Operation Underworld by Paddy Kelly

About TheBook

February, 1942. Free China is lost, the Battle of Britain has been fought and Hitler dines in Paris. World War II is nearly three years old, however the United States resists involvement. With an invitation from the Imperial Japanese Navy at Pearl Harbor everything changes. In her first ten months of the war nearly 500 American ships are lost. The retooling of Her factories is estimated to take at least a year, and even before it is completed, the men who work in those factories must become Marines, sailors and soldiers. The U.S. Navy is behind the eight ball, big time. They need help. To compound their problems, the most famous luxury liner in the world, T. L. S. Normandie, has just been set alight and burned to the water-line in New York Harbor initiating wide spread hysteria in fear of German saboteurs. All originating from a misguided sense of desperation, and a well planned feign. Meanwhile, “The Boss of Bosses”, Lucky Luciano at age 45, is serving a thirty to fifty year sentence in a maximum security prison in upstate New York. In one of the most ironic decisions of the war, the Federal Government requests the founder of organized crime, Lucky Luciano, to join forces with America’s most secret service, Naval Intelligence. Luciano, has been sentenced to life in prison for a crime that warrants ten years, and is concurrently fighting deportation to an enemy nation where he will certainly be put to death, when he is asked to help the government who condemned him. In addition, he is told he must remain in prison with no chance for compensation or parole. Mike ’Doc’ McKeowen, a New York P. I., leads us through the story. Doc just wants to get his life back on track after his business partner ran off with all the top clients, and a long and painful divorce drained him of his house, his family and his dignity. Fate may have a plan for Doc, but he can’t figure out what the hell it is. Whether you believe the link between the Federal Government and organized crime is a slender thread, or as Mario Puzo wrote, ’. . . contemporary America, where law and organized crime are one and the same.’, you will learn how the foundation of the international drug cartel was laid. You will come to appreciate the saying, ‘Due Facce della stessa Medaliglia’. Crime and politics, two sides of the same coin. Titanic was an act of carelessness. Lusitania was an act of war. Normandie was an act of genius. Reviews and more information here: CLICK FOR INFO

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Normandie Poster
Normandie Poster

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Normandie Pier 88

Normandie Burning
Normandie Burning

Normandie Capsized
Normandie Capsized

Operation Underworld
(Paddy Kelly)

The serialised version of this outstanding novel

Part One


Operation Underworld

PROLOGUE

 

“Never ever trust what your government tells you.”

- Bruce Springsteen, Born In The U.S.A. tour, 1984

 

 

As a scientist and historian it's sometimes hard to reconcile the concept of fate. To be objective and thus well rounded you try to see history as a simultaneously occurring series of separate events, on countless different planes, all unfolding in different places at various tempos. But when you come across a single event which took minutes to initiate but would inextricably bind the U. S. Navy, the FBI and the Mafia and eventually tens of thousands of lives for the duration of WWII and then some years after, it's hard not to lay down the pen, close the texts, pour a drink and go down to the beach to watch the sunset.

Even more captivating is that the plethora of historical ironies peppering this story were brought together by Albert Anastasia, a man who didn't finish primary school, possessed barely a modicum of intelligence and who's claim to fame was he murdered over 500 people as C.E.O. of Murder Incorporated.

How did the most critical arm of the U. S. government in 1942, Naval Intelligence, (whose New York branch curiously seemed to be comprised largely of lawyers), give the highest priority to hiring the man who established organized crime in America? A man who the left hand of the government, politics, enthusiastically touted as their #1 poster child for crime.

For a start and by way of setting the stage for the story, it should be understood that the period between the two world wars saw the birth and growth of several organizations in America the developments of which initiated a dynamic that would spawn a plethora of major historical events any one of which would not only supply material for a dozen novels and several films, but are still revealing stories today.

Three of the most significant of these were the establishment of Organized Crime, the FBI and Naval Intelligence. They all grew up, went to school and came of age in the late 1920's as separate entities however, like predators prowling an ever shrinking savanna, their collisions were inevitable.

As is the case with most great stories the story of how and why the U. S. Navy came to hire Lucky Luciano and the Unione Siciliano in what was known as Operation Underworld unfolds in a great place, New York City, and involves several central figures aspiring to to greatness but only one of which sought notoriety, J. Edgar Hoover.

As an added attraction the New York City District Attorney's office, headed by the infamous Thomas E. Dewey, unwittingly acted as catalyst. 

In February of 1942 one of the key players was in his sixth year of what was essentially two and a half life sentences convicted of a crime for which the law allowed ten. To exacerbate the situation Salvatore Lucania, “Lucky” Luciano had, by technical legal guidelines, been framed by the testimony of others obtained under, in some cases, the threat of violence and rather thin circumstantial evidence.

The real life, dramatic irony extends even further when one considers that the man who engineered his trial, had him convicted and imprisoned was the very man whose life Luciano had saved less than a year before, New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey.

There's little doubt Luciano was guilty of multiple violations under the White Slavery Act, (a dramatic term for prostitution), but the entire United States legal machine were not enough to actually catch him with his hand in the till and so, in order to not look too stupid, they had to “bend” their own laws.

 

Lucky, was a classic American rags-to-riches success story. He was not only co-founder of the Unione Siciliano or National Crime Syndicate or the Commission, as it was known by its members, but organized and established what became the International Drug Cartel, built a casino based empire in Havana and Las Vegas and then, at a council in Cuba, gave the nod to kill the man who built it for him, Ben 'Bugsy' Siegal. All of which, with the exception of organizing the Unione, he did well in prison or in exile. Not bad for a kid from the slums of a fourth rate town in a third world country.

As if to show he had a sense of humor Dewey made sure Luciano's indictment came at a time when he truly believed himself sufficiently insulated from the law to have any worries. The multiple count indictment was handed down on April Fool's Day.

It also came at a time when the position of New York City District Attorney bore no small legacy. The next step up was governor after which, if you had A, an adequate popularity quotation and B, adequate financial backing, (which was virtually guaranteed if you had A), the salutations on your mail thereafter would read: “Dear Mr. President”. All compliments of the New York City based Tammany Hall leadership. Such was the Yellow Brick Road of the times.

There can be little doubt about Thomas Dewey's politically driven actions against the likes of Waxey Gordon, Louie Lepke and Dutch Schultz. After all if a man wants to be President of the United States, essentially the head lawyer of the country, starting out as a prosecutor is a good place to be. Starting out in New York in the 1930's is a better place and getting the big name gangsters, whatever it takes, is a shoe in. Almost. Dewey's political ambitions were assured if he could convict Schultz and just as he was about to pounce the Dutchman decided enough was enough and set up a hit on D. A. Dewey the “Gang Buster”.

Unfortunately for Shultz Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, founders of the Siciliano Unione, were adamant about the 'keeping a low profile' clause in their corporate agreement.

So, a day before Dutch gave the okay to kill Dewey, Lucky gave the okay to kill Dutch. Schultz was hit in a New York chop house, eating a steak, and it is widely held that this is where the myth of a condemned man's last meal, commonly steak, originated.

So, in 1936 New York City D. A. Dewey decided Luciano, despite having been arrested about twenty-five times and only jailed twice for short periods, was going down regardless of what was required to do it. Bear in mind that Luciano was a hoodlum, but also bear in mind that his statement, “We never killed no one that didn't deserve it.” is, so far as anyone can determine, true. This includes not only ordering the death of Dutch Schultz but sanctioning the assassination of one of his most ardently loyal followers and supporters, Albert Anastasia after he needlessly ordered the death of a an innocent bakery apprentice for insulting him.

Like the Unione, Naval Intelligence had recently been dealt its' worse blow since its' inception, namely Pearl Harbor. It had been only two months since the bombing and, in a long laundry list of parallels with the Twin Towers attack, politicians were asking, “How did we not know this was coming?”, and flinging such helpful suggestions as, “Somebody has to swing!”

Interestingly, in 2004 documents were released to the news agencies by some historians in Britain showing that as a result of efforts by the British intelligence agencies, code breakers who had cracked the JN code were able to inform Churchill about plans for the attack as early as November of '41, over a month before it happened. In turn, it was reported Churchill waited two weeks before informing FDR who, American historical documents adequately testify to, never informed the two commanders of the full extent of the probability of the attack. In all likelihood, some speculate, motivated by America's failed economy being mired down for over a decade in the Great Depression.

 

The second central player, Lt. Cmdr Haffenden, (coincidentally carrying the same first name as Luciano), appears to have fallen into the Operation Underworld scenario by being in the right place at the right time. As the officer in charge of the ports of New York he wasn't really privy to D.C.'s decisions but by all accounts was certainly the right man for the job. With an outstanding record of past intelligence exploits, a good sense of command and a “Can Do” attitude he threw himself into an operation which had little chance of any real success from the start, that is catching German spies. To his credit, he so impressed and maintained the respect of Meyer Lansky, that Lansky not only kept his son away from racketeering but sent him to West Point. Although we are not sure of the extent of Haffenden's influence, Lansky himself went straight not long after the war.

Rather than the serious game of spy counter spy originally envisioned with the inception of Operation Underworld, it turned into more of an expensive game of cops and robbers, mostly without the robbers.

German war records clearly indicate that generals had no intention of launching any serious attempts at espionage or sabotage in the Continental U. S. and pretty much viewed it as a waste of resources. Records also indicate that the group of twelve German operatives sent over and landed by submarine on the shores of Long Island, were a write off and seen to be an experiment, forgive the pun, to test the waters.

In contrast, it wasn't as bad a time for J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Finally they would be given a chance to show what they could do, as long as it wasn't going toe to toe with the Commission, which according to them didn't exist. Their resource allocation was drastically increased, as was their jurisdictional guidelines, and they were going to be allowed to catch spies. Problem was they had a lot of catching up to do themselves and Hoover fantasized that it fell to him alone to see it done.

Much like Luciano, Hoover was able to exploit the emergency situation the war created to his advantage, however he did it by greatly increasing his public persona while Lucky did it by further receding into the shadows of secrecy. Commander Haffenden saw it strictly as a matter of duty. Interestingly, all three utilized government agencies, large amounts of cash and lots and lots of unwitting civilians.

Keep in mind this is only one small part of the historical picture of the time, but it's a damn interesting one by any standard. There were other organizations with other spheres of influence, and Luciano’s direct influence in America was only from 1931 to 1946. Although he was imprisoned in 1936 this merely caused him to restructure the way he did business. Lt. Cmdr Haffenden was directly involved less than year and Hoover was never really allowed to be involved.

These are but a few of the primary elements contributing to the atmosphere in early February of 1942 and after the 1945 Armistice, each player left the table, cashed in his chips and went looking for the next game. It's another story as to who won, who lost or who drew, but for that brief period in the Spring of '42, the path's of all concerned were unexpectedly and inextricably interwoven to form Operation Underworld.


 

‘When we are dealing with the Caucasian race, we have methods that will determine loyalty. But when we deal with the Japanese, we are in an entirely different field.’

 

California State Attorney General, Earl Warren in 1942, commenting on the imprisonment of 150,000 Japanese-American citizens.

 

 

‘Now they have created a Frank-in-steen monster and the chickens have come home to roost all over the country!’

 

Presidential candidate Governor George Wallace, 1968, commenting on the opposition.

 

 

‘Doodle Doodle Dee, Wubba Wubba Wubba.’

 

MTV’s Downtown Julie Brown, commenting on the current state of politics in America.

 


CHAPTER ONE

 

 

The New York City waterfront is an interesting place. Anything can happen at most any time and in late January of 1942, despite its two and a half centuries of violent history, relative peace and calm prevailed, while half a world away free China was lost, the Battle of Britain had been fought, and Hitler was dining in Paris. 

The majority of men have always and will always allow themselves to be caught up in world events larger than themselves, and hopelessly swim against the tide while praying to their respective gods for a favorable outcome. However, a select few have the where-with-fore to keep their heads and turn such events to their advantage.

One such man was in his sixth year of a fifty year sentence, without parole, convicted on contrived evidence and told he would eventually be deported to a nation whose leader had already issued a death warrant against him.

 

 

Clinton State Penitentiary, Dannemora, New York. Groundhog Day, 1942

 

The weathered, olive complexion of the visitor's face made him look older than his mid-forties. Other than the guard, who now stood sentry against the wall in front of him, he was alone in the under lit, painted brick room.

Sitting patiently at the far end of the long wooden table, hands on top in full view as the large, baked-enamel sign on the wall dictated, he was fitted in a dark blue, handmade suit complete with silk tie. He glanced at the stone-faced guard who stared back with his best tough guy face. After a fifteen minute wait, the rattling of locks on the dark green, steel doors progressively echoed louder and louder throughout the adjoining chambers, until the door leading into the visitors room creaked open, and two more men entered.

The pock-marked faced prisoner with dark hair and drooping right eyelid were the first to enter and the prisoner was escorted to a seat on the opposite side of the table by a second, older guard. The visitor reached over the twelve inch high partition which bisected the thick oak top to shake hands with the dungaree clad man on the opposite side.

“Keep your hands away from the prisoner!” Tough Guy guard yelled. The visitor was unfazed and proceeded with his inquiry in a tone of genuine concern.

“How ya doin’, Charlie?”

“Ah . . .” Charlie shrugged. “It’s Dannemora, you know. Fuckin’ Siberia.”

Ya need anything?” Both men were visibly relaxed.

“Yeah. Get me down state!”

“We’re workin’ on it, Charlie. Anything else?”

“How’s it goin’ down town?” He changed to a near whisper, and immediately both guards drifted closer to the table. The men looked up from their seated positions, and then at each other. With feigned disregard they resumed their conversation, only now in Italian. The guards didn’t back away.

“Things ain’t lookin’ so good. Especially with these two assholes standin’ here.”

Ya think maybe they’re queer for each other?” Neither of the men laughed at the comment, but the younger of the two guards became visibly annoyed, and started towards Lucky. The elder guard raised an arm to stop him and the men once again resumed their conversation, however this time in an obscure dialect of Sicilian.

“Why? What’s goin’ on?” The guards drifted back towards the wall as Tough Guy grew increasingly irritated.

