Quentin Tarantino’s darkly comic 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds, was rollicking Nazi vengeance porn, the core shtick being a handful of Jewish American soldiers wreaking havoc on Hitler, Goebbels, and their goose-stepping ilk. The movie was alternative history, of course, but the story of shtarkers, Jewish tough guys, going after Nazis has a basis in fact.
This is the theme of my new historical novel, The Devil Himself, which is about the very real collaboration between Jewish mob boss Meyer Lansky and U.S. Naval Intelligence.
I have known Meyer Lansky’s family for years and had access to his personal recollections and private papers. Meyer’s activities, sanctioned by the government as part of “Operation Underworld,” included a Tarantinian mobilization of Jewish American mobsters against Nazi sympathizers and saboteurs, a campaign as cloaked in secrecy as SEAL Team Six’s recent takedown of Osama bin Laden.
On that subject, my early admiration of President Obama’s handling of bin Laden’s killing lost steam when his administration began twisting itself into pretzels to convey that the terrorist’s killing was done, uh, politely. Heaven forbid we hurt the feelings of the other homicidal maniacs that have Americans in their crosshairs.
As contemporary America contemplates how to deal with its enemies, it is worth looking at what the wartime administration of another liberal Democrat did when faced with foreign terrorists.
OPERATION UNDERWORLD began shortly after Pearl Harbor, when the cruise ship Normandie caught fire and capsized at Pier 88 in Manhattan in early February, 1942. The Normandie, the largest luxury liner in the world, was seized by the U.S. after France fell to the Nazis. It was being retrofitted for U.S. troop deployment when it was destroyed.
Many blamed the ship’s destruction on Nazi sabotage. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t, but at the time it was a reasonable assumption. The German American Bund had been a thriving pro-Nazi advocacy group in New York before the war. German U-boats were destroying U.S. ships in the North Atlantic at such a successful clip that Admiral Karl Dönitz dubbed his campaign the Third Reich’s “Happy Time.” More American sailors were killed under this initiative than died at Pearl Harbor.
Navy intelligence swarmed the New York docks to solicit the cooperation of the longshoremen to ferret out German spies. They were heartily rebuffed. The operating theory about the Navy’s cold reception was that the largely Italian dock workers may have been loyal to Hitler’s partner in mayhem, Italy’s Mussolini. While such an allegiance may have been the case with some of the stevedores, there was a better explanation: The men who worked the docks were averse by nature and culture to help out any authorities.
Gravely concerned, the Navy sought the advice of New York law enforcement. Prosecutors conceded that, yes, the mob-controlled longshoremen were a tough lot, but not all mobsters were knuckle-dragging simians–especially ones whose Eastern European Jewish landsmen were being rounded up by Hitler.
Indeed, Meyer Lansky had tried to enlist in the army after Pearl Harbor, but was rejected because of his age, just shy of 40, and his height, 5′ 4″ in socks. Other Jewish mobsters had better luck. One of Meyer’s men, Doc Stacher of Newark, served in the Army. Cleveland boss Moe Dalitz entered the Army a private and came out a captain. Minneapolis killer Davie Berman and Chicago’s Charlie Barron were rebuffed, but enlisted in the Canadian army using fake names.
A meeting was arranged between Commander Charles Radcliffe Haffenden of the Third Naval District and Meyer Lansky at Longchamps restaurant. Haffenden was stunned when the diminutive mobster introduced himself, donning a conservative business suit, looking like a cross between an accountant from Arthur Andersen and a violin instructor. His eyes, hard and black, told a different story.
Haffenden’s pitch was simple: The Navy understood that the mafia controlled the waterfront, Nazi sabotage was suspected in the Normandie fire, German U-boats were likely getting information from somebody on the docks, and the longshoremen weren’t cooperating. Could Meyer’s men be of any assistance?
Meyer acknowledged he had been giving Bund members the business for years. With the help of men like his childhood friend, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, cutthroats like Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro, Allie “Tick Tock” Tannenbaum, and Seymour “Blue Jaw” Magoon, Jewish racketeers had been breaking up Bund rallies in the Yorkville section of Manhattan using guns, knives, and baseball bats. The mob hastened the Bund’s demise by introducing mortal risks to its leadership.
Meyer clarified for Haffenden that there was no such thing as the mafia (heh), that he was a simple investor and music distributor (uh huh), but that he’d help because “it’s patriotism.”
He added that there was a man who was greatly respected by the Italian toughs on the waterfront who might be able to assist. The good news was that this man was Meyer’s old friend. The bad news was that this friend was doing a 30- to 50-year prison sentence in an upstate New York prison known as “Siberia.”
Charles “Lucky” Luciano had been convicted of running prostitution rackets six years earlier. After Meyer advised Haffenden that one shouldn’t approach a Sicilian expecting something for nothing, a bewildered Luciano was moved in the dead of night from the inclement Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, to the more hospitable Great Meadow Prison in Comstock.
Shortly after his arrival, Luciano was escorted into the warden’s office where he was greeted by Meyer and his attorney Moses Polakoff. The men had brought the overjoyed Luciano Italian and Jewish delicacies from Manhattan.
Luciano agreed to help. He ordered his capos, who were permitted to visit him, to cooperate with the Navy. Of course, he wanted something in return for his cooperation: his freedom. Haffenden agreed to do his best.
