Future New York Governor Tom Dewey convicted Mafia boss Charlie “Lucky” Luciano for running a prostitution racket in 1936. Luciano was the American equivalent of the Sicilian capo di tutti capi, or boss of all the bosses; he was the first head of the modern Genovese crime family and the creator and chairman of the multi-family Mafia Commission. During the Second World War, he was in Federal prison on a thirty-to-fifty year sentence, but he served only ten. And how that came about is the germ of the idea at the heart of Jack Higgins‘s propulsive World War II thriller, Luciano’s Luck.
A WWII thriller about the Mafia and the Allied invasion of Sicily
In Higgins’s imagination, a British special operations officer, acting under the authority of General Dwight Eisenhower and President Franklin Roosevelt, springs Luciano from prison to help smooth the way for the Allied invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943. Luciano had been born on the island and commanded considerable respect there. Higgins has him parachute into Sicily to persuade the capo di tutti capi to use his influence to trigger an uprising that will cause Italian troops to desert their German allies. And the story he tells, though obviously far-fetched, is action-packed, fast-moving, and ultimately satisfying.
Luciano’s Luck by Jack Higgins (1981) 198 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
The historical reality was quite different from Higgins’s tale
If Luciano had had his way, he would in fact have gone into Sicily with the American Army. Working through his associate, Meyer Lansky, Luciano campaigned to persuade the government to give him a role in the invasion. But the government wasn’t buying the idea. And in the end the invasion went more or less the way the Americans had hoped. Two-thirds of the Italian soldiers deserted on the western side of the island where US forces landed, and General George S. Patton‘s troops were in the capital city of Palermo within a week. Apparently, the Mafia hated the Germans more than the Americans. (The British and Canadian troops under General Bernard Montgomery were a lot less lucky on the island’s eastern side. They met much fiercer resistance from the Germans and suffered heavy casualties.)
How Lucky Luciano helped the US war effort
However, Luciano did, in fact, make other, substantial contributions to the American war effort. In 1942, the US Navy reached out to him because its investigation into enemy sabotage on the New York docks had settled on Italian-American dockworkers there. The Navy offered him a reduced sentence in exchange for his help. According to one historical account, “Luciano ordered that any suspicious activity along the docks and waterfronts be reported to the authorities. Luciano also apparently guaranteed that there would be no strikes among the dock workers. To this day the effectiveness of this operation, known as Operation Underworld, is debated. However, it should be noted that after 1942 no other ships were destroyed and there were no strikes among the New York City dock workers.”
And that was just the beginning.
And Luciano did help the Allied invasion of Sicily, just not the way he wanted
When the invasion of Sicily was in the planning stage, the US government reached out again to Luciano. Naval officers “called upon [his] Mafia associates to provide drawings and pictures of the Sicilian coastline and harbors, which they promptly received in mass. This information was used to plan the Allied amphibious landing. [And] according to most accounts, Luciano was integral in facilitating this operation, codenamed Operation Husky . . .” In the end, the government came through. In 1946, Luciano was released from prison and sent to Ellis Island for deportation to his homeland. He died in Naples in 1962 at the age of 64.
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