“The Camardos are gettin’ more independent, we’re losin’ more of Jersey. Siegel says if they don’t let him send somebody over there to put a hit on Goering and Goebbles, he’s gonna do it himself.”

“That crazy Jew bastard! Always with the gun! What’s the story on working with the Navy people?” A downward glance introduced his reply.

“They nixed it!”

“What?! Why?! What’s our guys in D. C. say?” Charlie was surprised.

“To politically risky. They don’t want no part of it.”

“Shit! Did you remind them . . . ?”

“Yeah.”

“I was countin’ on that deal ta solidify our operations fer after the war.”

“Maybe get you down state while we’re at it.”

“Maybe.” Luciano looked down at the table top. “Maybe they can be persuaded.” Charlie suggested. The young guard could stand it no longer. The senior sentry nodded at his younger colleague and both started towards the men.

“Times up! Let’s go!” Halfway through the door, Lucky called back over his shoulder.

“Send Albert A. up here next.”


 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

Free China might have been lost, the Battle of Britain may have been fought, and perhaps Hitler was dining Paris, but on the Manhattan side of the Big Pond, relative peace and calm prevailed.

The February sunrise peacefully crept over Hudson Bay illuminating the pristine, bluish-green water of New York Harbor. The golden sunlight sent moonbeam-like reflections dancing playfully across the serene river and helped chase the morning chill from the docks.

For the last forty-five minutes methods of transport of every shape and description arrived depositing denim clad workers onto the planks of Pier 88 along Luxury Liner Row just off 49th Street. Few arrived by automobile as parking spaces were all but non-existent and the limited few were reserved for the most senior executives and high ranking naval officers. Besides, cars were for the rich. Instead bicycles, buses, subways, and most often the 'shoe leather express', were the Tradesman’s common modes of transport. The second Monday of the month saw the slow, but purposeful activity of nearly 5000 workers about to ease into their daily routine of organized chaos.

As 6:30 approached, the change of shift whistle was about to sound and 2,500 weary bodies would be replaced by 2,500 fresh workers ready to expend their energy into the project at hand.

Despite the fact they all seemed to have the same look about them, this army of welders, fitters and carpenters were not dressed in a cohesive uniform. As the sporadic conversation and occasional joking of the scattered clusters of men became progressively louder the serenity, which signalled the prelude to the daily routine, was suddenly shattered by an unscheduled outburst.

Just outside the gate a young couple, the woman cuddling a small wailing bundle, were heard exchanging insults. After a brief stare-off the man turned his head and noticed the cluster of workers propped against the chain-linked fence observing he and his wife’s public displays of affection. Knowing better than to attempt the last word, he terminated the argument and stormed away in the direction of the workforce. Not far behind a metal lunch pail sailed through the air after him and although these tin, alloy containers were never designed as missiles, in the right hands their aerodynamics were appreciable.

Landing on the ground just behind the disillusioned young husband, the pail burst open and spilled its contents onto the asphalt. As he stooped to rescue the only food he would have for the next twelve hours, his co-workers seized the opportunity to offer their support.

Ain’t love grand?” One of them called out in a mock romantic voice and the flood gates opened.

“Hey Doll! Yankee try-outs next week!”

“You must be so proud being married to one of those new, modern women." As if to rescue him from further humiliation, the change of shift whistle blew and the horde of laborers and tradesmen slowly migrated towards the small gate leading to the dock. The narrowness of the gate was not an oversight on the part of the Third Naval District engineers. It was an intentional design to control pedestrian traffic in order to increase security on the strategically critical pier.

As the night shift filed out through an adjoining gate, spilling out onto the side walk under the West Side Highway, a glaringly evident look of fatigue on their faces, it was obvious that these men had begun to reach the point where it was no longer the hours or the physical output required of them which caused them to grow older than their years. It was instead the relentlessness of the work. Day after day, night after night with nothing to break the tedium of the routine. All knew, without being told, that the shipbuilding would go on and on, and on until, at some unknown point in time, in the distant future, the war was over. One way or the other.

Shuffling through the gate with an orderly sense of urgency, the off-going shift migrated out onto the streets and beyond. The on-going crew, which had now swelled to over 2,300 members, displayed a diversity not normally seen in times of peace.

Aside from civilians representing all walks of life, there were over 1100 men in active duty Navy, Coast Guard and Reservist’s uniforms.     

As a means of proving who they were and foiling potential saboteurs, everyone was required some form of I. D. The military men carried standard issue armed forces cards with photos and serial numbers. The civilian workers and tradesmen however, had each been issued a small brass medallion, about the size of a silver dollar, as their means of I. D. Stamped into each coin were a series of five numbers as well as the name of the shipping line each worked for. Some held their medallion in their hand and flashed it to the guard as they passed through the gate. Some pinned it to jacket lapels and still others had them attached to baseball caps bearing the logo of their favorite ball club, each member of the labor army attempting to express a measure of individuality in an ocean of sameness.

After about ten minutes, when a couple of hundred men had already passed through the checkpoint, the line suddenly stopped moving. Heads peeked right and left of the line to observe the short, slight man standing in the threshold of the gate, frantically frisking himself in an attempt to locate his medallion. Arms folded across his chest the stocky Marine corporal stood glaring at the man.

“Hey Fitzy, take your time! Nobody’s got nuthin’ ta do here!” Someone called out from down the line.

“Yeah, no rush. Hitler’ll wait.” Sporadic laughter added to Fitzy's consternation until, finally, he was able to locate the all important item and was waved through.

With the line once again flowing freely, the seemingly endless stream of work boots paraded past the guard and fanned out across the pier, making their way towards the behemoth-like luxury liner looming in the berth before them.

A large, rectangular wooden sign, hung on a pair of thick, square timbers, adjacent to the main gangplank, amidships. As an afterthought a dirty grey tarpaulin had been lashed over the sign, but one end flapped loosely in the breeze revealing the words, “New Troopship” and “Lafayette”. As if to reinforce the contradictory pattern which had thus far characterized the U. S. war effort, high above the sign, prominently embossed across the bow of the ship, was the name, ‘NORMANDIE’.

By way of protesting her forced make-over and imposed new identity, the magnificent vessel had stubbornly sulked in harbor for nearly three years while argument after argument ping- ponged off commander’s desks as to what to do with her.

The Generals wanted a new troopship to ferry troops into the European Theatre while the Admirals reasoned that after Pearl Harbor, a new carrier fit the bill.

Her official designation up till now was AP-53 and, despite the fact that politicians of the highest level were involved, no one could possibly guess that the events of the next few hours would result in her remaining in harbor for the rest of her life after which she would emerge as a symbol of poor judgement and wasted effort.

As each of the men gravitated towards their respective work stations no one seemed to notice the lone figure who carried no lunch pail. His unscuffed boots peaking out from long hemmed, crisp Levi denims shuffling across the creosote soaked timbers. He carried a small, grease-stained brown paper bag at his side. The lanky individual walked directly towards the gang plank amidships.

Focused on the sheaf of papers clutched tightly in his fist the Site Foreman was far too angry to notice the new man as they crossed paths. Making his way to the Site Overseer who stood behind a partially sheltered podium, the irritated foreman stared at the man hunched over his work and was greeted with forced cordiality.

“Morning boss. How’s . . . SHIT! What now?”

“‘What now?’ As if you‘re the only schmuck in the yard that doesn’t know! Where are they?”

“You talkin’ about the riggin’ the fire hose, fake leak in the hull thing?”

“I’M IN NO MOOD EDDIE! DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS IS?! It’s a report! And guess what's in it? Where are they?” Eddie inadvertently glanced over his boss’ shoulder and turning, the Foreman spotted his two victims. “Never mind!” He anetheziesd the Overseer's agony and re-directed his fury. “YOU TWO, BUD AND LOU! HERE, NOW!” The two workers were taken completely off guard and hesitated before slinking over to the gallows.

“I just spent twenty minutes explaining to ten people we really don’t have a leak in the forward hold!” By way of response the shorter of the two was seized with a sudden urge to scratch his head.

“See this? This is our quarterly safety review which happened to occur exactly the same day you two morons GAVE UP GOOD JUDGEMENT FOR LENT!!”

“But Boss, Lent ain’t til’ . . .”

“STOW IT!”

“Stowing it, boss.”

“Boss we have no idea what you’re talkin’ about.” The tall worker responded with near sincerity.

“I told you it was a bad idea.” Prompted the co-accused.

“The Personnel Department says I’m to sack you two jerk offs! Friday. But I, in my infinite generosity and benevolence, I told them there are no more fitters down the hall. DON’T MAKE ME CALL ‘EM BACK!”

“Boss, we’re sorry. It’s just . . . the freakin’ boredom!”

“It's not really so much the boredom as it is the tedium!”

“Just get your shit together will ya?!” He pleaded. “This big grey taxi has ta be ferryin’ dog-faces by mid-March and my Damage Control crew runnin’ around playin’ sophomoric pranks, disruptin’ operations don’t exactly help matters. Besides . . . ”

“It’s all fun n’ games till somebody gets an eye poked out.” Tall man interjected.

“Then it’s a sport.” Shorty nodded in affirmation.

“Get the hell outta here! Assholes!”

The work on the vessel proceeded until, the lunch break, when the loud cacophony normally present gave way to a relaxing silence. To avoid the long journey back down through the labyrinth of the vessel’s passageways and onto the pier, everyone more or less sat and began eating where they had been working. The topics of conversation ranged from the usual war news to the tragic death of Carol Lumbard in a plane crash in Las Vegas. Then, shortly after work had resumed, the routine on The 49th Street Pier, as well as the American war effort, was irreversibly altered.

Insidiously a narrow but widening plume of thick, black smoke slowly crept its way down the port side passageway leading from the promenade deck. Ominously, the treacherous dark cloud rolled along the deck contained only by the freshly painted bulkheads as small red-orange flames crackled behind it, fighting to gather momentum.  a minute later the plume was a blanket covering the 50 or 60 square feet of the deck.

A welder's helper shuttling tools back and forth for the workers rounded the corner and came out onto the promenade and a wall of flames exploded out into the open air and over the rail 100 feet over the dock.

To the crew members working on the pier, the trouble was not immediately apparent. However, as the yelling and the chaotic activity on the upper weather decks grew louder, an electrical sensation crackled through the air and was instantly recognized as something drastically out of sync. With animal like instinct, each man of each crew, through out each successive deck level stopped what he was doing, raised his head and listened. Then, either smelling smoke or sensing the steadily mounting pandemonium, ran for the exits. In less than ten minutes the port side promenade deck was completely engulfed.

The mild breeze which blew that afternoon fed the flames enough oxygen so that by half past two all the weather decks were involved. To add to the rapidly mounting problems, the freshly applied coat of paint allowed the entire main deck to be consumed only minutes later. The resulting one thousand degree temperatures were in stark contrast to the thirty-three degree levels of the ambient air of the harbor. To appalled observers, the involvement of the lower weather decks meant that anyone working above those levels, if they had not yet escaped, were suffering the most horrible death imaginable.

By now several things were occurring simultaneously. A variety of men working at pier level began to realize what was happening, and three of them ran for the guard shack, which housed the only land line. As they burst through the door, they discovered that the alert young Marine had already notified the N.Y.P.D., the fire department, and was currently in the process of dialing the Harbor Master on his emergency line.

“Did you call for the docs?!” One of the men asked in a frantic voice. The big guard held out his index finger while finished dialing.

“Yeah! The police are going to notify the hospital to prepare a triage team.” Talking into the telephone the Marine continued. “Harbor Master, this is Lance Corporal Deuth, Pier 88, Luxury Row! We've got a code two emergency! Yes sir, yes sir! Already done both of those! Thank you sir!” As he hung up the phone the Marine instructed two of the men to return to the ship to help, and one of the men to stand by the main gate to prevent anyone from blocking access by parking in front of it. As they ran back to the ship one of the men turned the other,

“Hey Harry!”

“What?”

“What the hell’s a triage?”

“I don’t know, but they better get a shit load of them out here!”

With Normandie longer than the width of Central Park, the two thousand foot long dock, plus the additional two to three hundred feet to the main gate, was a distance few of the men gave any thought to until that day. Running from the guard shack towards the ship was not only complicated by the bitter cold, but wading through the crowds of workers moving in the opposite direction while wearing heavy work boots and heavy winter coats made it a triple effort. Tools and gear and canvas fire hoses littered the dock, half of them covered in ice and men tripped and stumbled regularly.

Several workers, noticing that all four gang planks were clogged with fleeing workers, immediately set about erecting ladders against the hull at appropriate hatchways.

Through the unending stream of panic stricken workers the Foreman fought his way back up the starboard side, forward gang plank. Halfway to the Quarterdeck he recognised the exhausted face of his chief engineer. Taking the awestruck man by the shoulders, the Foreman looked straight into his eyes.

“Mac, what’s our status?” Gasping between phrases the out of breath engineer stared through the Foreman in response.

“Bilge to ‘C’ level is clear. But if it reaches the POL stores, everything from Jersey City over to Broadway’s gonna be a fuckin' airfield!”

“You’re sure there’s no one else below?”

“Only those two lunatics.”

“Which two lunatics?”

“How many lunatics you got working Damage Control?!”

As the Foreman continued to struggle his way through the fleeing workers deeper into the ship, it occurred to him how easily a man could vanish into one of the thousands of human sized pigeon holes the partially stripped down ship had become. Fighting through the passageways below decks he spotted an OBA case on the port bulkhead. The Oxygen Breathing Apparatus would buy him at least fifteen minutes of breathable air while he searched for his two derelict ship fitters. Grasping at the latch handle he stared in dismay as the case opened and in lieu of the life saving devise a large, pink inventory tag appeared.

“Fucking bean counters!”

After an eternity of choking through the ever thickening grey smoke he reached the Paints, Oils and Lubricants cages and his attention was immediately diverted as he detected singing in the far corner of the large storage area.

Through a shroud of grey he saw the two men he had chewed out earlier that morning, both with sledge hammers, alternately beating a four inch water spigot in unison to the ‘Anvil Chorus’. Over the roar of the encroaching flames he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled.

