Commonly referred to by the German press as "Hitler's favorite commando," Otto "Scarface" Skorzeny was six feet, four inches tall and 220 pounds with, says journalist Christopher Simpson, "appropriately arrogant 'Aryan' features and a five-inch dueling scar down his left cheek,." It was Skorzeny that Hitler called upon to execute the daring rescue of Benito Mussolini when the dictator's enemies in Italy placed him under house arrest in 1943.
Mussolini was initially imprisoned on the island of Ponza, some 35 miles off the coast of Italy. Using contacts cultivated by German agents well established within the Italian hierarchy, Skorzeny learned of Il Duce's whereabouts and of his subsequent transfer to the Gran Sasso skiing area of Apennine Mountains. The hulking Scarface proceeded to execute a stunning rescue against impossible odds, thus ingratiating himself with his Fuhrer.
"Hitler loved him," says Simpson. Allen Dulles of the OSS (and later the CIA) had a bit of a crush on him, too.
In a twist Hollywood could never conjure, the U.S.-funded Scarface would indirectly face off against another U.S.-funded criminal and murderer. Read on.
In the first three months following Pearl Harbor, the U.S. and its allies lost over 120 merchant ships to German U-boats in the waters off the American coast. Suspicion of enemy infiltration grew and the investigative section of U.S. Naval Intelligence in the New York area, the B-3, began to collaborate with mobsters who dominated the New York City docks. Their first contact was Joseph "Socks" Lanza, but with multiple racketeering indictments, Lanza's motives began to be questioned by his cohorts. It was time to for the B-3 to aim higher. "Operation Underworld," as the Navy called it, led directly to Lucky Luciano.
A mobster of legendary reputation, Lansky-once dubbed "the Mafia's Henry Kissinger" by comedian Jackie Mason-was already active in domestic anti-Nazi circles when the navy contacted him. During the mid-1930s, Lansky and his henchmen would regularly break up pro-Nazi meetings in the U.S. On one occasion, journalist Walter Winchell tipped off the underworld chieftain about a gathering that would feature the leader of the pro-Hitler German-American Bund, Fritz Kuhn, scheduled to take place in Yorkville, Manhattan's German neighborhood. Lansky recalled that night as follows: "We got there that evening and found several hundred people dressed in their brown shirts. The stage was decorated with a swastika and pictures of Hitler. There were only about fifteen of us, but we went into action." Rest assured the assembled audience did not get to hear Kuhn speak that night.
With a proven anti-Nazi background and many years of lucrative collaboration with Luciano as collateral, Meyer Lansky was a natural for Operation Underworld. In no time, he had Luciano transferred to Great Meadow, "the state's unprison-looking prison" in the town of Comstock, sixty miles north of Albany. "We went up by train to Albany," Lansky recalled, "and from Albany we get a car to take us to the prison." Almost overnight, stories of lavish banquets became commonplace, although prison authorities and New York Governor Thomas Dewey denied such allegations.
Luciano put out the word on June 4, 1942, and by June 27, eight German secret agents were arrested in New York and Chicago thanks to information provided by patriots who moonlighted as murderers, loan sharks, and gamblers. In November of that same year, with Socks Lanza mediating, a threatened longshoreman's strike was averted...much to the navy's delight.
It wasn't long before the U.S. government would call on its favorite professional criminals for help in the actual fighting of WWII. As the Allies took control of North Africa and began to contemplate an assault on Sicily, military planners realized that they were too unfamiliar with the coastline of the Italian island to undertake such a venture. In a flash, Lansky recruited an illegal gambling cohort, Joe Adonis, to dig up some Sicilians in New York City. Soon, these padrones, as they were called, were meeting at the headquarters for navy intelligence at 90 Church Street to peruse a giant map of their homeland. The results are, as they say, history: In the small hours of July 10, 1943, Lieutenant Paul Alfieri landed on Licata Beach and made contact with local Sicilians who told him the secret location of Italian Naval Command, hidden in a nearby holiday vista. Inside, Alfieri discovered "the entire disposition of the Italian and German Naval forces in the Mediterranean-together with minefields located in the Mediterranean area-together with overlays of these minefields, prepared by the Germans, showing the safe-conduct routes through the mines."
Once the Allies had landed in Sicily and met with Luciano's contacts, they were aided on the ground throughout the entire venture. This was especially true for General George S. Patton, the commander of the Seventh Army. "Patton was a general of extraordinary martial dexterity, but the sixty thousand troops and countless booby traps in his path should have given him at least a few problems," says author Jonathan Vankin. "His way has been cleared by Sicily's Mafia boss Calogero Vizzini, at the request of Luciano."
While Lacey downplays such stories, he does mention "dark tales of planes dropping flags and handkerchiefs bearing the letter L behind enemy lines-signals, supposedly, from Luciano to local mafia chieftains."
Regardless of the methods used to recruit unabashed murderers into a battle against unabashed mass murderers, anti-communism was again the overriding motivation. Since much of Italy's anti-fascist resistance was made up of leftists and communists, the Mafia was a willing partner in smashing such sentiment. As Sicily was secured by the Allies, "the occupying American Army appointed Mafia bosses-including Vizzini-[as] mayors of many Sicilian townships," says Vankin. "Gangsters became an American-backed quasi-police force." When Vizzini killed the police chief in Villaba, the town where he was appointed mayor, he was not prosecuted.
"In American-occupation headquarters, one of the best employees was Vito Genovese, who eventually inherited Luciano's New York operation," adds Vankin. Upon the war's end, Luciano was granted executive clemency by New York governor Thomas Dewey and was released (albeit for deportation) on January 4, 1946.
Postscript: Amid all these machinations, Meyer Lansky kept his fingers in the foreign policy pie when, in an ironic turn, Zionists approached fellow Jew Lansky in 1948, for help arming Israel. He used his B-3 contacts to track down a Pittsburgh dealer who was supplying Arabs with weapons. These arms conveniently "fell overboard," and Lansky had them diverted to the new Jewish state so they could wage war on their neighbors...some of whom were battling Israel with tactics taught by another U.S. government soul mate, former SS legend Otto Skorzeny.