IN THE SUMMER of 1942, eight Nazi saboteurs were captured soon after they came ashore via U-boat near Amagansett, Long Island, and Jacksonville, Florida. They had brought with them lots of cash, explosives, and plans to blow up American defense plants, bridges, railways, and Jewish-owned department stores.
These saboteurs weren’t the Third Reich’s first string. Their leader turned himself in to J. Edgar Hoover. Some of the others were captured when mob-controlled union members employed at New York hotels reported them to naval intelligence.
For his part, President Roosevelt, a nighttime reader of gangster novels, was ruthless when it came to dealing with the Nazis. He wanted to execute all of the saboteurs without as much as a public utterance. Instead, two of the saboteurs were given long prison sentences and six of them, after one of the swiftest Supreme Court reviews in history, were executed at the District of Columbia jail and buried in a nearby potter’s field. Roosevelt even joked about the executions while mixing drinks at the presidential retreat, Shangri-La.
In one of the stranger coincidences in history, FDR was very close to the powerful journalist Walter Winchell, who was, in turn, a friend and neighbor of Meyer Lansky in the Majestic House apartments on Central Park West. Winchell was an unrepentant propagandist for the American cause, and he was unafraid to work with gangsters to publicize their beat-downs of Nazi sympathizers.
While history is clear about Roosevelt’s active engagement in wartime espionage, the substance of any FDR-Winchell-Lansky interaction remains unknown. Still, imagine the mere spectacle of such a dotted-line triangle given today’s transparency fetish.
Domestic sabotage was a non-issue for the remainder of the war. This was due to factors besides Operation Underworld, of course, but German spies mustn’t have found the New York waterfront hospitable with the likes of Bugsy, Lepke, & Company roaming Lower Manhattan.
Meyer and Luciano’s services didn’t stop here. When it came time to invade Sicily, Commander Haffenden again brought in the boys. They provided naval intelligence with mafia contacts in Sicily that were instrumental in both the initial landing (courtesy of maps provided by local fishermen) and in locating strategic Nazi strongholds. It wasn’t all about patriotism: Mussolini had cracked down hard on the Sicilian mafia and homegrown gangsters wanted him out.
For his service, Luciano’s prison sentence was commuted by New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, who had been the very prosecutor to put him behind bars. Luciano, who never bothered to become an American citizen, was deported to Italy, never to regain his position atop the American underworld.
To be sure, mafiaphiles have exaggerated the contributions of racketeers to the war effort. Especially preposterous is the folklore that has Luciano storming onto Sicilian beaches beside Patton waving a yellow flag emblazoned with the letter L to liberate the countryside.
It’s hard to imagine either the president or the media in the age of WikiLeaks tapping the Sopranos to whack al Qaeda. Both the successful conquest of Sicily — which, nevertheless, included the Allied air bombing of our own troops — and the initial slaughter at Normandy would have been declared “quagmires” by today’s reporters. Contrast this with American journalists during FDR’s day, who barely reported Hitler’s demoralizing “Happy Time” duck shoot against U.S. vessels.
Somewhere along the line, being seen as apologetic and gentle has trumped other priorities in international affairs. Envision FDR or Truman offering frantic assurances that Hitler’s body reached its final resting place in strict accordance with Waffen SS tradition. Or that the Hiroshima bomb incinerated tens of thousands humanely.
Still, at least one thing about Operation Underworld would translate to 21st-century Washington, namely the fate of the Navy officer who ran the program. Commander Haffenden was shipped to Iwo Jima in the hope he wouldn’t make it back. He did, but was severely injured. His reputation was dragged through sea clutter when word of Operation Underworld leaked and became the subject of investigations. Positioned as a rogue agent, Haffenden turned to alcohol and became a Dictaphone salesman, dying on Christmas Eve, 1952.
MEYER LANSKSY’S best days were ahead of him. He attempted to clean up his fortune in Las Vegas and Havana, where he was the czar of Cuba’s legal gaming and resort industries. When Havana fell to Castro, he lost his most lucrative legal holdings. His every move shadowed by law enforcement, Meyer attempted to gain Israeli citizenship under that country’s Law of Return, but was considered a liability and was forced to return to Miami Beach, where he died in 1983 of natural causes–in bed, with his shoes off.
As I portray in The Devil Himself, Meyer was intensely proud of his service in World War II. He was motivated by an immigrant’s desire to prove he was a “real American,” a concept that is hard to imagine in today’s climate, in which such a wish would be greeted by the dominant media culture with an eye roll.
Unlike his partner Luciano, Meyer was an American citizen who received his Certificate of Naturalization after the war. He was so enthralled with his Navy collaboration that he sent his son Paul to West Point.
The deranged mob boss Albert Anastasia was said to have told Meyer, “Someday, my boy’s gonna run the Brooklyn waterfront.” Meyer responded, “That’s nice. My son works at NASA.”
He wasn’t kidding. Paul Lansky was an engineer on the Apollo space program and one of the first military advisors in Vietnam.
The value of Operation Underworld can be legitimately debated. What cannot is how far our leaders were once willing to go to defeat our country’s enemies. There was a time–bada bing!–when even a mobster’s contribution was an offer we couldn’t refuse.