“What the hell are you two assholes doin’ here?!”

Tryin’ to rig a leak!” Both continued to pound away at the thick brass spigot. As if on cue, the fixture burst and the resulting torrent of water dowsed the flames just as they were about to reach the main POL stores. Breaking into a celebratory dance both men dowsed themselves in the water.

“Never mind that shit! Get the hell outta here!!” Smiling angrily and following the men out of the compartment the Foreman muttered to himself. “Assholes!”

Back on the dock area a few of the men who initially fled were now returning to lend a hand and began to set up an area away from the ship to gather the casualties for the docs to assess.

One of the men was the man who earlier asked what a triage was.

 

***

 

Staring through the over sized binoculars the young boy felt more like a man then he ever did sitting in a classroom. Jimmy quit school two months ago when the war broke out, and through some friends who were connected got a job in the Harbor Master’s shack. Next year, when he turned seventeen he would sign up.

Although the building which housed the Harbor Master and his team was still referred to by its eighteenth century name, it was anything but a shack..

The red enameled two story, clapboard structure, which sat on what was essentially two sets of steel stilts, overlooked most of the harbor from its strategic position on the tip of Pier 62 just off West 23rd Street and was equipped with the latest in modern advances. High definition FM radio, lamp lit map boards and a dedicated direct telephone line to the fire tug outposts along Manhattan island.

Due to the immensity of the New York Harbor, it was impossible to view the entire area at one time from any land or sea position. So Jimmy was unsure exactly where the smoke plum he now observed originated. In this instance protocol dictated an emergency procedure be enacted whereby the area of the potential trouble was approximated, and a grid mapped out. Then all hands would man the radio and phone lines to pin-point the location of the problem and notify the nearest tug team.

“Hey, Mr. Rorro. Mr. Rorro, sir. I think I see something way out there.” Jimmy said, now squinting through the ship’s binoculars.

“You’re supposed to see something way out there Jimmy. That’s what binos are for.” The old HM was annoyed but tolerated his work being interrupted by the young boy’s enthusiasm.

“Sir, can you have a look at this please?”

“Son, I have got to get these tug escort reports done today! So stop buggin’ me!” The old man remained at the desk and continued to write.

“Sir it looks like something. A fire maybe.” The old man’s head came up from the paperwork. “Out near the tunnels.”

The HM walked over, and took the glasses from the boy. Even before he raise them he knew. “That’s a fire alright! Get on the grid! I’ll notify the tugs!”

Just as he reached for the emergency line it rang.

“Hello! HM shack, who is this?” It was Lance Corporal Deuth. “Yes corporal! Have you notified the fire and police departments? Alright than, keep the main gate clear of traffic and continue to man your station. Report to the fire chief when he arrives! The tugs are on their way. Corporal Deuth, good job!”

“John! I got Harbor Side on the line. How many units?” The Assistant HM spoke hurriedly but remained cognizant of his professionalism.

“Dispatch unit 52 Able and tell him to report as soon as he’s in sight of the fire, then tell South Park Baker to standby and get South Park Able up there for back-up. Tell ‘em to step on it. Those creosote soaked piers get involved there’s gonna be one helluva a lot of freight landin’ in Jersey!”

“Why not dispatch 52 Baker with them?” Rorro didn’t miss a beat.

“If the wind shifts north we’ll need somebody up there to intercept. Ronnie, get on channel nine notify all vessels as of . . . 14:21 hours, unless associated with the fire, we are on radio blackout until further notice. Frank, get busy! Divert all traffic south of the G.W.”

"I'm on it!" Frank shot back.

The HM notified the harbor side fire-brigade, and then proceeded to broadcast on the emergency band, channel nine, to divert all traffic away from the area. For a full twenty minutes the old HM showed why he was in charge, running back and forth across the shack directing personnel and issuing orders.

Through all the activity, Jimmy dutifully sat at the small corner table, struggling to plot the grid as he'd been trained. As the situation in the shack gradually came under control, the HM noticed the youngster still tucked away at the desk. Walking over to him, the man placed a hand on the boys shoulder. Jimmy continued to plot.

“Hey, Jimmy.” He said quietly.

Without looking up, Jimmy responded. “I’ve almost got it sir. Just one more minute!”

“You can stop now. We’re there. It's 88.” Masked in a look of despair the youngster turned towards the leathery faced man. Rorro turned to walk away, than hesitated.

“Hey, Jimmy, nice job. You done good. You’ll get credit in my official report for spotting the fire.” A dejected Jimmy slumped in his chair. Rorro crossed the room and without turning back added, “You may have saved a few lives today.”

Jimmy hoped his parents would understand when he told them he wouldn't be joining the Navy. He was going to sign on to become a Harbor Master.

 

***

 

Back at the Normandie events were mushrooming out of control as the number of men streaming out of the flaming vessel and on to the narrow pier, steadily swelled. Realizing that the entire dock may be engulfed, they began moving back towards the gate area carrying as many of the injured as possible with them where they met head on by fire-fighters, dragging hoses hard pressed to reach the entire length of the berth.

As one of the men rushed back to the blazing vessel, for what was his third time in half an hour, he was forced to avert his eyes in horror. A body, its arms and legs flailing, fell through the hot air, over 100 feet from the main deck of the ship, and violently slammed into the hard wooden timbers of the pier.

Forty-five minutes into the blaze, the burning had progressed far enough that the fire was declared out of control. Smoke and flames were visible across the Hudson River in New Jersey, and several fire units from that state had been mistakenly alerted.

Ripping spectacular wakes through the river as they sped northward a dozen fire tugs were under full throttle, their sirens heard all across the west side.

They arrived only seconds behind the smaller, swifter police boats, and immediately entered into their life saving ballet from the outboard side of the vessel. In an effort to coax the flames back into the ship, the small boats furiously pumped icy sea water onto Normandie. The resulting black plumes of smoke floated into the grey of the afternoon Manhattan sky and were carried by the Winter breeze out over the island, meandering through the tall buildings. The upper levels of most of the garment district skyscrapers were obscured and traffic was at a stand still as the smoke filtered down and settled at street level.

The cloud had not quite reached the office of the city’s highest official as of yet, however City Hall parking lot was full and the mayor’s office was crammed with reporters.

Fiorello LaGuardia sat at his desk, his large form nearly invisible from the neck down for the forest of microphones fanned out in front of him. his flabby chin wagging. The big man spoke to his constituency in one of his regular radio broadcasts. Just as he was building up steam, telling everyone how good he and his party had done so far this political season, not to mention how many of his campaign promises he had fulfilled, an aide entered from the side lines and handed him a message. LaGuardia read it and asked if it had been confirmed. When the aide nodded the politician stood, and with an alarmed look on his face, apologised to the press and excused himself.

Ten minutes later, with a police escort screaming around them LaGuardia and two men selected from his army of aides were in their official limo plotting strategy.

“I want an update on traffic problems ASAP. And prep for additional manpower in police, fire and road works.” The Mayor ordered to the senior of the two aides.

“It’s taken care of it sir.” There was a brief pause and the two aides exchanged glances.

“Your Honor . . . there’s something more important we need to consider.” LaGuardia looked back from the window.

“Depending on how this thing happened . . . sabotage, accident, we could get hurt.”

“How bad?”

“Depends on the death toll. With an event this size, a few bodies would be acceptable. . .” The junior aide chimed in.

“Depending on who they are.”

“Of course. But dozens, god forbid hundreds . . . “

“Do we know who the scene commander is?” LaGuardia inquired.                

“Chief Patrick J. Walsh”

“Democrat or republican?” The junior man began flipping through a note pad.

“Irish. Hell’s Kitchen.”

Arriving at the scene LaGuardia had to struggle through the crowd. He was escorted past the medical triage center on the south side of the pier which had been established by medical support personnel, and it was at that moment the gravity of the situation hit home.

Over the encroaching dusk a 1000 foot wide fog of smoke rose over the ship, painting half the grey sky black, then leaned south and floated towards the Atlantic.

In gut wrenching contrast to the misleading serenity above Luxury Liner Row, over a dozen fire tugs danced around the vacant adjoining slip deciding how to keep the largest ship in the world from listing any further and becoming swamped. Suddenly the chaotic cacophony of the casualties flooding in at an unmanageable rate, snapped him back to reality as he watched the woefully outnumbered doctors and nurse, hard pressed in their heroic efforts to keep up.

The mayor dispatched an aide to seek out the fire chief, and fifteen minutes later Chief Walsh, his face smeared in soot, was briefing LaGuardia as to the current situation. The chief spoke in a controlled, professional tone, but was compelled to raise his voice above the clamber of the rescue efforts.

“Your Honor, at this point we have every fire tug on the West Side involved as well as all of the shore based apparatus we can effectively manoeuvre on this narrow pier.”

“Chief, why is she leaning so far to the side?”

“From all the water we’ve pumped into her sir. There’s no way for it to drain out.” He explained above the din.

“What happens if she flips over?”

“In that event Mayor we have a crew standing by to cut the mooring lines. But we’ve secured permission from Admiral Andrews to cut holes in her hull to drain the water and try and balance her out.”

“Why not just stop pumping all that water into her? Or at least slow it down a little?” The mayor’s inexperience in disaster management was obvious.

“Mayor we have reports of over two hundred men still trapped below decks. If those men were able to secure themselves in the various compartments and we stop pumping water onto the flames . . . sir, they’re as good as dead.” LaGuardia folded his arms and looked down. If two hundred lives were lost in this tragedy, and the decision for the action causing those deaths could be traced to him in any way . . .

“I understand chief. How long before it’s under control?”

“Your Honor, we may not be able to get her under control.”

As the Chief excused himself the mayor realized he had no choice but to accept the senior fire-fighter’s expert opinion.

As night fell, the ever darkening backdrop highlighted the spectacular display of top side flames and dancing shadows. Glancing up at the burning hulk, the mayor’s thoughts turned to the potential affects on his political career now that German saboteurs had brought the war to America.

Suddenly a small swarm of reporters appeared around him, and began the traditional feeding frenzy of questions. Nearly surrounded, LaGuardia held his hand up, messiah-like, and began to speak. The press listened.     

“Gentlemen! I’ve just finished speaking with Fire Chief Walsh. He assures me the blaze is under control and that the Normandie can be salvaged. They’ll be a press conference in the morning. No more questions. Thank you.”

Swiftly walking away from the mob, amidst a barrage of questions, LaGuardia nodded to his junior aide. The well groomed young man stepped between the press sharks and their intended chum and, paying particular attention to detail, began to speak at length about nothing, and then pretended to answer questions as the politician vanished through the gate and into his limo.

 

Now with the fire nearly extinguished, and very little available light remaining, not much else could be done for Normandie that day. Walsh’s men had cut the mooring lines as well as several holes in her hull, but it didn’t help. Sometime during the night, the eloquent lady nearly twice the size of Titanic who had twice held the trans-Atlantic record, gently rolled over and came to rest in her berth at ninety degrees port.

 

***

 

The battle ship grey and pumpkin orange, ice encrusted hull glimmered in the morning sunlight, and it was impossible to resist the visual images it projected. Only a couple of hundred yards across the river, on the Jersey shore, some high school kids had gathered on the rail road tracks which paralleled the river. They stood and watched a lone fireboat continue to coat the sleeping beauty with sea water.

“Jeez-o- Pete! Look how big them propellers are!” It was the younger of the three boys who spoke first.

“They ain’t propellers dummy! They’re called screws!”

“Says who know-it-all?”

“Says my brother!”

“Aw lay off Jerry! Just `cause your brother’s in the Navy that don’t make you in the Navy!”

“Yeah? Well it will next year! Whatta you civilians know anyways?” He waved a hand in disgust and, the lesson in marine engineering concluded, the three boys moved on to more mundane things such as class work and teachers.

 

***

 

The noise and confusion of the previous day on the 49th Street pier had, during the night, subsided. However, early next morning it was resurrected into an organized rhythm of work. The long, tedious task of clean up had commenced.

A small wooden building, sat on the north east end of the dock. Originally built in the 1920’s as a ticket office, it had only last month been transformed into a supervisor’s office for management of the Normandie refit project. This Tuesday morning however, the tiny structure was once again transformed into something it had not been intended for, a press room.

The single sheet of paper taped to the front door, the only door, was hardly discernable through the Winter dark and read, ‘Press Conference 0700 hours’. The interior had been made into a makeshift facility by shifting the chairs around, classroom style, on either side of the room. At the front stood a small podium, behind which was a large blackboard. The board bore an outline, in chalk, of Normandie, in profile. In one corner of the board someone had scribbled a laundry list of statistics down the right hand side, “83,000 tons, 1,029 ft long,” etc.

The throng of reporters, far outnumbering the amount of available seats, were dressed in heavy winter clothing, sipping coffee from blue & white paper cups and trying to keep warm in the unheated shack. As they spoke, their breath formed puffs of steam in the air, adding to the atmosphere of drama which hung in the room.

They were verbally bombarding a junior Naval officer trapped between the podium and blackboard. With his great coat open and his tie undone, the beleaguered Lieutenant, Junior Grade, heroically fought off the questions, but was hampered by his inability to control the crowd.

He was sent in from the Public Relations office to buy time for the Admiral who was now twenty minutes late. Their press deadline approaching, the reporters wanted a statement, and they wanted it now. Particularly about certain rumors no one would comment on.

“Come on Lieutenant! Give us a break! What’s the dope on this sabotage thing? Who actually spotted the submarine?”

“Hey, L. T.! We heard two hundred guys were burned alive below decks! When can we get pictures of the bodies?” It was the representative of the Enquirer.

“Now that she’s sunk, do we got a Pearl Harbor East?” In exasperation, the officer held up a hand, but to no avail.

“Sir could this be a coordinated plan by the Germans to sink ships up and down the Eastern Seaboard?” From behind the mob the sound of the door closing was heard and a voice rang out.

“Where do you aspiring Walter Winchells get these questions?” Everyone quieted down and turned to see who had entered. A visible expression of relief came over the J. G.’s face. The Admiral, flanked by two officers, strode up the aisle while removing his overcoat.

