Operation Husky and Turning the Tide of World War II: Did the Mafia Help the Allies Invade Sicily?

Gangster Lucky Luciano helped the government spy on suspicious people in New York City.

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Sicily, known as Operation Husky. Seen as a turning point in World War II, it may not have been possible without help from an unlikely source — the mafia.

At the start of the war, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, regarded as the father of organized crime in America, was serving a 30- to 50-year sentence in an upstate New York prison for running a prostitution racket. But even behind bars, Luciano still wielded power and influence — so much so that he may have helped coordinate the invasion of Sicily with the Americans. 

Luciano’s relationship with the U.S. government dates back to the early years of World War II. In December 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America was thrust into war.

In the months following the attack on Hawaii, the S.S. Normandie, a U.S. troop carrier ship docked in Manhattan, caught fire and capsized in the harbor. More than 1,500 workers and sailors had to flee the doomed ship. One person died. 

The U.S. government had long feared that the immigrants coming from Axis nations could and would be a threat to national security, according to historian Tim Newark, author of "Mafia at War" and "Boardwalk Gangster: The Real Lucky Luciano," and many believed the sinking of the ship was an act of sabotage. 

Italian-American dock workers who lived and operated in the area came under investigation, Newark said, but officials struggled to make any headway. So, the U.S. government turned to Luciano for help because they knew of his influence and contacts around the docks. The agreement became known as Operation Underworld, with Luciano ordering his henchmen to be on the lookout for any suspicious activity. In turn, Luciano struck a deal to have his sentence commuted.

But Luciano’s help may have gone beyond stateside intel. Some historians believe Luciano aided the Allies in their campaign to retake Sicily, known as Operation Husky, in 1943, providing maps, photographs of the coastlines and names of mob bosses on the island. 

"Luciano’s contacts even assisted in the Allies’ 1943 amphibious invasion of Sicily by providing maps of the island’s harbors, photographs of its coastline and names of trusted contacts inside the Sicilian Mafia, who also wished to see [Italian dictator Benito] Mussolini toppled," author Christopher Klein wrote for History.com

The extent to which the mobster helped the Allies remains up for debate, but while Luciano wasn't physically in Sicily, he did appear to lend a hand in whatever small way he could.

"Although offering help for the Allied invasion of Sicily, he was of little practical use there, despite the myths that continue to surround this," Newark told InsideEdition.com. "His gangster colleagues helped facilitate the gathering of information about Sicily from Italians living in New York for U.S. naval intelligence in preparation for the invasion."

At the time, American journalist Walter Winchell even suggested that Luciano should have received the Medal of Honor for his assistance in the war. 

But others contend Luciano never helped Operation Husky. Selwyn Raab, author of "Five Families," told InsideEdition.com it was a “total myth that Luciano was a valuable aid in the invasion of Sicily."

“He asked his minions to provide whatever aid they could for the invasion of Sicily, but it was essentially limited to picture postcards of ports," Raab added. 

"Before and after Luciano's release, there were flimsy news stories about his assistance — mostly exaggerated,” said Raab. “Frank Costello, who was running Luciano's family and his loyal follower, reportedly spread stories to reporters exaggerating Luciano's role. 

“Costello lived in the same elegant apartment building with … Winchell, then one of the most influential columnists in the U.S., and Winchell hinted that Lucky had helped the Allies. Strange coincidence," he added.

Records, however, appear to suggest otherwise. The Herlands Report of 1954, ordered by then-New York Gov. Thomas Dewey and carried out by State Commissioner of Investigation William Herlands, credits Luciano with enlisting "numerous" informants who aided the Sicily campaign.

"Through these contacts and informants, the names of friendly Sicilian natives and even Sicilian underworld and Mafia personalities who could be trusted were obtained and actually used in the Sicilian campaign,” Herlands wrote in the report.

Luciano, who had 20 to 40 years left on his sentence at the end of the war, was pardoned by Dewey in January 1946 and deported to his native Sicily. He died in Naples in 1962.