Friday, April 14, 2023

Operation Underworld: My Washington Times On Crime Column on 'Operation Underworld: How The Mafia And U.S. Government Teamed Up To Win World War II'

 The Washington Times ran my On Crime column on Operation Underworld: How the Mafia and U.S. Government Teamed Up To Win World War II.

You can read the column via the below link or the below text:

BOOK REVIEW: 'Operation Underworld' - Washington Times

While serving time in Dannemora State Prison in 1942, New York Cosa Nostra organized crime boss Salvatore Luciano (seen in the above photo), better known among criminals as “Charlie Lucky” and the public as “Lucky” Luciano, was asked to help the U.S. Navy protect New York ports from sabotage from Nazi Germany during World War II. 

New York Harbor was vulnerable to sabotage from German and Italian agents, and the Navy knew that the Cosa Nostra controlled the unions on the waterfront. 

Matthew Black’s “Operation Underworld: How the Mafia and the U.S. Government Teamed Up to Win World War II,” is an interesting and informative look back at this fascinating alliance between American gangsters and U.S. naval intelligence officers.  


I contacted Mr. Black (seen in the bottom photo) and asked him to describe his book.


“Operation Underworld is about how the U.S. Navy secured and defended the Port of New York during WWII. Confronted with challenges ranging from spies and saboteurs, to union strikes on the docks, the Navy formed an unprecedented alliance with the mafia to help safeguard ships, war materials, and personnel passing through New York’s harbors. This brought the Navy into a gray area of the law, as the Commander — Charles Radcliffe Haffenden — kept the operation a secret, even as he recruited the top gangster in the country to help — Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano,” Mr. Black said.


Here is the rest of the interview:


PAUL DAVIS: How did you perform research for the book?


Mr. Black: This book was researched and written during the pandemic, and for most writers, that would’ve tanked their research efforts, as libraries and archives were closed all over the country. But the archive I needed to access at the University of Rochester was kind enough to supply digital uploads of everything I requested. Their archive contains the contents of an investigation into Operation Underworld that had been previously classified. It took about a year-and-a-half to upload nearly 3,000 pages of testimony and documents.

Was there anything that you learned that surprised or shocked you?


When I first took on this project, I told myself that I’d have to find things that no one else had discovered if I was going to be successful. I’m happy to report: Mission accomplished! Commander Haffenden kept a little black book that contained names of informants and secret agents. For nearly 80 years, several of the agents had yet to be identified, but I was able to not only determine identities, but also find photos of participants such as Agent X and Agent Y. On top of that, I was also able to uncover the entire roster of people who visited Luciano in prison during Operation Underworld. Some of the names I uncovered are shocking, as Operation Underworld granted Luciano access to all of his top capos as he served his term in prison.”


How would you describe Salvatore “Charlie Lucky” Luciano?


Luciano was tough, calculating, and full of ambition, as he organized crime in America. He ran the mafia like a Fortune 500 company. But when readers meet Luciano in Operation Underworld, he is experiencing the darkest days of his life, serving a 30-50-year sentence in Dannemora prison. As a New York City criminal, his direction had been clear, and his drive unflinching, but in 1942, he was full of doubt, dread, and was losing hope that he would ever get out of prison.

How would you describe Navy Commander Charles Radcliffe Haffenden?


Commander Haffenden (seen in the above photo) was full of ambition, too, and he was an extremely creative thinker. Haffenden was looking to make his mark on history and his legacy with Operation Underworld, and he poured his heart into his efforts. His drive and creativity often took him out of bounds in Navy norms and U.S. law, as he was willing to recruit anyone who could help him protect the Port of New York. This included not only mafia leadership, but other known murderers, and criminals who were under indictment. His unyielding confidence bolstered his unshakeable belief that he could win the war all by himself, and he would stop at nothing to do it.


Did organized crime’s involvement with the Navy truly help the war effort?


Yes, it most certainly did! The question is: Was it worth the price? Operation Underworld was successful for many reasons that you’ll have to read the book to understand, but the Navy ultimately achieved its objective. But doing so took more than cooperation with the mafia: It took union suppression, beatings of noncombatants, and other violations of worker and human rights.

Mafia members were also successful in setting up a network of informants that helped provide intelligence for the Allied invasion of Sicily. Some of the most important combatants in the first waves that landed on Sicily were naval intelligence officers from New York who used their knowledge of organized crime to contact Sicilian Mafiosi.


• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.

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Operation Underworld: How the Mafia and the U.S. Government Teamed Up to Win World War II
By Matthew Black
Citadel, Dec. 27, 2022
384 pages, $25.49

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