As he was replaced from behind the podium by the Admiral, the J. G. sat down, and became aware of the state of his uniform. The other two officers stood off to one side, the J. G. began to collect himself and the Admiral waited until all of the pressmen were completely silent. He didn’t have to wait long. Like a fourth grade class about to be given crucial answers to their next exam, they poised, pens and pads in hands.

“Now why the hell couldn’t I do that?” The young Lieutenant whispered to one of the officers on his flank.

“Because you’re not a god-damned admiral.”

“Gentlemen, I am Rear Admiral Adolphos Andrews, Commandant of the Third Naval District. Apologies for being late. Let me start by asking you to hold your questions until I finish my statement.”

“First, in response to the rumor that 200 men were trapped below decks, everyone got out. Sorry Dave.” The Admiral looked at the reporter from the Enquirer and the rest of the room broke into a ripple of laughter which quickly subsided.

“There is a casualty list which will be released to you pending notification of next of kin. I can tell you, however, that at this time we have seventy-two hospitalized, ninety-three treated on the scene and one known dead.” The Admiral knew what they wanted to hear. He made the decision to skip the rest of the details of the prepared briefing, and get to the point.

“About the sabotage rumor. It was a fire. An accidental fire. Nothing more. There was no U-Boat. There were no spies in the yard. Just an accidental fire.”

“Sir?” One of the pressmen ignored the request to hold questions.

“How can you definitely rule out sabotage when there’s been no investigation?”

“Because we know where and how the fire started.” The Admiral replied, careful not to reveal his annoyance.

“But sir . . .” The reporter pushed, knowing he had the support of the entire press corps present. “It’s not even been eighteen hours! She’s still smouldering out there, fer cryin’ out loud!” Andrews realized he had to be more assertive.

“Gentlemen! From the best information I have available at this time, the fire started on the port side promenade deck. A spark from an acetylene torch ignited a life jacket. Exactly like this one.” Holding up an orange, thick collared Mae West, he produced a knife from his hip pocket and sliced deeply into the vest.

“This material . . .” He explained to his audience reaching into the hole and producing a handful of dark, straw-like substance, “. . . is Kapok. Very good flotation properties, but highly flammable. One of the welders got careless. A spark from his torch set off a pile of Mae Wests, and it got out of control.” Andrews hoped that by using a more familiar lexicon, he might get through to them more effectively.

“Sir we understand there’s gonna be a D. A.’s investigation. If it’s a clear cut accident why are the cops in on it?”

“Just covering all the bases Phil. We don’t want anything coming back on us later. You know what I mean?”

“C.Y.A., hey Sir?” There was another bout of sporadic laughter, but Andrews wasn’t off the hook yet.

“Sir can you honestly tell us that with thousands of people milling in and out of here all day long that a saboteur couldn't sneak in and start a fire?”

“I’m not telling you that couldn’t happen. However under the circumstances I’m telling you that it would have been impossible due to our unbreachable security.” Maintaining his professional attitude was becoming more difficult however, he sought to get the briefing back on track and so asked if there were any other topics they would like to discuss.

“Sir, can she be salvaged?”

“We are confident that the AP-53 can be salvaged. However that’s an engineering question, and I’m a ship driver.” Nodding to one of the other officers, he continued as the officer stood up. “Lieutenant Commander Scott is Chief of Naval Repairs for the Third Naval District. He’ll field all of your questions concerning the salvage operation. And then wow you with his technical knowledge.” Andrews explained. “I have to leave, however when the engineer is finished he’ll give you back to our P. R. man. Be gentle with him fellas. It's his first time. Thank you.” The Admiral stepped down and took his coat, while the Lieutenant Commander stepped up and prepared to speak.

The J. G., still in his seat, buried his face in his hands and shook his head.

Outside the street the Admiral’s Adjutant did his job. In the Admiral’s interest he asked the unthinkable.

“Sir, what if a subsequent investigation reveals the possibility of enemy agents? Are we prepared for that?” Andrews donned his gloves as he gazed out the hazy sunrise colorfully tinting the vast harbor.

“Gene, do you remember all the anti-war sentiment before Pearl?” Andrews spoke in a low, but firm tone.

“Yes sir.”

“A good part of that argument was because a hell of a lot of people in this country were sick of war, but thought we were invulnerable. Nobody could touch us, nobody would touch us! Nobody would touch America! So let the Europeans fight their own war, we’re safe way over here. And then came Pearl. All of a sudden the U. S. is not only in the war, we’re in it without a Pacific fleet. Now how do you suppose the general population of this country would react if they knew that we were losing upwards of fifty ships a month in the Atlantic, let alone that there might be enemy agents in New York City?”

Disarmed, the Adjutant stared out across the harbor.

“With our delusions of invulnerability gone, Gene, all we got left right now to hold the people together . . . is patriotism.”

 

Now Read Part Two - Click Here

Operation Underworld by Paddy Kelly

About TheBook

February, 1942. Free China is lost, the Battle of Britain has been fought and Hitler dines in Paris. World War II is nearly three years old, however the United States resists involvement. With an invitation from the Imperial Japanese Navy at Pearl Harbor everything changes. In her first ten months of the war nearly 500 American ships are lost. The retooling of Her factories is estimated to take at least a year, and even before it is completed, the men who work in those factories must become Marines, sailors and soldiers. The U.S. Navy is behind the eight ball, big time. They need help. To compound their problems, the most famous luxury liner in the world, T. L. S. Normandie, has just been set alight and burned to the water-line in New York Harbor initiating wide spread hysteria in fear of German saboteurs. All originating from a misguided sense of desperation, and a well planned feign. Meanwhile, “The Boss of Bosses”, Lucky Luciano at age 45, is serving a thirty to fifty year sentence in a maximum security prison in upstate New York. In one of the most ironic decisions of the war, the Federal Government requests the founder of organized crime, Lucky Luciano, to join forces with America’s most secret service, Naval Intelligence. Luciano, has been sentenced to life in prison for a crime that warrants ten years, and is concurrently fighting deportation to an enemy nation where he will certainly be put to death, when he is asked to help the government who condemned him. In addition, he is told he must remain in prison with no chance for compensation or parole. Mike ’Doc’ McKeowen, a New York P. I., leads us through the story. Doc just wants to get his life back on track after his business partner ran off with all the top clients, and a long and painful divorce drained him of his house, his family and his dignity. Fate may have a plan for Doc, but he can’t figure out what the hell it is. Whether you believe the link between the Federal Government and organized crime is a slender thread, or as Mario Puzo wrote, ’. . . contemporary America, where law and organized crime are one and the same.’, you will learn how the foundation of the international drug cartel was laid. You will come to appreciate the saying, ‘Due Facce della stessa Medaliglia’. Crime and politics, two sides of the same coin. Titanic was an act of carelessness. Lusitania was an act of war. Normandie was an act of genius. Reviews and more information here: CLICK FOR INFO

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Operation Underworld
(Paddy Kelly)

The serialised version of this outstanding novel

Part One


Operation Underworld

PROLOGUE

 

“Never ever trust what your government tells you.”

- Bruce Springsteen, Born In The U.S.A. tour, 1984

 

 

As a scientist and historian it's sometimes hard to reconcile the concept of fate. To be objective and thus well rounded you try to see history as a simultaneously occurring series of separate events, on countless different planes, all unfolding in different places at various tempos. But when you come across a single event which took minutes to initiate but would inextricably bind the U. S. Navy, the FBI and the Mafia and eventually tens of thousands of lives for the duration of WWII and then some years after, it's hard not to lay down the pen, close the texts, pour a drink and go down to the beach to watch the sunset.

Even more captivating is that the plethora of historical ironies peppering this story were brought together by Albert Anastasia, a man who didn't finish primary school, possessed barely a modicum of intelligence and who's claim to fame was he murdered over 500 people as C.E.O. of Murder Incorporated.

How did the most critical arm of the U. S. government in 1942, Naval Intelligence, (whose New York branch curiously seemed to be comprised largely of lawyers), give the highest priority to hiring the man who established organized crime in America? A man who the left hand of the government, politics, enthusiastically touted as their #1 poster child for crime.

For a start and by way of setting the stage for the story, it should be understood that the period between the two world wars saw the birth and growth of several organizations in America the developments of which initiated a dynamic that would spawn a plethora of major historical events any one of which would not only supply material for a dozen novels and several films, but are still revealing stories today.

Three of the most significant of these were the establishment of Organized Crime, the FBI and Naval Intelligence. They all grew up, went to school and came of age in the late 1920's as separate entities however, like predators prowling an ever shrinking savanna, their collisions were inevitable.

As is the case with most great stories the story of how and why the U. S. Navy came to hire Lucky Luciano and the Unione Siciliano in what was known as Operation Underworld unfolds in a great place, New York City, and involves several central figures aspiring to to greatness but only one of which sought notoriety, J. Edgar Hoover.

As an added attraction the New York City District Attorney's office, headed by the infamous Thomas E. Dewey, unwittingly acted as catalyst. 

In February of 1942 one of the key players was in his sixth year of what was essentially two and a half life sentences convicted of a crime for which the law allowed ten. To exacerbate the situation Salvatore Lucania, “Lucky” Luciano had, by technical legal guidelines, been framed by the testimony of others obtained under, in some cases, the threat of violence and rather thin circumstantial evidence.

The real life, dramatic irony extends even further when one considers that the man who engineered his trial, had him convicted and imprisoned was the very man whose life Luciano had saved less than a year before, New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey.

There's little doubt Luciano was guilty of multiple violations under the White Slavery Act, (a dramatic term for prostitution), but the entire United States legal machine were not enough to actually catch him with his hand in the till and so, in order to not look too stupid, they had to “bend” their own laws.

 

Lucky, was a classic American rags-to-riches success story. He was not only co-founder of the Unione Siciliano or National Crime Syndicate or the Commission, as it was known by its members, but organized and established what became the International Drug Cartel, built a casino based empire in Havana and Las Vegas and then, at a council in Cuba, gave the nod to kill the man who built it for him, Ben 'Bugsy' Siegal. All of which, with the exception of organizing the Unione, he did well in prison or in exile. Not bad for a kid from the slums of a fourth rate town in a third world country.

As if to show he had a sense of humor Dewey made sure Luciano's indictment came at a time when he truly believed himself sufficiently insulated from the law to have any worries. The multiple count indictment was handed down on April Fool's Day.

It also came at a time when the position of New York City District Attorney bore no small legacy. The next step up was governor after which, if you had A, an adequate popularity quotation and B, adequate financial backing, (which was virtually guaranteed if you had A), the salutations on your mail thereafter would read: “Dear Mr. President”. All compliments of the New York City based Tammany Hall leadership. Such was the Yellow Brick Road of the times.

There can be little doubt about Thomas Dewey's politically driven actions against the likes of Waxey Gordon, Louie Lepke and Dutch Schultz. After all if a man wants to be President of the United States, essentially the head lawyer of the country, starting out as a prosecutor is a good place to be. Starting out in New York in the 1930's is a better place and getting the big name gangsters, whatever it takes, is a shoe in. Almost. Dewey's political ambitions were assured if he could convict Schultz and just as he was about to pounce the Dutchman decided enough was enough and set up a hit on D. A. Dewey the “Gang Buster”.

Unfortunately for Shultz Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, founders of the Siciliano Unione, were adamant about the 'keeping a low profile' clause in their corporate agreement.

So, a day before Dutch gave the okay to kill Dewey, Lucky gave the okay to kill Dutch. Schultz was hit in a New York chop house, eating a steak, and it is widely held that this is where the myth of a condemned man's last meal, commonly steak, originated.

So, in 1936 New York City D. A. Dewey decided Luciano, despite having been arrested about twenty-five times and only jailed twice for short periods, was going down regardless of what was required to do it. Bear in mind that Luciano was a hoodlum, but also bear in mind that his statement, “We never killed no one that didn't deserve it.” is, so far as anyone can determine, true. This includes not only ordering the death of Dutch Schultz but sanctioning the assassination of one of his most ardently loyal followers and supporters, Albert Anastasia after he needlessly ordered the death of a an innocent bakery apprentice for insulting him.

Like the Unione, Naval Intelligence had recently been dealt its' worse blow since its' inception, namely Pearl Harbor. It had been only two months since the bombing and, in a long laundry list of parallels with the Twin Towers attack, politicians were asking, “How did we not know this was coming?”, and flinging such helpful suggestions as, “Somebody has to swing!”

Interestingly, in 2004 documents were released to the news agencies by some historians in Britain showing that as a result of efforts by the British intelligence agencies, code breakers who had cracked the JN code were able to inform Churchill about plans for the attack as early as November of '41, over a month before it happened. In turn, it was reported Churchill waited two weeks before informing FDR who, American historical documents adequately testify to, never informed the two commanders of the full extent of the probability of the attack. In all likelihood, some speculate, motivated by America's failed economy being mired down for over a decade in the Great Depression.

 

The second central player, Lt. Cmdr Haffenden, (coincidentally carrying the same first name as Luciano), appears to have fallen into the Operation Underworld scenario by being in the right place at the right time. As the officer in charge of the ports of New York he wasn't really privy to D.C.'s decisions but by all accounts was certainly the right man for the job. With an outstanding record of past intelligence exploits, a good sense of command and a “Can Do” attitude he threw himself into an operation which had little chance of any real success from the start, that is catching German spies. To his credit, he so impressed and maintained the respect of Meyer Lansky, that Lansky not only kept his son away from racketeering but sent him to West Point. Although we are not sure of the extent of Haffenden's influence, Lansky himself went straight not long after the war.

Rather than the serious game of spy counter spy originally envisioned with the inception of Operation Underworld, it turned into more of an expensive game of cops and robbers, mostly without the robbers.

German war records clearly indicate that generals had no intention of launching any serious attempts at espionage or sabotage in the Continental U. S. and pretty much viewed it as a waste of resources. Records also indicate that the group of twelve German operatives sent over and landed by submarine on the shores of Long Island, were a write off and seen to be an experiment, forgive the pun, to test the waters.

