In the dark hours of June 13, 1942, a German submarine surfaced off Long Island.
Four saboteurs, led by one George Dasch, buried explosives under the sands of Amagansett as part of an elaborate plan to blow up Astoria’s Hell Gate Bridge, as well as chemical plants used in the American war effort.
Naval Intelligence Lieutenant General Charles Radcliffe Haffenden had learned that four men had been spotted and dispatched to the East End of Long Island.
But his investigation did not follow standard military protocols. Haffenden stopped at Millie’s Inn near Napeague Beach to have dinner with a few known organized crime associates. They were essential to a top-secret surveillance network he had created with the help of the mob.
The mob played a crucial and covert role during World War II, using its power and control over New York’s ports, dockworkers, and fishermen to keep tabs on U-boats and other suspicious figures. The Mafia even used its influence to sneak the Navy into a banned foreign consulate believed to hold crucial information about the Nazis.
“The Navy realized they didn’t have full security control over New York Harbor… They couldn’t get into the unions, they couldn’t approach the tradesmen, the stevedores. No one spoke to them. Matthew Black, author of “Operation Underworld: How the Mafia and US Government Teamed Up to Win World War II,” released Tuesday, told the Post. “The Navy was surprised to learn that the Mafia would not only be willing to help, but would be happy to do so. Many of them were loyal. They loved the United States of America.
In early 1942, months before the U boat landed on Long Island, Haffenden concocted a top-secret plan to unofficially delegate a known enemy of the state to protect New York from the Nazis.
Through a series of lawyers, Haffenden arranged a midnight meeting in Riverside Park between Frank “Socks” Lanza – aka the Czar of Fulton Fish Market, who answered for the notorious Lucky Luciano – and a district attorney.
Socks was a true “patriot” who hated both Hitler and Benito Mussolini, so he was easily convinced to sign. With her help, deep-sea fishing captains who previously claimed not to know a word of English began singing for navy officials.
“In a short time you had the American fishing fleet as the first line of defense looking for German submarines,” Black said. “As the relationship progressed, [the Navy] was able to access more and more places on the waterfront. Contacts led to Long Island and all over the East Coast, especially New England.
As useful as Socks was to the war effort, there were still plenty of harbors and piers over which the mafia had no influence. It was time for Operation Underworld to jump a pay grade as Socks recruited Luciano himself. There was just one problem: he was 30 to 50 years behind bars and arranging a meeting with him was complicated.
“[The Navy] didn’t want the FBI to know what they were doing. So they had to come up with all kinds of arrangements to move him to another prison and make it look like it wasn’t part of a major deal. Luciano was kept in the dark for much of it,” Black explained.
Unlike Lanza, Luciano did not operate entirely as a bleeding-heart patriot. He used military strategy to run his empire from inside the box, issuing orders to his top bosses – Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and Willie Moretti – in military-sanctioned meetings behind bars.
“He had about 20 visits with his bosses,” Black said. “So he’s kind of using Operation Underworld to further his criminal goals.”
The underworld in action
A year after the Dasch Affair, Operation Underworld shifted from protecting ports and spying to helping Allied troops invade and occupy Sicily, Luciano’s former homeland. It was a campaign called Operation Husky.
“The United States was in a bad position to fight a war in Europe. All the maps, all the charts, all the data, all the intelligence that had been collected during World War I had been destroyed,” Black said.
“So the focus shifted to finding information about Sicily. The mafia was really helpful in developing contacts, people who had been to Sicily recently, who had worked in the ports there, and they were able to bring that to naval intelligence.
Mob contact was instrumental in the first wave of the 1943 Sicilian invasion. New York mobsters acted as ambassadors for the armed forces to the natives – including the local mafia – in the purpose of showing that the Americans were a friendly force during the occupation.
“The big goal was to get the Italians to turn on the Germans and that’s exactly what happened,” Black said. “The Mafia was a true ally of the Allies during World War II.”