano and his associates and contacts during a period when ‘the outcome of the war appeared extremely grave,’ were responsible for a wide range of services which were considered ‘useful to the navy’.
In February 1943, Luciano hoped to capitalize on his contribution to the war effort. However, Philip J. McCook, the judge who had originally sentenced Luciano in 1936 to 30-50 years for organizing prostitution, refused to modify his sentence now. The government wanted to keep him in prison for the moment. The war was not over. Besides, if he had been released he would have been deported immediately to Italy. But what else could he and the Mafia do for the government?
Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily, homeland of the Mafia, commenced on the night of July 9th/10th, 1943. A vast Allied armada of 2,500 vessels surged towards the south-eastern tip of Sicily bearing 181,000 men of the US Seventh Army and Montgomery’s British and Canadian Eighth Army.
A report of April 9th, 1943, the Special Military Plan for Psychological Warfare in Sicily, prepared by the Joint Staff Planners for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who approved it on April 15th, had described the
Establishment of contact and communications with the leaders of separatist nuclei, disaffected workers, and clandestine radical groups, e.g., the Mafia, and giving them every possible aid.
That included 'Smuggling of arms and munitions to those elements', the Organization and supply of guerrilla bands', and the 'Provisioning of active members of such groups and their families.' The JSP, it appears, was strongly recommending the arming of the Sicilian Mafiosi and would encourage them to carry out sabotage on bridges, roads and military installations. In retrospect, it is a sensational admission, but at the time the Mafia were considered just another dissident element.
Among the first waves of assault troops that hit the beaches was a New York Naval Intelligence team consisting of Lieutenants Anthony Marsloe, Paul Alfieri, Joachim Titolo and Ensign James Murray. They were armed with all the information they had gathered from Luciano and his mobsters and put it to use straight away. In the words of Alfieri:
One of the most important plans, was to contact persons who had been deported for any crime from the United States to their homeland in Sicily, and one of my first successes after landing at Licata was in connection with this, where I made beneficial contact with numerous persons who had been deported … They were extremely cooperative and helpful because they spoke both the dialect of that region and also some English.
One of Alfieri’s first contacts on landing was a man whom, at the age of sixteen, Luciano had saved from the electric chair after he fatally shot a policeman on the Lower East Side. Following the intervention of the boy’s mother, who was a cousin of Luciano, the Mafia boss sent him out of New York via Canada to Sicily. He had become the head of his local mafia and kept up with other criminals deported from the US. At Alfieri’s request, the local Mafioso attacked the headquarters of the Italian naval command. This was hidden in a holiday villa set back from the beach. The German guards were killed and Alfieri was able to enter and blow open a safe. In it were plans outlining German and Italian defences on the island, plus their radio code-books. It also contained information on the Axis naval forces throughout the Mediterranean. Map overlays detailed marine minefields and revealed safe routes through them. It was a tremendous prize that would save many Allied lives. For this Mafia-aided act, Alfieri was later awarded the Legion of Merit.
Such episodes have helped fuel the idea that the Mafia helped the Americans conquer the western part of Sicily. The reality is far less impressive when it came to its deployment in the rest of the Sicilian war zone. The contribution of the four US Naval Intelligence agents, though useful, was tiny and cannot be said to have had any major impact on the rest of the operation. The hundreds of pages of subsequent witness interviews aired by the Herlands investigation has swollen this minor contribution out of all proportion to any other intelligence aspect of the campaign. By far the larger contribution was provided by the US Army Counter-Intelligence Corps, who had eighty agents on the ground throughout the fighting. However, there is no evidence whatsoever of any kind of alliance between them and the Mafia in Sicily before or during the campaign.
The most notorious story about an alliance between the Mafia and US forces is told by the socialist politician and journalist Michele Pantaleone and retold in English by Norman Lewis. It centres on the town of Villalba in central Sicily near Monte Cammarata, near where, according to Pantaleone, German and Italian resistance to the American advance was concentrated. On the slopes of the Cammarata, Axis infantry and a detachment of German tanks commanded the road leading north to Palermo, well placed to blow-up the American convoy heading towards them. The towns of Mussomeli, lay to the south-east, and Villalba, to the east.
On July 14th, four days after the Allied landings, an American fighter plane flew over Villalba. ‘The aircraft dipped so low,’ wrote Pantaleone, ‘that it almost grazed the roof-tops and a strange banner or pennant could be seen fluttering from the side of its cockpit. The pennant was made of a yellowish-gold cloth and there was a large black ‘L’ carefully drawn in the middle.’
The aircraft then dropped a bag near a farmhouse belonging to the sixty-six-year-old Don Calogero Vizzini – Don Calo – an influential Mafioso in the region. The bag was recovered by one of Don Calo’s servants, who took it to his master. Inside was ‘a foulard handkerchief which looked as if it was made of gold, exactly the same colour as the cloth hanging from the aeroplane.’
The silk handkerchief was a traditional Mafia method of contact. On this one the black ‘L’ stood for Lucky Luciano. In response, Don Calo wrote a coded letter to Giuseppe Genco Russo, the second most important Mafioso in the area, telling Russo to do everything he could to make the Americans happy and secure.