In contrast, it wasn't as bad a time for J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Finally they would be given a chance to show what they could do, as long as it wasn't going toe to toe with the Commission, which according to them didn't exist. Their resource allocation was drastically increased, as was their jurisdictional guidelines, and they were going to be allowed to catch spies. Problem was they had a lot of catching up to do themselves and Hoover fantasized that it fell to him alone to see it done.

Much like Luciano, Hoover was able to exploit the emergency situation the war created to his advantage, however he did it by greatly increasing his public persona while Lucky did it by further receding into the shadows of secrecy. Commander Haffenden saw it strictly as a matter of duty. Interestingly, all three utilized government agencies, large amounts of cash and lots and lots of unwitting civilians.

Keep in mind this is only one small part of the historical picture of the time, but it's a damn interesting one by any standard. There were other organizations with other spheres of influence, and Luciano’s direct influence in America was only from 1931 to 1946. Although he was imprisoned in 1936 this merely caused him to restructure the way he did business. Lt. Cmdr Haffenden was directly involved less than year and Hoover was never really allowed to be involved.

These are but a few of the primary elements contributing to the atmosphere in early February of 1942 and after the 1945 Armistice, each player left the table, cashed in his chips and went looking for the next game. It's another story as to who won, who lost or who drew, but for that brief period in the Spring of '42, the path's of all concerned were unexpectedly and inextricably interwoven to form Operation Underworld.


 

‘When we are dealing with the Caucasian race, we have methods that will determine loyalty. But when we deal with the Japanese, we are in an entirely different field.’

 

California State Attorney General, Earl Warren in 1942, commenting on the imprisonment of 150,000 Japanese-American citizens.

 

 

‘Now they have created a Frank-in-steen monster and the chickens have come home to roost all over the country!’

 

Presidential candidate Governor George Wallace, 1968, commenting on the opposition.

 

 

‘Doodle Doodle Dee, Wubba Wubba Wubba.’

 

MTV’s Downtown Julie Brown, commenting on the current state of politics in America.

 


CHAPTER ONE

 

 

The New York City waterfront is an interesting place. Anything can happen at most any time and in late January of 1942, despite its two and a half centuries of violent history, relative peace and calm prevailed, while half a world away free China was lost, the Battle of Britain had been fought, and Hitler was dining in Paris. 

The majority of men have always and will always allow themselves to be caught up in world events larger than themselves, and hopelessly swim against the tide while praying to their respective gods for a favorable outcome. However, a select few have the where-with-fore to keep their heads and turn such events to their advantage.

One such man was in his sixth year of a fifty year sentence, without parole, convicted on contrived evidence and told he would eventually be deported to a nation whose leader had already issued a death warrant against him.

 

 

Clinton State Penitentiary, Dannemora, New York. Groundhog Day, 1942

 

The weathered, olive complexion of the visitor's face made him look older than his mid-forties. Other than the guard, who now stood sentry against the wall in front of him, he was alone in the under lit, painted brick room.

Sitting patiently at the far end of the long wooden table, hands on top in full view as the large, baked-enamel sign on the wall dictated, he was fitted in a dark blue, handmade suit complete with silk tie. He glanced at the stone-faced guard who stared back with his best tough guy face. After a fifteen minute wait, the rattling of locks on the dark green, steel doors progressively echoed louder and louder throughout the adjoining chambers, until the door leading into the visitors room creaked open, and two more men entered.

The pock-marked faced prisoner with dark hair and drooping right eyelid were the first to enter and the prisoner was escorted to a seat on the opposite side of the table by a second, older guard. The visitor reached over the twelve inch high partition which bisected the thick oak top to shake hands with the dungaree clad man on the opposite side.

“Keep your hands away from the prisoner!” Tough Guy guard yelled. The visitor was unfazed and proceeded with his inquiry in a tone of genuine concern.

“How ya doin’, Charlie?”

“Ah . . .” Charlie shrugged. “It’s Dannemora, you know. Fuckin’ Siberia.”

Ya need anything?” Both men were visibly relaxed.

“Yeah. Get me down state!”

“We’re workin’ on it, Charlie. Anything else?”

“How’s it goin’ down town?” He changed to a near whisper, and immediately both guards drifted closer to the table. The men looked up from their seated positions, and then at each other. With feigned disregard they resumed their conversation, only now in Italian. The guards didn’t back away.

“Things ain’t lookin’ so good. Especially with these two assholes standin’ here.”

Ya think maybe they’re queer for each other?” Neither of the men laughed at the comment, but the younger of the two guards became visibly annoyed, and started towards Lucky. The elder guard raised an arm to stop him and the men once again resumed their conversation, however this time in an obscure dialect of Sicilian.

“Why? What’s goin’ on?” The guards drifted back towards the wall as Tough Guy grew increasingly irritated.

“The Camardos are gettin’ more independent, we’re losin’ more of Jersey. Siegel says if they don’t let him send somebody over there to put a hit on Goering and Goebbles, he’s gonna do it himself.”

“That crazy Jew bastard! Always with the gun! What’s the story on working with the Navy people?” A downward glance introduced his reply.

“They nixed it!”

“What?! Why?! What’s our guys in D. C. say?” Charlie was surprised.

“To politically risky. They don’t want no part of it.”

“Shit! Did you remind them . . . ?”

“Yeah.”

“I was countin’ on that deal ta solidify our operations fer after the war.”

“Maybe get you down state while we’re at it.”

“Maybe.” Luciano looked down at the table top. “Maybe they can be persuaded.” Charlie suggested. The young guard could stand it no longer. The senior sentry nodded at his younger colleague and both started towards the men.

“Times up! Let’s go!” Halfway through the door, Lucky called back over his shoulder.

“Send Albert A. up here next.”


 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

Free China might have been lost, the Battle of Britain may have been fought, and perhaps Hitler was dining Paris, but on the Manhattan side of the Big Pond, relative peace and calm prevailed.

The February sunrise peacefully crept over Hudson Bay illuminating the pristine, bluish-green water of New York Harbor. The golden sunlight sent moonbeam-like reflections dancing playfully across the serene river and helped chase the morning chill from the docks.

For the last forty-five minutes methods of transport of every shape and description arrived depositing denim clad workers onto the planks of Pier 88 along Luxury Liner Row just off 49th Street. Few arrived by automobile as parking spaces were all but non-existent and the limited few were reserved for the most senior executives and high ranking naval officers. Besides, cars were for the rich. Instead bicycles, buses, subways, and most often the 'shoe leather express', were the Tradesman’s common modes of transport. The second Monday of the month saw the slow, but purposeful activity of nearly 5000 workers about to ease into their daily routine of organized chaos.

As 6:30 approached, the change of shift whistle was about to sound and 2,500 weary bodies would be replaced by 2,500 fresh workers ready to expend their energy into the project at hand.

Despite the fact they all seemed to have the same look about them, this army of welders, fitters and carpenters were not dressed in a cohesive uniform. As the sporadic conversation and occasional joking of the scattered clusters of men became progressively louder the serenity, which signalled the prelude to the daily routine, was suddenly shattered by an unscheduled outburst.

Just outside the gate a young couple, the woman cuddling a small wailing bundle, were heard exchanging insults. After a brief stare-off the man turned his head and noticed the cluster of workers propped against the chain-linked fence observing he and his wife’s public displays of affection. Knowing better than to attempt the last word, he terminated the argument and stormed away in the direction of the workforce. Not far behind a metal lunch pail sailed through the air after him and although these tin, alloy containers were never designed as missiles, in the right hands their aerodynamics were appreciable.

Landing on the ground just behind the disillusioned young husband, the pail burst open and spilled its contents onto the asphalt. As he stooped to rescue the only food he would have for the next twelve hours, his co-workers seized the opportunity to offer their support.

Ain’t love grand?” One of them called out in a mock romantic voice and the flood gates opened.

“Hey Doll! Yankee try-outs next week!”

“You must be so proud being married to one of those new, modern women." As if to rescue him from further humiliation, the change of shift whistle blew and the horde of laborers and tradesmen slowly migrated towards the small gate leading to the dock. The narrowness of the gate was not an oversight on the part of the Third Naval District engineers. It was an intentional design to control pedestrian traffic in order to increase security on the strategically critical pier.

As the night shift filed out through an adjoining gate, spilling out onto the side walk under the West Side Highway, a glaringly evident look of fatigue on their faces, it was obvious that these men had begun to reach the point where it was no longer the hours or the physical output required of them which caused them to grow older than their years. It was instead the relentlessness of the work. Day after day, night after night with nothing to break the tedium of the routine. All knew, without being told, that the shipbuilding would go on and on, and on until, at some unknown point in time, in the distant future, the war was over. One way or the other.

Shuffling through the gate with an orderly sense of urgency, the off-going shift migrated out onto the streets and beyond. The on-going crew, which had now swelled to over 2,300 members, displayed a diversity not normally seen in times of peace.

Aside from civilians representing all walks of life, there were over 1100 men in active duty Navy, Coast Guard and Reservist’s uniforms.     

As a means of proving who they were and foiling potential saboteurs, everyone was required some form of I. D. The military men carried standard issue armed forces cards with photos and serial numbers. The civilian workers and tradesmen however, had each been issued a small brass medallion, about the size of a silver dollar, as their means of I. D. Stamped into each coin were a series of five numbers as well as the name of the shipping line each worked for. Some held their medallion in their hand and flashed it to the guard as they passed through the gate. Some pinned it to jacket lapels and still others had them attached to baseball caps bearing the logo of their favorite ball club, each member of the labor army attempting to express a measure of individuality in an ocean of sameness.

After about ten minutes, when a couple of hundred men had already passed through the checkpoint, the line suddenly stopped moving. Heads peeked right and left of the line to observe the short, slight man standing in the threshold of the gate, frantically frisking himself in an attempt to locate his medallion. Arms folded across his chest the stocky Marine corporal stood glaring at the man.

“Hey Fitzy, take your time! Nobody’s got nuthin’ ta do here!” Someone called out from down the line.

“Yeah, no rush. Hitler’ll wait.” Sporadic laughter added to Fitzy's consternation until, finally, he was able to locate the all important item and was waved through.

With the line once again flowing freely, the seemingly endless stream of work boots paraded past the guard and fanned out across the pier, making their way towards the behemoth-like luxury liner looming in the berth before them.

A large, rectangular wooden sign, hung on a pair of thick, square timbers, adjacent to the main gangplank, amidships. As an afterthought a dirty grey tarpaulin had been lashed over the sign, but one end flapped loosely in the breeze revealing the words, “New Troopship” and “Lafayette”. As if to reinforce the contradictory pattern which had thus far characterized the U. S. war effort, high above the sign, prominently embossed across the bow of the ship, was the name, ‘NORMANDIE’.

By way of protesting her forced make-over and imposed new identity, the magnificent vessel had stubbornly sulked in harbor for nearly three years while argument after argument ping- ponged off commander’s desks as to what to do with her.

The Generals wanted a new troopship to ferry troops into the European Theatre while the Admirals reasoned that after Pearl Harbor, a new carrier fit the bill.

Her official designation up till now was AP-53 and, despite the fact that politicians of the highest level were involved, no one could possibly guess that the events of the next few hours would result in her remaining in harbor for the rest of her life after which she would emerge as a symbol of poor judgement and wasted effort.

As each of the men gravitated towards their respective work stations no one seemed to notice the lone figure who carried no lunch pail. His unscuffed boots peaking out from long hemmed, crisp Levi denims shuffling across the creosote soaked timbers. He carried a small, grease-stained brown paper bag at his side. The lanky individual walked directly towards the gang plank amidships.

Focused on the sheaf of papers clutched tightly in his fist the Site Foreman was far too angry to notice the new man as they crossed paths. Making his way to the Site Overseer who stood behind a partially sheltered podium, the irritated foreman stared at the man hunched over his work and was greeted with forced cordiality.

“Morning boss. How’s . . . SHIT! What now?”

“‘What now?’ As if you‘re the only schmuck in the yard that doesn’t know! Where are they?”

“You talkin’ about the riggin’ the fire hose, fake leak in the hull thing?”

“I’M IN NO MOOD EDDIE! DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS IS?! It’s a report! And guess what's in it? Where are they?” Eddie inadvertently glanced over his boss’ shoulder and turning, the Foreman spotted his two victims. “Never mind!” He anetheziesd the Overseer's agony and re-directed his fury. “YOU TWO, BUD AND LOU! HERE, NOW!” The two workers were taken completely off guard and hesitated before slinking over to the gallows.

“I just spent twenty minutes explaining to ten people we really don’t have a leak in the forward hold!” By way of response the shorter of the two was seized with a sudden urge to scratch his head.

“See this? This is our quarterly safety review which happened to occur exactly the same day you two morons GAVE UP GOOD JUDGEMENT FOR LENT!!”

“But Boss, Lent ain’t til’ . . .”

“STOW IT!”

“Stowing it, boss.”

“Boss we have no idea what you’re talkin’ about.” The tall worker responded with near sincerity.

“I told you it was a bad idea.” Prompted the co-accused.

“The Personnel Department says I’m to sack you two jerk offs! Friday. But I, in my infinite generosity and benevolence, I told them there are no more fitters down the hall. DON’T MAKE ME CALL ‘EM BACK!”

“Boss, we’re sorry. It’s just . . . the freakin’ boredom!”

“It's not really so much the boredom as it is the tedium!”

“Just get your shit together will ya?!” He pleaded. “This big grey taxi has ta be ferryin’ dog-faces by mid-March and my Damage Control crew runnin’ around playin’ sophomoric pranks, disruptin’ operations don’t exactly help matters. Besides . . . ”

“It’s all fun n’ games till somebody gets an eye poked out.” Tall man interjected.

“Then it’s a sport.” Shorty nodded in affirmation.

“Get the hell outta here! Assholes!”

The work on the vessel proceeded until, the lunch break, when the loud cacophony normally present gave way to a relaxing silence. To avoid the long journey back down through the labyrinth of the vessel’s passageways and onto the pier, everyone more or less sat and began eating where they had been working. The topics of conversation ranged from the usual war news to the tragic death of Carol Lumbard in a plane crash in Las Vegas. Then, shortly after work had resumed, the routine on The 49th Street Pier, as well as the American war effort, was irreversibly altered.

