Fighting the Mafia in World War Two
By Tim Newark
It is true that the Mafiosi of Sicily had been hammered by the Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1920s, but they had survived the storm and by July 1943 were ready to take back control of their island. The occupying Allies faced a formidable task. How could they dismantle the Fascist regime on the island without giving away power to the Mafia?
British Major-General Francis Baron Rennell of Rood was made the head of AMGOT (Allied Military Government Occupied Territory) in Sicily and set about his task of imposing law and order with energy and intelligence. He knew the key to the situation was restoring the confidence and authority of the local Carabiniere. He re-armed them and had Allied police accompany them on their patrols. Their operations involved crack-downs on the Mafiosi and their black market rackets. Sometimes these broke out as fire-fights and the local Mafiosi were very well-armed with abandoned German weapons and vehicles.
On other occasions a more subtle and persistent approach was needed when the Mafiosi were very powerful figures and had inveigled themselves with senior Allied figures. Vito Genovese was just such a powerful Mafia gangster. He had fled New York and settled in with the Fascist regime in mainland Italy. When the Allies invaded Italy, he swiftly changed sides.
Mafia Gold Mine
As the Allies entered Vito Genovese’s realm in Nola, near Naples, in the autumn of 1943, the top New York mobster offered to help them as translator and guide to the region. US Major EN Holmgreen, Civil Affairs Officer (CAO) in Nola, was so impressed with Vito Genovese that he wrote him a letter of recommendation on 8 November 1943.
‘The bearer [of the letter], Vito Genovese,’ said Holmgreen, ‘is an American citizen. When the undersigned arrived at Nola District as CAO, Mr Genovese met me and acted as my interpreter for over a month. He would accept no pay; paid his own expenses; worked day and night and rendered most valuable assistance to the Allied Military Government. This statement is freely made in an effort to express my appreciation for the unselfish services of this man.’
That Genovese could afford to appear unselfish is no big surprise. He knew he had just struck a new criminal gold mine—the black market in American military goods. The FBI later quoted a US Attorney’s report on his activities during this period.
‘During the war he acted as translator for numerous American military government officials,’ said the report, ‘and at the same time was active in black-market activities. These activities consisted of stealing United States Army trucks, driving them to supply depots, loading them up with flour, sugar and other supplies, which material was then driven to a place of concealment and unloaded. The trucks were then destroyed.’
Genovese made a fortune. That his senior US Army colleagues were not aware of this double-life—or were aware and preferred to turn a blind-eye—was demonstrated in another glowing letter of recommendation from Captain Charles I Dunn, US Provincial Officer in Nola, written on 9 June 1944.
‘This is to certify that Vito Genovese,’ wrote Dunn, ‘has been employed by me as my personal interpreter since the 28th of January 1944. He has been invaluable to me—is absolutely honest, exposed several cases of bribery and blackmarket operations among so-called trusted civil personnel. He has a keen mind, knows Italians as do few people and is devoted to his adopted home, the USA, and all American Army personnel.’
Genovese exposed other black market gangsters to the US authorities so he could get them shut down and take over their business. Luke Monzelli, a lieutenant in the Carabinieri assigned to follow Genovese during his time in Italy, described Genovese’s criminal network.
‘Once the black market began,’ recalled Monzelli, ‘Genovese’s connections in Nola became important. Besides his power plant he controlled manpower and better than that, he had the confidence of the Camorra [Neapolitan mobsters] whose members had long since decided to collaborate with the Mafia.
‘In Sicily there was a capo named Calogero Vizzini, a powerful man who operated out of Villalba. Between Nola and Villalba or, if you prefer, between Vizzini and Genovese, there began a clandestine supply line of everything you could imagine. Truckloads of food supplies were shipped from Vizzini to Genovese—all accompanied by the proper documents which had been certified by men in authority, Mafia members in the service of Vizzini and Genovese.’
‘He made more than a million dollars in untraceable cash in almost no time,’ said New York gangster associate Lucky Luciano. ‘That connivin’ louse was sellin’ American goods to his own Italian people, things that’d save their lives or keep ‘em from starving. He made a fortune outa penicillin, cigarettes, sugar, olive oil, flour, you name it.’
Norman Lewis was an Italian-speaking British intelligence officer posted as a member of the Field Security Service to Naples in 1944. He was attached to the American 5th Army and saw at first hand the black market in action.
‘The black market flourishes as never before,’ said Lewis in his diary entry of 18 April 1944. He quoted the Psychological Warfare Bureau’s estimate that 65% of the income of Neapolitans came from transactions in stolen American supplies, and that one-third of Allied supplies and equipment brought to Italy disappeared into the black market.
‘Every single item of Allied equipment, short of guns and munitions—which are said to be sold under the counter—is openly displayed for sale in the Forcella market,’ said Lewis. ‘It was noted that at the opening of the San Carlo opera every middle- and upper-class woman arrived dressed in a coat made from a stolen army blanket.’
This was backed up by a report in the same month from Allied Civil Affairs Officers to the War Cabinet in London.
‘One of the large sources of supply for the black market,’ said the officers, ‘was from imports, more particularly of military supplies, as opposed to civil affairs. No checking of supplies was possible. At one point, it is estimated that of the civil affairs supplies, 30% were being pilfered, whilst of the military supplies 45%.’
Lewis believed it would be relatively easy to trace all these items back to their criminal suppliers, but he was told by his Field Security Officer that the black market was none of his business. As he investigated further, he could see the whole black market system ran on very senior patronage.
