On the night of July 9, 1943, the first of 160,000 allied troops began landing on the southwest beaches of Sicily.
After nearly a full week of fighting that yielded the city of Syracuse and not much more, General George S. Patton was given the task of advancing towards the city of Palermo.
60,000 Italian troops and almost 100 miles of thin, heavily-mined highway stood in the way. Yet Patton’s army crossed the distance in just 4 days, taking minimal casualties and splitting the Axis army in two. This lightening strike established General Patton as America’s greatest general of WWII.
But how did he do it?
The answer involved a small, American army plane flying low over the tiny town of Villalba on July 14. The plane trailed a yellow banner with a large, black “L”. At a certain spot it dropped a nylon bag containing only a gold foulard handkerchief, also sporting the letter “L”.
That place was the estate of Don Calogero Vizzini, the most powerful Mafia boss of Sicily.
Two days later, three American tanks rolled into Villalba after driving thirty miles through enemy territory. Don Calogero climbed aboard and spent the next six days traveling through western Sicily organizing support for the advancing American troops. As General Patton’s Third Division moved onward into Don Calogero’s mountain domain, the signs of its dependence on Mafia support were obvious to the local population. The Mafia protected the roads from snipers, arranged enthusiastic welcomes for the advancing troops, and provided guides through the confusing mountain terrain.
The “L” on the handkerchief stood for Salvatore Lucania, also known as Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
Salvatore Lucania had been born only 15 miles from Don Calogero’s estate on November 24, 1897. At the age of 10 his family emigrated to America, arriving in New York.
Within a year Lucky was shaking down Jewish kids on their way to school and serving time in Brooklyn correctional facility for truancy. During this time he befriended Bugsy Siegal.
At the age of 18 Lucky was doing time for selling heroin and morphine. After getting out of jail he joined the violent Five Points Gang. He managed to dodge the WWI draft by intentionally catching chlamydia.
Lucky’s First Break
In 1918 Lucky was busying himself with the humdrum job of beating a prostitute senseless. A 14-year old Bugsy Siegel looked on, knife in hand. Suddenly the door flung open and a young man leaped into the room. He hit Lucky on the back of the head and knocked Bugsy aside. As he pulled the prostitute up, the New York City police rushed into the room and promptly arrested everyone.
The man who heard the prostitute’s scream and came to her rescue was Meyer Lansky. Locked in the same cell Lucky and Meyer began talking and realized that they had a lot in common. Meyer worked for the Lepke and Gurrah gang, which controlled much of the heroin trade of New York City. It didn’t take long before Meyer convinced Lucky to get into the heroin business. This friendship they developed would last half a century.
But there was a problem with Lucky’s new business – the old Sicilian mafia dons disapproved of drug trafficking. It wasn’t a matter of moral qualms, they just didn’t want to antagonize the police.
On October 16, 1929, the old dons kidnapped Lucky and took him to a New Jersey warehouse. There they hung him by the wrists from a hook, beat him with a baseball bat, stabbed him with an ice pick, and slit his throat. It should have been the end of Lucky, but while he was left for dead he didn’t die. Lucky somehow managed to get out of his chains and make it to safety, hence his nickname “Lucky” Luciano. He then exacted a bloody revenge on the dons.
Over the next four years Lucky, Meyer, Bugsy, and their associates at Murder, Inc. eliminated all of their primary competition and built a small empire that Lansky claimed was modeled after Standard Oil Trust. Luciano, Meyer, and Siegel implemented a total reorganization of how the mafia did business, including an organized system of bribes to various politicians.
The Luciano empire involved the traditional gambling, bookmaking, loan-sharking, and extortion. It also extended to near complete control of the Manhatten waterfront, from corrupt labor unions to garbage hauling, construction, garment center businesses, and trucking. Lansky traveled to Cuba and set up a working relationship with the dictator Batista for the building of casinos and smuggling of heroin from Sicily.
Lucky’s used his new heroin empire to enhance his old prostitution business by keeping his prostitutes addicted to heroin. This was Lucky’s downfall.
In 1936 Thomas Dewey was merely an up-and-coming New York City prosecutor. It would take another 6 years before he became governor of New York, and another 6 years before he came within a whisker of the presidency.
Dewey quickly discovered that Luciano’s prostitutes were more than willing to talk to the police about their exploitation. It is a popular belief that the charges against Lucky were trumped up. Nevertheless, Dewey was able to get the jury to convict Luciano of 62 counts of racketeering. Lucky drew a sentence of 30 to 50 years in New York’s more brutal penitentiary, Dannemora.
It should have been the end of Luciano’s career. But then something happened that no one suspected – WWII.
On April 11, 1942, Meyer Lansky had breakfast at a restaurant on West 58th Street with Luciano’s lawyer, Moses Polakoff, District Attorney Gurfein, and Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) Commander Charles Haffenden.
The topic of the conversation was German U-Boats. Between December 7, 1941, and February 28, 1942, the Germans had sunk 71 merchant ships off the east coast. American military intelligence was convinced that German spies were operating in America’s harbors and everyone was fully aware of who ran the waterfront.