Insidiously a narrow but widening plume of thick, black smoke slowly crept its way down the port side passageway leading from the promenade deck. Ominously, the treacherous dark cloud rolled along the deck contained only by the freshly painted bulkheads as small red-orange flames crackled behind it, fighting to gather momentum.  a minute later the plume was a blanket covering the 50 or 60 square feet of the deck.

A welder's helper shuttling tools back and forth for the workers rounded the corner and came out onto the promenade and a wall of flames exploded out into the open air and over the rail 100 feet over the dock.

To the crew members working on the pier, the trouble was not immediately apparent. However, as the yelling and the chaotic activity on the upper weather decks grew louder, an electrical sensation crackled through the air and was instantly recognized as something drastically out of sync. With animal like instinct, each man of each crew, through out each successive deck level stopped what he was doing, raised his head and listened. Then, either smelling smoke or sensing the steadily mounting pandemonium, ran for the exits. In less than ten minutes the port side promenade deck was completely engulfed.

The mild breeze which blew that afternoon fed the flames enough oxygen so that by half past two all the weather decks were involved. To add to the rapidly mounting problems, the freshly applied coat of paint allowed the entire main deck to be consumed only minutes later. The resulting one thousand degree temperatures were in stark contrast to the thirty-three degree levels of the ambient air of the harbor. To appalled observers, the involvement of the lower weather decks meant that anyone working above those levels, if they had not yet escaped, were suffering the most horrible death imaginable.

By now several things were occurring simultaneously. A variety of men working at pier level began to realize what was happening, and three of them ran for the guard shack, which housed the only land line. As they burst through the door, they discovered that the alert young Marine had already notified the N.Y.P.D., the fire department, and was currently in the process of dialing the Harbor Master on his emergency line.

“Did you call for the docs?!” One of the men asked in a frantic voice. The big guard held out his index finger while finished dialing.

“Yeah! The police are going to notify the hospital to prepare a triage team.” Talking into the telephone the Marine continued. “Harbor Master, this is Lance Corporal Deuth, Pier 88, Luxury Row! We've got a code two emergency! Yes sir, yes sir! Already done both of those! Thank you sir!” As he hung up the phone the Marine instructed two of the men to return to the ship to help, and one of the men to stand by the main gate to prevent anyone from blocking access by parking in front of it. As they ran back to the ship one of the men turned the other,

“Hey Harry!”

“What?”

“What the hell’s a triage?”

“I don’t know, but they better get a shit load of them out here!”

With Normandie longer than the width of Central Park, the two thousand foot long dock, plus the additional two to three hundred feet to the main gate, was a distance few of the men gave any thought to until that day. Running from the guard shack towards the ship was not only complicated by the bitter cold, but wading through the crowds of workers moving in the opposite direction while wearing heavy work boots and heavy winter coats made it a triple effort. Tools and gear and canvas fire hoses littered the dock, half of them covered in ice and men tripped and stumbled regularly.

Several workers, noticing that all four gang planks were clogged with fleeing workers, immediately set about erecting ladders against the hull at appropriate hatchways.

Through the unending stream of panic stricken workers the Foreman fought his way back up the starboard side, forward gang plank. Halfway to the Quarterdeck he recognised the exhausted face of his chief engineer. Taking the awestruck man by the shoulders, the Foreman looked straight into his eyes.

“Mac, what’s our status?” Gasping between phrases the out of breath engineer stared through the Foreman in response.

“Bilge to ‘C’ level is clear. But if it reaches the POL stores, everything from Jersey City over to Broadway’s gonna be a fuckin' airfield!”

“You’re sure there’s no one else below?”

“Only those two lunatics.”

“Which two lunatics?”

“How many lunatics you got working Damage Control?!”

As the Foreman continued to struggle his way through the fleeing workers deeper into the ship, it occurred to him how easily a man could vanish into one of the thousands of human sized pigeon holes the partially stripped down ship had become. Fighting through the passageways below decks he spotted an OBA case on the port bulkhead. The Oxygen Breathing Apparatus would buy him at least fifteen minutes of breathable air while he searched for his two derelict ship fitters. Grasping at the latch handle he stared in dismay as the case opened and in lieu of the life saving devise a large, pink inventory tag appeared.

“Fucking bean counters!”

After an eternity of choking through the ever thickening grey smoke he reached the Paints, Oils and Lubricants cages and his attention was immediately diverted as he detected singing in the far corner of the large storage area.

Through a shroud of grey he saw the two men he had chewed out earlier that morning, both with sledge hammers, alternately beating a four inch water spigot in unison to the ‘Anvil Chorus’. Over the roar of the encroaching flames he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled.

“What the hell are you two assholes doin’ here?!”

Tryin’ to rig a leak!” Both continued to pound away at the thick brass spigot. As if on cue, the fixture burst and the resulting torrent of water dowsed the flames just as they were about to reach the main POL stores. Breaking into a celebratory dance both men dowsed themselves in the water.

“Never mind that shit! Get the hell outta here!!” Smiling angrily and following the men out of the compartment the Foreman muttered to himself. “Assholes!”

Back on the dock area a few of the men who initially fled were now returning to lend a hand and began to set up an area away from the ship to gather the casualties for the docs to assess.

One of the men was the man who earlier asked what a triage was.

 

***

 

Staring through the over sized binoculars the young boy felt more like a man then he ever did sitting in a classroom. Jimmy quit school two months ago when the war broke out, and through some friends who were connected got a job in the Harbor Master’s shack. Next year, when he turned seventeen he would sign up.

Although the building which housed the Harbor Master and his team was still referred to by its eighteenth century name, it was anything but a shack..

The red enameled two story, clapboard structure, which sat on what was essentially two sets of steel stilts, overlooked most of the harbor from its strategic position on the tip of Pier 62 just off West 23rd Street and was equipped with the latest in modern advances. High definition FM radio, lamp lit map boards and a dedicated direct telephone line to the fire tug outposts along Manhattan island.

Due to the immensity of the New York Harbor, it was impossible to view the entire area at one time from any land or sea position. So Jimmy was unsure exactly where the smoke plum he now observed originated. In this instance protocol dictated an emergency procedure be enacted whereby the area of the potential trouble was approximated, and a grid mapped out. Then all hands would man the radio and phone lines to pin-point the location of the problem and notify the nearest tug team.

“Hey, Mr. Rorro. Mr. Rorro, sir. I think I see something way out there.” Jimmy said, now squinting through the ship’s binoculars.

“You’re supposed to see something way out there Jimmy. That’s what binos are for.” The old HM was annoyed but tolerated his work being interrupted by the young boy’s enthusiasm.

“Sir, can you have a look at this please?”

“Son, I have got to get these tug escort reports done today! So stop buggin’ me!” The old man remained at the desk and continued to write.

“Sir it looks like something. A fire maybe.” The old man’s head came up from the paperwork. “Out near the tunnels.”

The HM walked over, and took the glasses from the boy. Even before he raise them he knew. “That’s a fire alright! Get on the grid! I’ll notify the tugs!”

Just as he reached for the emergency line it rang.

“Hello! HM shack, who is this?” It was Lance Corporal Deuth. “Yes corporal! Have you notified the fire and police departments? Alright than, keep the main gate clear of traffic and continue to man your station. Report to the fire chief when he arrives! The tugs are on their way. Corporal Deuth, good job!”

“John! I got Harbor Side on the line. How many units?” The Assistant HM spoke hurriedly but remained cognizant of his professionalism.

“Dispatch unit 52 Able and tell him to report as soon as he’s in sight of the fire, then tell South Park Baker to standby and get South Park Able up there for back-up. Tell ‘em to step on it. Those creosote soaked piers get involved there’s gonna be one helluva a lot of freight landin’ in Jersey!”

“Why not dispatch 52 Baker with them?” Rorro didn’t miss a beat.

“If the wind shifts north we’ll need somebody up there to intercept. Ronnie, get on channel nine notify all vessels as of . . . 14:21 hours, unless associated with the fire, we are on radio blackout until further notice. Frank, get busy! Divert all traffic south of the G.W.”

"I'm on it!" Frank shot back.

The HM notified the harbor side fire-brigade, and then proceeded to broadcast on the emergency band, channel nine, to divert all traffic away from the area. For a full twenty minutes the old HM showed why he was in charge, running back and forth across the shack directing personnel and issuing orders.

Through all the activity, Jimmy dutifully sat at the small corner table, struggling to plot the grid as he'd been trained. As the situation in the shack gradually came under control, the HM noticed the youngster still tucked away at the desk. Walking over to him, the man placed a hand on the boys shoulder. Jimmy continued to plot.

“Hey, Jimmy.” He said quietly.

Without looking up, Jimmy responded. “I’ve almost got it sir. Just one more minute!”

“You can stop now. We’re there. It's 88.” Masked in a look of despair the youngster turned towards the leathery faced man. Rorro turned to walk away, than hesitated.

“Hey, Jimmy, nice job. You done good. You’ll get credit in my official report for spotting the fire.” A dejected Jimmy slumped in his chair. Rorro crossed the room and without turning back added, “You may have saved a few lives today.”

Jimmy hoped his parents would understand when he told them he wouldn't be joining the Navy. He was going to sign on to become a Harbor Master.

 

***

 

Back at the Normandie events were mushrooming out of control as the number of men streaming out of the flaming vessel and on to the narrow pier, steadily swelled. Realizing that the entire dock may be engulfed, they began moving back towards the gate area carrying as many of the injured as possible with them where they met head on by fire-fighters, dragging hoses hard pressed to reach the entire length of the berth.

As one of the men rushed back to the blazing vessel, for what was his third time in half an hour, he was forced to avert his eyes in horror. A body, its arms and legs flailing, fell through the hot air, over 100 feet from the main deck of the ship, and violently slammed into the hard wooden timbers of the pier.

Forty-five minutes into the blaze, the burning had progressed far enough that the fire was declared out of control. Smoke and flames were visible across the Hudson River in New Jersey, and several fire units from that state had been mistakenly alerted.

Ripping spectacular wakes through the river as they sped northward a dozen fire tugs were under full throttle, their sirens heard all across the west side.

They arrived only seconds behind the smaller, swifter police boats, and immediately entered into their life saving ballet from the outboard side of the vessel. In an effort to coax the flames back into the ship, the small boats furiously pumped icy sea water onto Normandie. The resulting black plumes of smoke floated into the grey of the afternoon Manhattan sky and were carried by the Winter breeze out over the island, meandering through the tall buildings. The upper levels of most of the garment district skyscrapers were obscured and traffic was at a stand still as the smoke filtered down and settled at street level.

The cloud had not quite reached the office of the city’s highest official as of yet, however City Hall parking lot was full and the mayor’s office was crammed with reporters.

Fiorello LaGuardia sat at his desk, his large form nearly invisible from the neck down for the forest of microphones fanned out in front of him. his flabby chin wagging. The big man spoke to his constituency in one of his regular radio broadcasts. Just as he was building up steam, telling everyone how good he and his party had done so far this political season, not to mention how many of his campaign promises he had fulfilled, an aide entered from the side lines and handed him a message. LaGuardia read it and asked if it had been confirmed. When the aide nodded the politician stood, and with an alarmed look on his face, apologised to the press and excused himself.

Ten minutes later, with a police escort screaming around them LaGuardia and two men selected from his army of aides were in their official limo plotting strategy.

“I want an update on traffic problems ASAP. And prep for additional manpower in police, fire and road works.” The Mayor ordered to the senior of the two aides.

“It’s taken care of it sir.” There was a brief pause and the two aides exchanged glances.

“Your Honor . . . there’s something more important we need to consider.” LaGuardia looked back from the window.

“Depending on how this thing happened . . . sabotage, accident, we could get hurt.”

“How bad?”

“Depends on the death toll. With an event this size, a few bodies would be acceptable. . .” The junior aide chimed in.

“Depending on who they are.”

“Of course. But dozens, god forbid hundreds . . . “

“Do we know who the scene commander is?” LaGuardia inquired.                

“Chief Patrick J. Walsh”

“Democrat or republican?” The junior man began flipping through a note pad.

“Irish. Hell’s Kitchen.”

Arriving at the scene LaGuardia had to struggle through the crowd. He was escorted past the medical triage center on the south side of the pier which had been established by medical support personnel, and it was at that moment the gravity of the situation hit home.

Over the encroaching dusk a 1000 foot wide fog of smoke rose over the ship, painting half the grey sky black, then leaned south and floated towards the Atlantic.

In gut wrenching contrast to the misleading serenity above Luxury Liner Row, over a dozen fire tugs danced around the vacant adjoining slip deciding how to keep the largest ship in the world from listing any further and becoming swamped. Suddenly the chaotic cacophony of the casualties flooding in at an unmanageable rate, snapped him back to reality as he watched the woefully outnumbered doctors and nurse, hard pressed in their heroic efforts to keep up.

The mayor dispatched an aide to seek out the fire chief, and fifteen minutes later Chief Walsh, his face smeared in soot, was briefing LaGuardia as to the current situation. The chief spoke in a controlled, professional tone, but was compelled to raise his voice above the clamber of the rescue efforts.

“Your Honor, at this point we have every fire tug on the West Side involved as well as all of the shore based apparatus we can effectively manoeuvre on this narrow pier.”

“Chief, why is she leaning so far to the side?”

“From all the water we’ve pumped into her sir. There’s no way for it to drain out.” He explained above the din.

“What happens if she flips over?”

“In that event Mayor we have a crew standing by to cut the mooring lines. But we’ve secured permission from Admiral Andrews to cut holes in her hull to drain the water and try and balance her out.”

“Why not just stop pumping all that water into her? Or at least slow it down a little?” The mayor’s inexperience in disaster management was obvious.

“Mayor we have reports of over two hundred men still trapped below decks. If those men were able to secure themselves in the various compartments and we stop pumping water onto the flames . . . sir, they’re as good as dead.” LaGuardia folded his arms and looked down. If two hundred lives were lost in this tragedy, and the decision for the action causing those deaths could be traced to him in any way . . .

“I understand chief. How long before it’s under control?”

“Your Honor, we may not be able to get her under control.”