Five days later, on July 20th, three US tanks entered the town of Villalba. According to the Pantaleone-Lewis account, one of them flew a yellow flag with the black ‘L’ from its turret. When the tanks stopped in the town square, an American officer climbed out of one and, in the local Sicilian dialect, asked for Don Calo. In due course, the Don turned up, accompanied by one of his nephews who had just returned from America, and, without a word, handed over his yellow flag to the American officer.
The next day, on the heights around Monte Cammarata, where the Axis commander, Lieutenant Colonel Salemi, hoped to pulverize the Americans, two thirds of his troops had deserted. Left alone, the remaining Germans decided to withdraw in their tanks.
Some of the Italian troops later claimed they had been approached by Mafia agents in the night who told them they were in a hopeless situation and should leave. They offered the soldiers civilian clothes and any other help to go home to their families. The following day, Colonel Salemi, was intercepted by the Mafia and taken prisoner to the town hall in Mussomeli. The battle of Cammarata had been won apparently without a shot being fired thanks to the intervention of the Mafia.
The US soldiers at Villalba who took Don Calo away with them in their tank were most likely Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) officers, operating in advance of the main troop formations. But the official CIC history of the campaign in Sicily, produced in the early 1950s, does not mention the Mafia and does not mention the incident at Villalba at all.
Michele Pantaleone is the main source for the Luciano-Vizzini story and he, as an enemy of Dan Calo, is a very biased source. Wartime OSS documents reveal that his family was in dispute with the Vizzini clan over a local property issue and this – along with him being a Communist and political rival of Vizzini – casts doubt on his view of events. And yet it is his seductive tale of Don Calo that has been endlessly repeated. The fact is, it appears, it never actually happened.
According to US field reports, there was no major Axis position on the northern slopes of Monte Cammarata that could have provided any hindrance to the American advance to Palermo. That the US visit to Villalba on July 20th may have been purely routine, and had nothing at all to do with a bigger plot to use the Mafia in their campaign, is further suggested by an account of the day’s events by Luigi Lumia, a former mayor of Villalba, recorded in his later history of the town.
At about 2 o’clock in the afternoon of July 20th, three US tanks rolled into the town of Villalba. Trying to make themselves heard above the squeals of delight from the town’s children, soldiers appeared from the turret of the tanks asking where the person in charge could be found—il capo del paese. Not long after, a procession of people with Calogero Vizzini at the helm made its way towards the tanks chanting: ‘Long Live America’, ‘Long Live the Mafia’, ‘Long Live Don Calo’. The Americans asked whether there were any German troops in the area and on hearing that there weren’t, they took il capo del paese [Don Calo] on board the tank together with Damiano Lumia who was acting as his interpreter.
The two men were then taken to Turrume-Tudia and questioned by a US official in the presence of enemy soldiers. During the interrogation, it was revealed that an American jeep on patrol had come under fire a few days earlier at a road junction not far from the town. According to his interpreter, Don Calo told the American that the Italians had fled and the firefight had been caused by exploding ammunition. The Mafioso assured him they faced no local enemy, but this answer just annoyed the American interrogator.
According to Luigi Lumia, the Americans merely wanted to know what opposition they faced and certainly did not treat Don Calo with any respect. In fact, Don Calo was thoroughly embarrassed by the whole incident. There is no hint of any pre-arranged deal. So much for the great conspiracy.
Overall, the so-called devil’s pact with Luciano is a fascinating footnote in the history of the Second World War, but not a major scandal. The Allies did not get and did not need the help of the Mafia to win their campaign in Sicily. Far bigger powers of industrial organization, economic competence and military expertize defeated Axis forces – and the Mafia played no part in that.
Yet, by dismantling the Fascist hold on local rule, the Allies created a power vacuum that was soon filled by local Mafiosi. This was neither the fault nor the intention of the Allies; it was certainly not a pre-planned conspiracy among the Americans and British to resurrect the Mafia, which needed no such outside help. In fact, numerous reports testify to the Allied view that the Mafia was a criminal nuisance – Lord Rennell, who headed the civil affairs administration, and who took a tough line on law and order, strengthening the authority of the Carabineri, called them a virus that should be crushed. He was aware of the part played by the Mafia in local crime and worked hard to reduce the food shortages and black-market exploitation that made the mobsters rich in the immediate post-conflict period. It is true that some Allied officers exploited the situation and worked with the Mafia to divert Allied supplies onto the black market. Yet the early success of the imposition of law and order encouraged senior Mafiosi to pursue their grab for power through politics instead, which eventually allowed them to pose as a part of the Western strategy against Communism, and as effective enforcers for the conservative Christian Democratic Party, an alliance that endured for almost fifty years.
Meyer Lansky, reviewing this history, had his own take on the Mafia role. ‘If they had wanted to,’ he said in his memoirs, ‘the Mafia could have paralysed the [New York] dock area.’ He had asked Haffenden what would happen if there was a shutdown. ‘Without the supplies we’re sending to Russia and Britain,’ said the Naval Commander, ‘the war would go on a lot longer. It could even change the course of the war.’ ‘So,’ said Lansky ‘in the end the Mafia helped save the lives of Americans and of people in Europe.’
But it was thanks to the sacrifice of honest soldiers that the Allies won the war.
- The Archive
- Medieval (4th-15thC)
- Early Modern (16th-18thC)
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Food & Drink
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Kings & Queens
- Prime Ministers
- US Presidents
- Special Series
- Student Advice
- Browse Back Issues
- History Review
- Digital Edition
From The Current Issue