The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland Tennessee (TN) and Bradley County Tennessee (Tn).

Of Bradley County Tn.


                            The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland and Bradley County Tn.






Some Very Strange Bedfellows

Bizarre, Fascinating, and Wacky World War I & ll Secrets.

by Cecil Owen

Fire! Fire! This steamship is on fire! This steamship is the USS Lafayette, belonging to the United States Navy. The huge ship has elaborate fire prevention, fire detection and firefighting equipment onboard. So the ship's fire brigade should have been able to subdue and extinguish any type of onboard fire, but they did not! The Lafayette is quickly gutted by this fire as it roars through the ship! Soon help arrives and at least a hundred fire hoses are spraying water across the ship. But unfortunately, most of the water collects on the port (left) side of the ship, so it begins to list badly (lean to one side). Then suddenly, the impossible happens. The Lafayette turns over on her left side and sinks! It is just 2:37 am, Wednesday, February 10, 1942, and the place is a very unusual place. For the USS Lafayette is moored at Pier 88 in the Hudson River, in New York City.

Now, the USS Lafayette is a very special ocean liner. She is the largest and most luxurious steamship in the whole world at this point in time. But until our navy renamed this huge ship, it was the French ocean liner, the SS Normandie. When France surrendered to Germany, this ship was in American waters, so she is seized by the US Coast Guard in May 1941 and given to the US Navy in December 1941. In the year of 1912, the SS Titanic was the largest steamship in the world, but the USS Lafayette is much larger. The Titanic was 822 1/2 ft. long, 92 1/2 ft. wide and carried 3,295 people. While the Normandie (Lafayette) is 1,029 ft. long, 119 ft. wide and can carry 12,000 people. As soon as the United States declared war, our navy began transforming the French ocean liner into a United States troop transport.

The New York City sea ports and port cities of New Jersey were the shipping centers for convoys headed overseas. They were also full of dingy saloons and flophouses, which catered to merchant marine seamen. They were also honeycombed with German agents and Nazi sympathizers. One of the most notorious places was the "Highway Tavern" bar in New Jersey. The "Old Hamburg Bar" in Manhattan was another hangout. Then the bartender in "Schmidt's Bay" in Bayonne, New Jersey was a known Nazi spy.

From Germany, Hitler instructed his undercover agents in New York to keep a wary eye on the Normandie. He did not want it to become a United States troop ship. She was supposed to be ready to sail on February 28, 1942. The skipper Captain Robert C. Command was supposed to pick up 10,000 troops in Boston (with their assorted weapons and equipment).

Cecil Owen

On that fateful morning, there were almost 3,000 workers onboard the Lafayette: Sicilian workers, crew members, navy workers and Coast Guard workers. They began clambering over the ship's side, sliding down ropes, and crowding down the gangplanks. Some New York City firemen believe the fire to be the most intense fire that they have ever fought. Among them was a small, grey-haired, very miserable naval architect named Vladimir Yourevitch. He was the designer of the big ship, and had believed that it was fire-proof.

At a time when every ship was needed very badly, our navy lost its largest troop transport. Needless to say, the navy was "all shook up!" The 3rd District Naval Intelligence Service and the FBI had been keeping an eye on the waterfronts. Captain Roscoe McFall is the chief intelligence officer, a 40 year navy veteran. He had been skipper on the USS California BB44, and the USS West Virginia BB48. Both battleships were sunk at Pearl Harbor, but both were raised and continued fighting all during World War II. Captain McFall's assistant was Lieutenant James O'Malley Jr., a former New York district attorney who enlisted right after Pearl Harbor. The third member of his team is Lieutenant Commander Charles Radcliff Haffenden who is in charge of the B3 investigative section. He comes along with some rather radical ideas concerning the war. He even wants our navy to join hands, (make a deal) with the mafia underworld waterfront boss Charles "Lucky" Luciano. Now, Luciano was the number one mobster boss in the United States. The FBI agent in New York, John O'Connell agrees that it is good. And the New York district attorney Frank Hogan is also impressed with the idea. Finally the governor of New York State is approached and convinced that it should be attempted. However, there is just one little hitch in all of this planning. At this particular time, Charles "Lucky" Luciano is in Great Meadows Prison near Albany, New York. "Lucky" is serving a lengthy 30-50 year sentence!