As the Chief excused himself the mayor realized he had no choice but to accept the senior fire-fighter’s expert opinion.

As night fell, the ever darkening backdrop highlighted the spectacular display of top side flames and dancing shadows. Glancing up at the burning hulk, the mayor’s thoughts turned to the potential affects on his political career now that German saboteurs had brought the war to America.

Suddenly a small swarm of reporters appeared around him, and began the traditional feeding frenzy of questions. Nearly surrounded, LaGuardia held his hand up, messiah-like, and began to speak. The press listened.     

“Gentlemen! I’ve just finished speaking with Fire Chief Walsh. He assures me the blaze is under control and that the Normandie can be salvaged. They’ll be a press conference in the morning. No more questions. Thank you.”

Swiftly walking away from the mob, amidst a barrage of questions, LaGuardia nodded to his junior aide. The well groomed young man stepped between the press sharks and their intended chum and, paying particular attention to detail, began to speak at length about nothing, and then pretended to answer questions as the politician vanished through the gate and into his limo.

 

Now with the fire nearly extinguished, and very little available light remaining, not much else could be done for Normandie that day. Walsh’s men had cut the mooring lines as well as several holes in her hull, but it didn’t help. Sometime during the night, the eloquent lady nearly twice the size of Titanic who had twice held the trans-Atlantic record, gently rolled over and came to rest in her berth at ninety degrees port.

 

***

 

The battle ship grey and pumpkin orange, ice encrusted hull glimmered in the morning sunlight, and it was impossible to resist the visual images it projected. Only a couple of hundred yards across the river, on the Jersey shore, some high school kids had gathered on the rail road tracks which paralleled the river. They stood and watched a lone fireboat continue to coat the sleeping beauty with sea water.

“Jeez-o- Pete! Look how big them propellers are!” It was the younger of the three boys who spoke first.

“They ain’t propellers dummy! They’re called screws!”

“Says who know-it-all?”

“Says my brother!”

“Aw lay off Jerry! Just `cause your brother’s in the Navy that don’t make you in the Navy!”

“Yeah? Well it will next year! Whatta you civilians know anyways?” He waved a hand in disgust and, the lesson in marine engineering concluded, the three boys moved on to more mundane things such as class work and teachers.

 

***

 

The noise and confusion of the previous day on the 49th Street pier had, during the night, subsided. However, early next morning it was resurrected into an organized rhythm of work. The long, tedious task of clean up had commenced.

A small wooden building, sat on the north east end of the dock. Originally built in the 1920’s as a ticket office, it had only last month been transformed into a supervisor’s office for management of the Normandie refit project. This Tuesday morning however, the tiny structure was once again transformed into something it had not been intended for, a press room.

The single sheet of paper taped to the front door, the only door, was hardly discernable through the Winter dark and read, ‘Press Conference 0700 hours’. The interior had been made into a makeshift facility by shifting the chairs around, classroom style, on either side of the room. At the front stood a small podium, behind which was a large blackboard. The board bore an outline, in chalk, of Normandie, in profile. In one corner of the board someone had scribbled a laundry list of statistics down the right hand side, “83,000 tons, 1,029 ft long,” etc.

The throng of reporters, far outnumbering the amount of available seats, were dressed in heavy winter clothing, sipping coffee from blue & white paper cups and trying to keep warm in the unheated shack. As they spoke, their breath formed puffs of steam in the air, adding to the atmosphere of drama which hung in the room.

They were verbally bombarding a junior Naval officer trapped between the podium and blackboard. With his great coat open and his tie undone, the beleaguered Lieutenant, Junior Grade, heroically fought off the questions, but was hampered by his inability to control the crowd.

He was sent in from the Public Relations office to buy time for the Admiral who was now twenty minutes late. Their press deadline approaching, the reporters wanted a statement, and they wanted it now. Particularly about certain rumors no one would comment on.

“Come on Lieutenant! Give us a break! What’s the dope on this sabotage thing? Who actually spotted the submarine?”

“Hey, L. T.! We heard two hundred guys were burned alive below decks! When can we get pictures of the bodies?” It was the representative of the Enquirer.

“Now that she’s sunk, do we got a Pearl Harbor East?” In exasperation, the officer held up a hand, but to no avail.

“Sir could this be a coordinated plan by the Germans to sink ships up and down the Eastern Seaboard?” From behind the mob the sound of the door closing was heard and a voice rang out.

“Where do you aspiring Walter Winchells get these questions?” Everyone quieted down and turned to see who had entered. A visible expression of relief came over the J. G.’s face. The Admiral, flanked by two officers, strode up the aisle while removing his overcoat.

As he was replaced from behind the podium by the Admiral, the J. G. sat down, and became aware of the state of his uniform. The other two officers stood off to one side, the J. G. began to collect himself and the Admiral waited until all of the pressmen were completely silent. He didn’t have to wait long. Like a fourth grade class about to be given crucial answers to their next exam, they poised, pens and pads in hands.

“Now why the hell couldn’t I do that?” The young Lieutenant whispered to one of the officers on his flank.

“Because you’re not a god-damned admiral.”

“Gentlemen, I am Rear Admiral Adolphos Andrews, Commandant of the Third Naval District. Apologies for being late. Let me start by asking you to hold your questions until I finish my statement.”

“First, in response to the rumor that 200 men were trapped below decks, everyone got out. Sorry Dave.” The Admiral looked at the reporter from the Enquirer and the rest of the room broke into a ripple of laughter which quickly subsided.

“There is a casualty list which will be released to you pending notification of next of kin. I can tell you, however, that at this time we have seventy-two hospitalized, ninety-three treated on the scene and one known dead.” The Admiral knew what they wanted to hear. He made the decision to skip the rest of the details of the prepared briefing, and get to the point.

“About the sabotage rumor. It was a fire. An accidental fire. Nothing more. There was no U-Boat. There were no spies in the yard. Just an accidental fire.”

“Sir?” One of the pressmen ignored the request to hold questions.

“How can you definitely rule out sabotage when there’s been no investigation?”

“Because we know where and how the fire started.” The Admiral replied, careful not to reveal his annoyance.

“But sir . . .” The reporter pushed, knowing he had the support of the entire press corps present. “It’s not even been eighteen hours! She’s still smouldering out there, fer cryin’ out loud!” Andrews realized he had to be more assertive.

“Gentlemen! From the best information I have available at this time, the fire started on the port side promenade deck. A spark from an acetylene torch ignited a life jacket. Exactly like this one.” Holding up an orange, thick collared Mae West, he produced a knife from his hip pocket and sliced deeply into the vest.

“This material . . .” He explained to his audience reaching into the hole and producing a handful of dark, straw-like substance, “. . . is Kapok. Very good flotation properties, but highly flammable. One of the welders got careless. A spark from his torch set off a pile of Mae Wests, and it got out of control.” Andrews hoped that by using a more familiar lexicon, he might get through to them more effectively.

“Sir we understand there’s gonna be a D. A.’s investigation. If it’s a clear cut accident why are the cops in on it?”

“Just covering all the bases Phil. We don’t want anything coming back on us later. You know what I mean?”

“C.Y.A., hey Sir?” There was another bout of sporadic laughter, but Andrews wasn’t off the hook yet.

“Sir can you honestly tell us that with thousands of people milling in and out of here all day long that a saboteur couldn't sneak in and start a fire?”

“I’m not telling you that couldn’t happen. However under the circumstances I’m telling you that it would have been impossible due to our unbreachable security.” Maintaining his professional attitude was becoming more difficult however, he sought to get the briefing back on track and so asked if there were any other topics they would like to discuss.

“Sir, can she be salvaged?”

“We are confident that the AP-53 can be salvaged. However that’s an engineering question, and I’m a ship driver.” Nodding to one of the other officers, he continued as the officer stood up. “Lieutenant Commander Scott is Chief of Naval Repairs for the Third Naval District. He’ll field all of your questions concerning the salvage operation. And then wow you with his technical knowledge.” Andrews explained. “I have to leave, however when the engineer is finished he’ll give you back to our P. R. man. Be gentle with him fellas. It's his first time. Thank you.” The Admiral stepped down and took his coat, while the Lieutenant Commander stepped up and prepared to speak.

The J. G., still in his seat, buried his face in his hands and shook his head.

Outside the street the Admiral’s Adjutant did his job. In the Admiral’s interest he asked the unthinkable.

“Sir, what if a subsequent investigation reveals the possibility of enemy agents? Are we prepared for that?” Andrews donned his gloves as he gazed out the hazy sunrise colorfully tinting the vast harbor.

“Gene, do you remember all the anti-war sentiment before Pearl?” Andrews spoke in a low, but firm tone.

“Yes sir.”

“A good part of that argument was because a hell of a lot of people in this country were sick of war, but thought we were invulnerable. Nobody could touch us, nobody would touch us! Nobody would touch America! So let the Europeans fight their own war, we’re safe way over here. And then came Pearl. All of a sudden the U. S. is not only in the war, we’re in it without a Pacific fleet. Now how do you suppose the general population of this country would react if they knew that we were losing upwards of fifty ships a month in the Atlantic, let alone that there might be enemy agents in New York City?”

Disarmed, the Adjutant stared out across the harbor.

“With our delusions of invulnerability gone, Gene, all we got left right now to hold the people together . . . is patriotism.”

 

Now Read Part Two - Click Here

Operation Underworld by Paddy Kelly

About TheBook

February, 1942. Free China is lost, the Battle of Britain has been fought and Hitler dines in Paris. World War II is nearly three years old, however the United States resists involvement. With an invitation from the Imperial Japanese Navy at Pearl Harbor everything changes. In her first ten months of the war nearly 500 American ships are lost. The retooling of Her factories is estimated to take at least a year, and even before it is completed, the men who work in those factories must become Marines, sailors and soldiers. The U.S. Navy is behind the eight ball, big time. They need help. To compound their problems, the most famous luxury liner in the world, T. L. S. Normandie, has just been set alight and burned to the water-line in New York Harbor initiating wide spread hysteria in fear of German saboteurs. All originating from a misguided sense of desperation, and a well planned feign. Meanwhile, “The Boss of Bosses”, Lucky Luciano at age 45, is serving a thirty to fifty year sentence in a maximum security prison in upstate New York. In one of the most ironic decisions of the war, the Federal Government requests the founder of organized crime, Lucky Luciano, to join forces with America’s most secret service, Naval Intelligence. Luciano, has been sentenced to life in prison for a crime that warrants ten years, and is concurrently fighting deportation to an enemy nation where he will certainly be put to death, when he is asked to help the government who condemned him. In addition, he is told he must remain in prison with no chance for compensation or parole. Mike ’Doc’ McKeowen, a New York P. I., leads us through the story. Doc just wants to get his life back on track after his business partner ran off with all the top clients, and a long and painful divorce drained him of his house, his family and his dignity. Fate may have a plan for Doc, but he can’t figure out what the hell it is. Whether you believe the link between the Federal Government and organized crime is a slender thread, or as Mario Puzo wrote, ’. . . contemporary America, where law and organized crime are one and the same.’, you will learn how the foundation of the international drug cartel was laid. You will come to appreciate the saying, ‘Due Facce della stessa Medaliglia’. Crime and politics, two sides of the same coin. Titanic was an act of carelessness. Lusitania was an act of war. Normandie was an act of genius. Reviews and more information here: CLICK FOR INFO

Operation Underworld
(Paddy Kelly)

The serialised version of this outstanding novel

Part One


Operation Underworld

PROLOGUE

 

“Never ever trust what your government tells you.”

- Bruce Springsteen, Born In The U.S.A. tour, 1984

 

 

As a scientist and historian it's sometimes hard to reconcile the concept of fate. To be objective and thus well rounded you try to see history as a simultaneously occurring series of separate events, on countless different planes, all unfolding in different places at various tempos. But when you come across a single event which took minutes to initiate but would inextricably bind the U. S. Navy, the FBI and the Mafia and eventually tens of thousands of lives for the duration of WWII and then some years after, it's hard not to lay down the pen, close the texts, pour a drink and go down to the beach to watch the sunset.

Even more captivating is that the plethora of historical ironies peppering this story were brought together by Albert Anastasia, a man who didn't finish primary school, possessed barely a modicum of intelligence and who's claim to fame was he murdered over 500 people as C.E.O. of Murder Incorporated.

How did the most critical arm of the U. S. government in 1942, Naval Intelligence, (whose New York branch curiously seemed to be comprised largely of lawyers), give the highest priority to hiring the man who established organized crime in America? A man who the left hand of the government, politics, enthusiastically touted as their #1 poster child for crime.

For a start and by way of setting the stage for the story, it should be understood that the period between the two world wars saw the birth and growth of several organizations in America the developments of which initiated a dynamic that would spawn a plethora of major historical events any one of which would not only supply material for a dozen novels and several films, but are still revealing stories today.

Three of the most significant of these were the establishment of Organized Crime, the FBI and Naval Intelligence. They all grew up, went to school and came of age in the late 1920's as separate entities however, like predators prowling an ever shrinking savanna, their collisions were inevitable.

As is the case with most great stories the story of how and why the U. S. Navy came to hire Lucky Luciano and the Unione Siciliano in what was known as Operation Underworld unfolds in a great place, New York City, and involves several central figures aspiring to to greatness but only one of which sought notoriety, J. Edgar Hoover.

As an added attraction the New York City District Attorney's office, headed by the infamous Thomas E. Dewey, unwittingly acted as catalyst. 

In February of 1942 one of the key players was in his sixth year of what was essentially two and a half life sentences convicted of a crime for which the law allowed ten. To exacerbate the situation Salvatore Lucania, “Lucky” Luciano had, by technical legal guidelines, been framed by the testimony of others obtained under, in some cases, the threat of violence and rather thin circumstantial evidence.

The real life, dramatic irony extends even further when one considers that the man who engineered his trial, had him convicted and imprisoned was the very man whose life Luciano had saved less than a year before, New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey.

There's little doubt Luciano was guilty of multiple violations under the White Slavery Act, (a dramatic term for prostitution), but the entire United States legal machine were not enough to actually catch him with his hand in the till and so, in order to not look too stupid, they had to “bend” their own laws.