This meeting wasn’t an accident – Luciano had set it up. Albert’s idea was to give the Navy a big chunk of sabotage, something so big that it would scare the Navy to death.
The sabotage that Albert and his brother were talking about was the sinking of a ship in the West Side Manhattan port- the French luxury liner, the SS Normandie- a ship that was being slated to be turned into a troopship for the Allies. Luciano thought it was a great plan. It would get the attention of the Navy and wouldn’t truly affect the war effort since the ship was nowhere ready for war. The plan was set in motion. Withing twenty-four hours the SS Normandie was gutted and wrecked. Naval Intelligence was charged preventing anything like this to happen again, since it was obvious that German spies had done this. That is when the U.S. Government turned to organized crime for help and began the idea of “Operation Underworld.”
Lansky suggested that Luciano might be more willing to cooperate if he was transferred to a “better facility”. The ONI leaned on the prison authority and shortly afterwards Luciano was transferred to the new Great Meadows prison outside of Albany.
Over the next several weeks there was a constant shuffle of mafia captains through the Great Meadows facility receiving personal instructions. Lucky was also meeting with the ONI in order for military agents to infiltrate the mob-controlled International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA).
During that time labor leader Harry Bridges was trying to get workers to abandon the corrupt ILA and join the independent International Longshoremen and Warehouseman’s Union. Bridges was beaten up in 1942 while trying to organize the New York docks. From 1942 to 1946 there were twenty-six unsolved murders of labor leaders and dockworkers.
Back in Sicily
So why did Don Calogero cooperate with the American military via Lucky’s intervention? For two reasons:
1) Mussolini started a war against the mafia in 1924. Hundreds of mafia leaders had been rounded up, tortured, and then shot in the public square of Palermo. The tactics were similar to what was used during a Holy Inquisition. By 1943 most of the Sicilian mafia had either been killed, imprisoned, or forced into exile.
“The mafia is dead, a new Sicily is born.” – NY Times headline, 1939
2) As the American army marches across Sicily, they discovered that the main opposition to the fascist government was communists. Wanting to free up troops from garrison duty for the front lines, their choice was to either turn to the communists, or the mafia.
They chose the mafia.
the Fascist army had long since deserted, and Don Calogero’s Mafia seemed far more reliable at guaranteeing public order than Mussolini’s powerless carabinieri. So, in July the Civil Affairs Control Office of the U.S. army appointed Don Calogero mayor of Villalba. In addition, ANIGOT appointed loyal mafiosi as mayors in many of the towns and villages in western Sicily…
To combat expected Communist gains, occupation authorities used Mafia officials in the AMGOT administration. Since any changes in the island’s feudal social structure would cost the Mafia money and power, the “honored society” was a natural anti-Communist ally. So confident was Don Calogero of his importance to AMGOT that he killed Villalba’s overly inquisitive police chief to free himself of all restraints.
Don Calogero rendered other services to the anti-Communist effort by breaking up leftist political rallies. On September 16, 1944, for example, the Communist leader Girolama Li Causi held a rally in Villalba that ended abruptly in a hail of gunfire as Don Calogero’s men fired into the crowd and wounded nineteen spectators. Michele Pantaleone, who observed the Mafia’s revival in his native village of Villalba, described the consequences of AMGOT’s occupation policies:
By the beginning of the Second World War, the Mafia was restricted to a few isolated and scattered groups and could have been completely wiped out if the social problems of the island had been dealt with . . . the Allied occupation and the subsequent slow restoration of democracy reinstated the Mafia with its full powers, put it once more on the way to becoming a political force, and returned to the Onorata Societa the weapons which Fascism had snatched from it.
In other words, the rise of the Sicilian mafia during and after WWII was because of a decision by the American military. The responsibility for decades of violence and the hundreds of innocent deaths in Italy’s battle against the mafia since 1943 can be at least partly attributed to America.
On VE Day, Moses Polakoff filed a petition seeking clemency for Luciano based on his “important aid to the military authorities.” On December 3, 1945, the New York State Parole Board vote to grant clemency to Luciano on the condition that he be deported to Italy.
On February 9, 1946, a large group of mobsters gathered at the docks to see off Luciano. Lansky was nice enough to hand him a suitcase containing $1 Million. Over the next five years over 500 other mobsters were deported to Italy, becoming Lucky’s new army in Italy.
Lucky’s primary business was still heroin. It was shipped from Italy to Cuba, where it was adulterated and then smuggled into Miami and New York. Gradually Lucky’s heroin empire grew until it had surpassed its 1936 levels. In other words, the heroin plague of the 1950’s and 1960’s can be traced back to the American intelligence service and their poor choice of allies.
When the ONI realized how embarrassing their role in getting Luciano released might look given his huge heroin enterprise, they ordered that all relevant documents be destroyed. Nevertheless, the information leaked out a few decades later.
Lucky Luciano died of a heart attack in Naples, Italy, on January 26, 1962.
Time Magazine nominated Luciano as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century.