Cover Image: Operation Underworld

Operation Underworld

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This was a great insight into an unknown and controversial facet of World War 2. Readers will be shocked and fascinated to read this history!

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historical-figures, historical-places-events, historical-research, historical-setting, history, history-and-culture, WW2, OSS, ONI espionage, mafia, nonfiction*****

The book and its ramifications all began with the sinking of the Normandie in the harbor of New York.
Anything with research this extensive cannot be read in a day or two despite the fact that some records could not be verified because they were BURNED by government authorities!
There have been a number of fiction (Andrea Camilleri and Clive Cussler are the first to come to mind) and nonfiction books ((OSS by R. Harris Smith, for instance) with a few pages or even a chapter or two on this aspect of WW2 espionage in the past few years. But this is the first meticulously researched and documented book on the subject that I am aware of. Excellent!
I requested and received an EARC from Kensington Books/Citadel via NetGalley. Thank you!

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My thanks to both NetGalley and Kensington Books for an advanced copy of this history about the cooperation between organized crime and the American government against the Axis during World War II.

War makes for strange bedfellows. Diverse groups, one a strong tradition bound group, proud of it honor and tradition, and well the other a group of people who shake down people for small amounts of money, control unions for larger amounts of money, and kill people who get in their way, seek to stop them, or to seize control of more territory. For the United States Navy, in the early days of World War II when ships were sinking, rumors rampant, making a deal with organized crime against the Nazis made sense. However what this deal might lead to, or even what it accomplished would be a point of contention, one neither side wanted to brag about. Operation Underworld: How the Mafia and U. S. Government Teamed Up to Win World War II by Matthew Black is how these two groups came together, what they accomplished, and why this strange union is so rarely discussed. And of course who benefited more.

The days following the entry of the United States into the Second World War were not good for the United States. Ships were constantly being sunk by German U-Boats who operated with impunity of the coast, sinking ships during the day within sight of tourists on the beach, or at night as boats were silhouetted by the lights from the shore. The Germans considered the American coast the Happy Hunting Ground as ships didn't travel in convoy, lacked patrol boats, and Americans didn't want to turn off their lights, leaving ships easy to pick off. Survivors talked of being on U-Boats and seeing sliced bread, and full supplies, making the Navy, digging for excuses why the tonnage of lost ships was so high to think that a fifth column of Americans were helping the Germans. The Navy reached out to the people who knew the docks and the Italians who worked there, organized crime to see what they knew, and to place Navy investigators on ships and crews to ferret out spies. As even more ships were sunk, the Navy, one officer in particular decided they needed to deal with more powerful people in the mob. So efforts were made to reach out to Charlie "Lucky" Luciano, who was doing 30 years, but still controlled his gang with an iron hand. And a relationship was made.

A fascinating book about governments, fear and the willingness to break laws for the greater good. A program so successful and one that was considered so important the Navy did its best to destroy every record it could find, and made sure that officers who knew about it were scared into being court martialed into silence. Which makes sense as the relationship really seemed to come to nothing. Yes an officer was gifted a lot of lobsters, and thought that a fine career might await him after the war. And yes the mob did a good job of beating up people who wanted to go on strike for better wages. Neither side seemed to really profit from the deal. The book is very well written, with a lot of fascinating information, and a lot of atmosphere. I do have a problem with the bits of imagining what the characters were thinking, but the author goes into his reasons why in the afterword, and it makes sense. A very interesting history, and a different look at World War II.

Recommended for readers of both history and true crime. The era is described well, with lots of stories of mob actions and heroic actions from the men who served in Italy and Iwo Jima. For a fictional companion, readers who liked this might try Luciano's Luck by Jack Higgins, for an alternate history view of Lucky Luciano did during the invasion of Sicily.

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History class has begun! Matthew Black brought us the most interesting lesson in World War II. Operation Underworld is filled with espionage and crime. Two men, leading different lives, standing at very different ends of right versus wrong, come together to put the country over everything they took an oath to honor. Yes, Commander Haffenden might have crossed certain boundaries and lines. Yes, Charles "Lucky" Luciano had his own interests to think about before working with the Navy. But they did. Their collaboration in the end produced what was needed, a win in WWII. What the Navy did afterward, the smear campaigns and denial of such work would have never come to light, if not for the Herlands investigation.
Matthew Black pieced together the accounts based off of the Herlands reports and a number of sources, all listed in the book. If there are further doubts or if the interest accumulates so much you need to dive deep into this amazing part of U.S. History.

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Operation Underworld: How the Mafia and U.S. Government Teamed Up to Win World War II was not what I was expecting. Three stars.

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I’m honestly a little torn on this book. I will say that while I personally loved learning in my history classes, talking about Operation Underworld would certainly have made it more interesting to everyone. I did not know about US Naval Intelligence utilizing organized crime via Luciano in order to turn the tides in WWII. (The info about him offering to go to Sicily for the invasion in exchange for a pardon was wild to read about, and although that was denied, and it was crazy reading about naval officers using Luciano’s name to get the cooperation of “mafiosos” once in Sicily.) I’d also never heard about naval intelligence infiltrating a foreign embassy in the US using union cards obtained from organized crime. The sheer amount of research and sources involved in this book is incredible.

What I took some issue with was the imagined narratives when the author talks about meetings or when someone was by themselves. (For example, there was an instance in Chapter 5 where he says that Luciano “fought the urge to urinate.” That was a bizarre imagined detail to include.) Sometimes I found certain aspects irrelevant, like how Haffenden spent his Christmas.

I am just as appalled as the author is that the Navy burned all documentation. As someone that values history and truth a great deal, it’s upsetting to hear. The Herlands Report commissioned by Dewey over a decade after the operation ended was apparently used as a large source of info here, and as Black himself states, “it’s completely understandable that some of the witnesses’ recollection of events were a little fuzzy.” I suppose I was caught slightly off guard for some reason about the burning of the documentation and the subsequent coverup. Due to a lack of major and substantive firsthand testimony from many key players out in the open, it seemed difficult to know what truly happened in some cases besides the remaining evidence like the Herlands report. I would have liked some sort of disclaimer in the beginning indicating that some scenes were dramatized or something like that due to so much info being burned. I’m not used to added imagined dramatizations in the nonfiction history books I’ve read before, so it was jarring once that was disclosed at the end. (Prior to finding out about the coverup, I thought there was more out there in terms of documentation that was used for any of the meetings.) I still enjoyed reading the book due to the interesting and previously unknown history, but I am still having trouble with some of the writing choices.

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I feel badly for author Matthew Black because Operation Underworld sounds fantastic as a synopsis and he clearly knows how to write. Unfortunately, there just isn't enough interesting aspects of the story to keep it compelling.

A true story which follows how the U.S. Navy recruited the Mafia to help during World War II. Many of the names you expect to hear show up including Lucky Luciano. The navy is afraid of sabotage on the east coast and who knows it better than the wise guys running the docks?

Along the way, we learn more about everyone involved but ultimately, there is not a lot of drama to it. There is some inside baseball with the mob and a navy officer perhaps taking things too far. However, there is way too much smooth sailing for anything to reach the level of compelling.

Black's prose and choice of details is the bright spot of the book. He can't overcome the lack of action a story like this needs.

(This book was provided to me as an advance copy by Netgalley and Kensington Books. The full review will be posted to on 12/27/2022.)

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