‘Indeed,’ said Lewis, ‘it is becoming generally known that it operates under the protection of high-placed Allied Military Government officials. One soon finds that however many underlings are arrested—and sent away these days for long terms of imprisonment—those who employ them are beyond the reach of the law.
‘At the head of AMG is Colonel Charles Poletti, and working with him is Vito Genovese, once head of the American Mafia, now become his adviser. Genovese was born in a village near Naples, and has remained in close contact with its underworld, and it is clear that many of the Mafia-Camorra sindacos who have
No Problem with Mafia
Lieutenant Colonel Charles Poletti was Lieutenant Governor of New York under Thomas E Dewey before he was appointed American Senior Civil Affairs Officer (SCAO) for Palermo. For a brief moment—29 days—he was governor of the state before Dewey took over. He was only 38-years-old and was the first person of completely Italian ancestry to serve in this post.
After service in Palermo, Poletti proceeded to head AMG in Italy in Rome. Later, in a 1993 interview for BBC TV, he denied any association, whatsoever, with the Mafia during his time in command. ‘We had no problems at all with the Mafia,’ said Poletti. ‘Nobody ever heard of it. While we were there, nobody heard of it. Nobody ever talked about it.’
But Poletti’s two most important decisions while SCAO in Palermo involved backing Lucio Tasca as Mayor of Palermo—a leading Separatist and friend of the Mafia—and advocating Francesco Musotto as first High Commissioner of Sicily, accused of being both a Separatist and having connections with the Mafia. Poletti’s response was that he had used only ‘the criterion of competence to be his guide’.
Colonel Charles Poletti revealed his own views on the situation in Sicily in an interview with a British Foreign Office minister on 7 January 1944. The minister, in fact, was Harold Macmillan, appointed British government representative to the Allies in the Mediterranean in 1942 (and future British Prime Minister).
As SCAO in Palermo, Poletti told Macmillan that he believed the transfer of territory from the Allies to an Italian administration was overdue and should be achieved a soon as possible.
‘Colonel Poletti said that there was considerable separatist feeling in the Island,’ noted Macmillan, ‘but that this could be appeased by plan proposed which was that there should be a High Commissioner appointed for the Island to whom nine Prefects would work.’
Macmillan concluded that ‘Colonel Poletti talked with vigour and confidence. He has clearly run Sicily with enthusiasm and gusto though the shadow of … Tammany Hall may have been thrown lightly across the Island.’ (Tammany Hall was the notoriously corrupt centre of political activity in New York City in the 19th century.)
A copy of Macmillan’s report on Poletti was shown to Lord Rennell who made his own comments. ‘Palermo province was the most heavily staffed province in Sicily at all times. He [Poletti] always tended to put in an allied officer instead of using Italians and was consequently reproved for this. Colonel Poletti likes having a lot of officers under him because it makes him feel important.’
Lord Rennell went further: ‘I have already expressed my views about the proposed appointment of Colonel Poletti to the Headquarters of the Allied Commission of Control as Administrative Director. I consider him, most unsuitable for this appointment.
‘He is a not unattractive creature who has obviously succeeded in winning Mr MacMillan after a short acquaintance. I know him longer. He has administrative experience but he has been by no means so responsible for running Sicily as he appears to have made out to Mr MacMillan. I suggest that Mr MacMillan and others should ask advice of certain American officers before this appointment is made.’
But such forthright views had little effect on Poletti’s promotion to mainland Italy. In April 1944, Poletti contributed his own report on the black market to the Allied Control Commission (ACC). At the time, he was ACC Regional Commissioner for Campania, an area including Naples.
‘The most urgent problem is that of the “black market”,’ said Poletti. ‘A reorganisation of distribution of AMG food has taken place and we are now using our own transport to take food from the docks to district warehouses. The police have been strengthened; individually they now have a greater appreciation of their jobs. Some of the head racketeers have been pulled in and it is hoped to bring about prosecution and sentences speedily.’
Obviously, this didn’t include Vito Genovese—who was the biggest racketeer of all in the Naples area. Lucky Luciano had his own view on Poletti’s usefulness in Italy.
‘As it happened,’ recalled Luciano, ‘the Army appointed Charlie Poletti, who was one of our good friends, as the military governor in Italy and Poletti kept that job for quite a long time… Vito wound up as the official Italian-American interpreter. Maybe if I had it to do again, I would’ve arranged for Poletti’s troops to line Vito up against a wall and shoot him.’
Norman Lewis tells a story about AMG corruption involving an Italian industrialist who had been sent to jail for a year for dealing in stolen Allied goods. His wife went to the best Naples brothel and asked to borrow one of their most intelligent girls. Dressed in smart clothing and wearing the wife’s jewels, the girl pretended to be the industrialist’s wife and visited the AMG official, pleading for the release of her husband.
‘The visit was a success,’ continued Lewis, ‘and two days later the gates of Poggio Reale prison swung open for the industrialist. The average Neapolitan’s comment when hearing this typically Neapolitan story is, “What a pity she didn’t send a girl with the syphilis”.’
Vito Genovese continued to make a fortune from his mastery of the black market in wartime Italy until August 1944. Luke Monzelli claimed that a young Italian army sergeant investigated the discovery of a mysterious freight carriage full of cereal and salt parked in a siding near Nola. He revealed the link with Vizzini, but was told to forget about it—it was a secret military matter. He was later transferred out of the region, as was Monzelli.
It would be up to a fearless and determined 24-year-old US Sergeant called Orange C Dickey to blow Genovese’s cover.
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