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Ocean Beach author chronicles an unexpected World War II alliance in ‘Operation Underworld’

The Normandie goes down in flames on Feb. 9, 1942, in New York.
The Normandie goes down in flames on Feb. 9, 1942, in New York. The French luxury liner was being converted into a troop ship for the U.S. Navy. When it sank, the U.S. government feared Nazi saboteurs were behind the blaze.
(Kensington Books)

Matthew Black’s dogged research uncovers never-before-seen details of a secret collaboration between the U.S. government and the Mafia.

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Ocean Beach author Matthew Black has written what is believed to be the first detailed account of a clandestine World War II partnership between the U.S. government and the Mafia designed to help defeat the Nazis.

Black’s new book, “Operation Underworld: How the Mafia and U.S. Government Teamed Up to Win World War II,” chronicles how the secret deal came to pass.

Following a ship fire in New York in 1942, the U.S. military feared there were Nazi saboteurs in the shipyards. The government secretly collaborated with Italian gangsters to gather information about dock workers and, later, plan the Allied invasion of Sicily. In return, notorious mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano would have his prison sentence commuted and he was sent to Italy.

Ocean Beach resident Matthew Black is the author of the book “Operation Underworld."
(Provided by Matthew Black)

“I found all sorts of previously undisclosed information about Lt. Cmdr. Charles Haffenden’s secret civilian agents who were part of his Ferret Squad,” Black said. “Declassified FBI files also led to a number of revelations about Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano that come out toward the end of the book. They were all discovered by good old-fashioned and painstaking research, reminding me of a line I live by — the devil’s in the details.”

Black, a journalist who specializes in crime and labor history, also wrote “Dave Beck: A Teamster’s Life.”

The Seattle native is a graduate of the University of Washington with an honors degree in history.

"Operation Underworld: How the Mafia and U.S. Government Teamed Up to Win World War II"
“Operation Underworld: How the Mafia and U.S. Government Teamed Up to Win World War II” details a secret deal that involved the Navy and mob leader Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
(Citadel Press)

Black discussed the book and more with The San Diego Union-Tribune:

Q. Why was the Normandie ship fire on Feb. 9, 1942, significant?

A. The Normandie fire occurred in West Manhattan while it was tied up at Pier 88. Originally a French luxury cruise liner, it was being converted into a troop-carrying ship for the U.S. Navy. It was so large and so fast that it was one of the most valuable ships in the Atlantic fleet. When it went up in flames, many people assumed it had been sabotaged by enemy spies. More attacks seemed imminent and it was feared that New York City was packed with spies and saboteurs.

A 1936 mugshot of notorious gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
(New York Police Department)

Q. Describe Operation Underworld and the two main figures, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Haffenden and Charles Luciano.

A. Haffenden was a naval intelligence officer who led Operation Underworld. He was a family man and an intelligent freethinker. He was extremely confident in his abilities and his judgment, though the latter would constantly come into question.

Luciano was a calculating Mafia leader who tried to run Cosa Nostra like a corporation. He effectively organized crime in the United States, but his ambitions were thwarted when he received a 30- to 50-year prison sentence in 1936.

Q. What was the Camp Pendleton connection with Charles Haffenden?

A. I don’t want to give away too much here, but when Haffenden was well into his 50s, he volunteered to become a beachmaster as part of invasion forces in the Pacific campaign. He trained at Camp Pendleton for a major amphibious assault that you’ve heard of.

Q. Is there an unsung or unnoticed hero in your story?

A. Luciano is the big name in this story, but it was one of his midranking soldiers that was the real hero — Joseph “Socks” Lanza. He was a notorious murderer and criminal, but he also was the key to enabling Haffenden’s men to infiltrate areas around the waterfront and New York City proper.

“I want readers to feel the urgency in the characters as they take on monumental and dangerous missions.”

— Matthew Black

Q. Was Operation Underworld successful?

A. The real question is, were the methods Haffenden and the Navy used ethical, or even legal? You’ll have to read it to decide for yourself.

Q. What is the Herlands report?

A. Much of the information for Operation Underworld comes from an investigation well after the operation concluded, and the investigation was led by a man named William B. Herlands. The Herlands investigation contains over 3,000 pages of testimony, was classified for 25 years and produced the 101-page Herlands report. New findings within these documents are the impetus for some of the best parts of the book.

Q. Why did you use a narrative nonfiction style to relay this story?

A. This is the best method to relay a true story, and I enjoyed the challenge of writing in this style. As it turns out, it was essential. Everyone knows the outcome of WWII, but for the characters, it was very much in doubt. I want readers to feel the urgency in the characters as they take on monumental and dangerous missions. You just can’t do that when all you’re doing is reciting facts. The facts form a narrative and align to pave the road for the story’s journey.

Q. What do you and your family do for fun in San Diego?

A. My wife and I love the beach and surfing, and our little girl loves the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld San Diego. We’re originally from the rainy and cloudy Northwest and we just love going outside to be greeted by the warm San Diego sun nearly every day.


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