But the first person they contacted was Joseph "socks" Lanza. He was a business agent and top mobster for the seafood workers union and the popular Fulton fish market in Lower Manhattan. He agreed to help the United States Navy patrol the waters off New York and Long Island. His sea captains, fishermen and lobstermen watched all seaborne activities for several hundred miles. Also, they were on the lookout for Nazi saboteurs and sympathizers.

Then District Attorney Hogan asked Moses Polakoff, Luciano's lawyer, to visit Luciano in prison to secure his help. However, he thought that Meyer Lansky would be the right person to ask Luciano. Luciano and Lansky were the ones who had outwitted the old Sicilian mafia that had dominated organized crime in the United States for many years. Luciano was responsible for forming the modern mafia in the United States and overseas also.

He got his start in the "Five Points Gang", a group of around 1,500 New York thugs and con men which began operations way back before the prohibition area. Later "Lucky" Luciano joined up with some of the most well known and feared gangsters at that time: Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, Dutch Schultz, and Frank Costello. On June 4, 1942, Polakoff and Lansky go to the Great Meadows Prison to talk to Luciano. He is delighted with Lieutenant Commander Haffenden's plan. So the entire Luciano crime family joins hands with our United States Navy! Talk about sleeping with an enemy, these were some of the "strangest bedfellows" ever hatched out! (And of course, this was one of the most "hush-hush" secrets of World War Two!) Because the U.S. Navy worked so closely with the mafia, by the end of 1942, everything was serene and secure on the waterfronts.

On January 14, 1943, British War Premier Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met in Casablanca, Morocco (North French Africa.) "Casablanca" means "white house", so Hitler believed their conference would be held in Washington, D.C. Our two allied leaders and their chiefs-of-staff decided to invade Europe through Sicily, Italy on July 10, 1943.  Sicily is a large island off the southwest corner of Italy. Until 1861, Sicily and the southern part of Italy was known as the kingdom of the two Sicily's. The capital was Palermo. Now, gathering intelligence for the coming invasion became top priority and again the navy turned to Lucky Luciano for help. Because Sicily was the big headquarters for the mafia, he volunteered to take charge personally. (Even if that meant parachuting in, which the navy declined.)

Again Lieutenant Commander Haffenden was "the man with the plan" in dealing with Luciano, and again the Luciano mafia crime family joined hands with our U.S. Navy!

This is a dark page or blot in the history of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. government. It should not have happened, but it did. Undoubtedly the navy's connections to the mafia were very helpful in its intelligence gatherings. It helped for the successful allied landings in Italy. But we paid a shameful price for their help.

Much of the records have now been lost, or deliberately destroyed, so no one knows how fully orders were carried out. But when we (the allies) liberated the Italian cities, the choice positions were supposed to be given to Luciano's boys. And just what was Lucky Luciano's own reward for helping our U.S. Navy? In 1936 U.S. Attorney Thomas Dewey of New York sent Lucky to prison with a 30-50 year sentence. In December of 1945, the same Thomas Dewey is now Governor of New York and now he completely pardons Lucky and sets him free!

On February 8, 1946 Lucky has a final meal with some of his longtime mafia pals, and boards the steamship SS Laura Keene. After serving 9 years of his long sentence, he is as free as a bird and headed for Sicily, Italy. Suddenly, the New York Herald Tribune newspaper has the U.S. Navy-Luciano secret deal on the front page. The New York Commissioner of Investigations, William Herlands, and his committee, meet to "look into the big scandal".

They never did reach any kind of conclusion. The navy refuted Lieutenant Commander Haffenden's whole story! Why, he must have had one beer too many and dreamed up the whole shocking deal! Charles "Lucky" Luciano died of a heart attack in Naples, Italy on January 26, 1962. He is buried in a family plot in Queens, New York.

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