 

Lucky, was a classic American rags-to-riches success story. He was not only co-founder of the Unione Siciliano or National Crime Syndicate or the Commission, as it was known by its members, but organized and established what became the International Drug Cartel, built a casino based empire in Havana and Las Vegas and then, at a council in Cuba, gave the nod to kill the man who built it for him, Ben 'Bugsy' Siegal. All of which, with the exception of organizing the Unione, he did well in prison or in exile. Not bad for a kid from the slums of a fourth rate town in a third world country.

As if to show he had a sense of humor Dewey made sure Luciano's indictment came at a time when he truly believed himself sufficiently insulated from the law to have any worries. The multiple count indictment was handed down on April Fool's Day.

It also came at a time when the position of New York City District Attorney bore no small legacy. The next step up was governor after which, if you had A, an adequate popularity quotation and B, adequate financial backing, (which was virtually guaranteed if you had A), the salutations on your mail thereafter would read: “Dear Mr. President”. All compliments of the New York City based Tammany Hall leadership. Such was the Yellow Brick Road of the times.

There can be little doubt about Thomas Dewey's politically driven actions against the likes of Waxey Gordon, Louie Lepke and Dutch Schultz. After all if a man wants to be President of the United States, essentially the head lawyer of the country, starting out as a prosecutor is a good place to be. Starting out in New York in the 1930's is a better place and getting the big name gangsters, whatever it takes, is a shoe in. Almost. Dewey's political ambitions were assured if he could convict Schultz and just as he was about to pounce the Dutchman decided enough was enough and set up a hit on D. A. Dewey the “Gang Buster”.

Unfortunately for Shultz Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, founders of the Siciliano Unione, were adamant about the 'keeping a low profile' clause in their corporate agreement.

So, a day before Dutch gave the okay to kill Dewey, Lucky gave the okay to kill Dutch. Schultz was hit in a New York chop house, eating a steak, and it is widely held that this is where the myth of a condemned man's last meal, commonly steak, originated.

So, in 1936 New York City D. A. Dewey decided Luciano, despite having been arrested about twenty-five times and only jailed twice for short periods, was going down regardless of what was required to do it. Bear in mind that Luciano was a hoodlum, but also bear in mind that his statement, “We never killed no one that didn't deserve it.” is, so far as anyone can determine, true. This includes not only ordering the death of Dutch Schultz but sanctioning the assassination of one of his most ardently loyal followers and supporters, Albert Anastasia after he needlessly ordered the death of a an innocent bakery apprentice for insulting him.

Like the Unione, Naval Intelligence had recently been dealt its' worse blow since its' inception, namely Pearl Harbor. It had been only two months since the bombing and, in a long laundry list of parallels with the Twin Towers attack, politicians were asking, “How did we not know this was coming?”, and flinging such helpful suggestions as, “Somebody has to swing!”

Interestingly, in 2004 documents were released to the news agencies by some historians in Britain showing that as a result of efforts by the British intelligence agencies, code breakers who had cracked the JN code were able to inform Churchill about plans for the attack as early as November of '41, over a month before it happened. In turn, it was reported Churchill waited two weeks before informing FDR who, American historical documents adequately testify to, never informed the two commanders of the full extent of the probability of the attack. In all likelihood, some speculate, motivated by America's failed economy being mired down for over a decade in the Great Depression.

 

The second central player, Lt. Cmdr Haffenden, (coincidentally carrying the same first name as Luciano), appears to have fallen into the Operation Underworld scenario by being in the right place at the right time. As the officer in charge of the ports of New York he wasn't really privy to D.C.'s decisions but by all accounts was certainly the right man for the job. With an outstanding record of past intelligence exploits, a good sense of command and a “Can Do” attitude he threw himself into an operation which had little chance of any real success from the start, that is catching German spies. To his credit, he so impressed and maintained the respect of Meyer Lansky, that Lansky not only kept his son away from racketeering but sent him to West Point. Although we are not sure of the extent of Haffenden's influence, Lansky himself went straight not long after the war.

Rather than the serious game of spy counter spy originally envisioned with the inception of Operation Underworld, it turned into more of an expensive game of cops and robbers, mostly without the robbers.

German war records clearly indicate that generals had no intention of launching any serious attempts at espionage or sabotage in the Continental U. S. and pretty much viewed it as a waste of resources. Records also indicate that the group of twelve German operatives sent over and landed by submarine on the shores of Long Island, were a write off and seen to be an experiment, forgive the pun, to test the waters.

In contrast, it wasn't as bad a time for J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Finally they would be given a chance to show what they could do, as long as it wasn't going toe to toe with the Commission, which according to them didn't exist. Their resource allocation was drastically increased, as was their jurisdictional guidelines, and they were going to be allowed to catch spies. Problem was they had a lot of catching up to do themselves and Hoover fantasized that it fell to him alone to see it done.

Much like Luciano, Hoover was able to exploit the emergency situation the war created to his advantage, however he did it by greatly increasing his public persona while Lucky did it by further receding into the shadows of secrecy. Commander Haffenden saw it strictly as a matter of duty. Interestingly, all three utilized government agencies, large amounts of cash and lots and lots of unwitting civilians.

Keep in mind this is only one small part of the historical picture of the time, but it's a damn interesting one by any standard. There were other organizations with other spheres of influence, and Luciano’s direct influence in America was only from 1931 to 1946. Although he was imprisoned in 1936 this merely caused him to restructure the way he did business. Lt. Cmdr Haffenden was directly involved less than year and Hoover was never really allowed to be involved.

These are but a few of the primary elements contributing to the atmosphere in early February of 1942 and after the 1945 Armistice, each player left the table, cashed in his chips and went looking for the next game. It's another story as to who won, who lost or who drew, but for that brief period in the Spring of '42, the path's of all concerned were unexpectedly and inextricably interwoven to form Operation Underworld.


 

‘When we are dealing with the Caucasian race, we have methods that will determine loyalty. But when we deal with the Japanese, we are in an entirely different field.’

 

California State Attorney General, Earl Warren in 1942, commenting on the imprisonment of 150,000 Japanese-American citizens.

 

 

‘Now they have created a Frank-in-steen monster and the chickens have come home to roost all over the country!’

 

Presidential candidate Governor George Wallace, 1968, commenting on the opposition.

 

 

‘Doodle Doodle Dee, Wubba Wubba Wubba.’

 

MTV’s Downtown Julie Brown, commenting on the current state of politics in America.

 


CHAPTER ONE

 

 

The New York City waterfront is an interesting place. Anything can happen at most any time and in late January of 1942, despite its two and a half centuries of violent history, relative peace and calm prevailed, while half a world away free China was lost, the Battle of Britain had been fought, and Hitler was dining in Paris. 

The majority of men have always and will always allow themselves to be caught up in world events larger than themselves, and hopelessly swim against the tide while praying to their respective gods for a favorable outcome. However, a select few have the where-with-fore to keep their heads and turn such events to their advantage.

One such man was in his sixth year of a fifty year sentence, without parole, convicted on contrived evidence and told he would eventually be deported to a nation whose leader had already issued a death warrant against him.

 

 

Clinton State Penitentiary, Dannemora, New York. Groundhog Day, 1942

 

The weathered, olive complexion of the visitor's face made him look older than his mid-forties. Other than the guard, who now stood sentry against the wall in front of him, he was alone in the under lit, painted brick room.

Sitting patiently at the far end of the long wooden table, hands on top in full view as the large, baked-enamel sign on the wall dictated, he was fitted in a dark blue, handmade suit complete with silk tie. He glanced at the stone-faced guard who stared back with his best tough guy face. After a fifteen minute wait, the rattling of locks on the dark green, steel doors progressively echoed louder and louder throughout the adjoining chambers, until the door leading into the visitors room creaked open, and two more men entered.

The pock-marked faced prisoner with dark hair and drooping right eyelid were the first to enter and the prisoner was escorted to a seat on the opposite side of the table by a second, older guard. The visitor reached over the twelve inch high partition which bisected the thick oak top to shake hands with the dungaree clad man on the opposite side.

“Keep your hands away from the prisoner!” Tough Guy guard yelled. The visitor was unfazed and proceeded with his inquiry in a tone of genuine concern.

“How ya doin’, Charlie?”

“Ah . . .” Charlie shrugged. “It’s Dannemora, you know. Fuckin’ Siberia.”

Ya need anything?” Both men were visibly relaxed.

“Yeah. Get me down state!”

“We’re workin’ on it, Charlie. Anything else?”

“How’s it goin’ down town?” He changed to a near whisper, and immediately both guards drifted closer to the table. The men looked up from their seated positions, and then at each other. With feigned disregard they resumed their conversation, only now in Italian. The guards didn’t back away.

“Things ain’t lookin’ so good. Especially with these two assholes standin’ here.”

Ya think maybe they’re queer for each other?” Neither of the men laughed at the comment, but the younger of the two guards became visibly annoyed, and started towards Lucky. The elder guard raised an arm to stop him and the men once again resumed their conversation, however this time in an obscure dialect of Sicilian.

“Why? What’s goin’ on?” The guards drifted back towards the wall as Tough Guy grew increasingly irritated.

“The Camardos are gettin’ more independent, we’re losin’ more of Jersey. Siegel says if they don’t let him send somebody over there to put a hit on Goering and Goebbles, he’s gonna do it himself.”

“That crazy Jew bastard! Always with the gun! What’s the story on working with the Navy people?” A downward glance introduced his reply.

“They nixed it!”

“What?! Why?! What’s our guys in D. C. say?” Charlie was surprised.

“To politically risky. They don’t want no part of it.”

“Shit! Did you remind them . . . ?”

“Yeah.”

“I was countin’ on that deal ta solidify our operations fer after the war.”

“Maybe get you down state while we’re at it.”

“Maybe.” Luciano looked down at the table top. “Maybe they can be persuaded.” Charlie suggested. The young guard could stand it no longer. The senior sentry nodded at his younger colleague and both started towards the men.

“Times up! Let’s go!” Halfway through the door, Lucky called back over his shoulder.

“Send Albert A. up here next.”


 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

Free China might have been lost, the Battle of Britain may have been fought, and perhaps Hitler was dining Paris, but on the Manhattan side of the Big Pond, relative peace and calm prevailed.

The February sunrise peacefully crept over Hudson Bay illuminating the pristine, bluish-green water of New York Harbor. The golden sunlight sent moonbeam-like reflections dancing playfully across the serene river and helped chase the morning chill from the docks.

For the last forty-five minutes methods of transport of every shape and description arrived depositing denim clad workers onto the planks of Pier 88 along Luxury Liner Row just off 49th Street. Few arrived by automobile as parking spaces were all but non-existent and the limited few were reserved for the most senior executives and high ranking naval officers. Besides, cars were for the rich. Instead bicycles, buses, subways, and most often the 'shoe leather express', were the Tradesman’s common modes of transport. The second Monday of the month saw the slow, but purposeful activity of nearly 5000 workers about to ease into their daily routine of organized chaos.

As 6:30 approached, the change of shift whistle was about to sound and 2,500 weary bodies would be replaced by 2,500 fresh workers ready to expend their energy into the project at hand.

Despite the fact they all seemed to have the same look about them, this army of welders, fitters and carpenters were not dressed in a cohesive uniform. As the sporadic conversation and occasional joking of the scattered clusters of men became progressively louder the serenity, which signalled the prelude to the daily routine, was suddenly shattered by an unscheduled outburst.

Just outside the gate a young couple, the woman cuddling a small wailing bundle, were heard exchanging insults. After a brief stare-off the man turned his head and noticed the cluster of workers propped against the chain-linked fence observing he and his wife’s public displays of affection. Knowing better than to attempt the last word, he terminated the argument and stormed away in the direction of the workforce. Not far behind a metal lunch pail sailed through the air after him and although these tin, alloy containers were never designed as missiles, in the right hands their aerodynamics were appreciable.

Landing on the ground just behind the disillusioned young husband, the pail burst open and spilled its contents onto the asphalt. As he stooped to rescue the only food he would have for the next twelve hours, his co-workers seized the opportunity to offer their support.

Ain’t love grand?” One of them called out in a mock romantic voice and the flood gates opened.

“Hey Doll! Yankee try-outs next week!”

“You must be so proud being married to one of those new, modern women." As if to rescue him from further humiliation, the change of shift whistle blew and the horde of laborers and tradesmen slowly migrated towards the small gate leading to the dock. The narrowness of the gate was not an oversight on the part of the Third Naval District engineers. It was an intentional design to control pedestrian traffic in order to increase security on the strategically critical pier.

As the night shift filed out through an adjoining gate, spilling out onto the side walk under the West Side Highway, a glaringly evident look of fatigue on their faces, it was obvious that these men had begun to reach the point where it was no longer the hours or the physical output required of them which caused them to grow older than their years. It was instead the relentlessness of the work. Day after day, night after night with nothing to break the tedium of the routine. All knew, without being told, that the shipbuilding would go on and on, and on until, at some unknown point in time, in the distant future, the war was over. One way or the other.

Shuffling through the gate with an orderly sense of urgency, the off-going shift migrated out onto the streets and beyond. The on-going crew, which had now swelled to over 2,300 members, displayed a diversity not normally seen in times of peace.

Aside from civilians representing all walks of life, there were over 1100 men in active duty Navy, Coast Guard and Reservist’s uniforms.     

As a means of proving who they were and foiling potential saboteurs, everyone was required some form of I. D. The military men carried standard issue armed forces cards with photos and serial numbers. The civilian workers and tradesmen however, had each been issued a small brass medallion, about the size of a silver dollar, as their means of I. D. Stamped into each coin were a series of five numbers as well as the name of the shipping line each worked for. Some held their medallion in their hand and flashed it to the guard as they passed through the gate. Some pinned it to jacket lapels and still others had them attached to baseball caps bearing the logo of their favorite ball club, each member of the labor army attempting to express a measure of individuality in an ocean of sameness.

After about ten minutes, when a couple of hundred men had already passed through the checkpoint, the line suddenly stopped moving. Heads peeked right and left of the line to observe the short, slight man standing in the threshold of the gate, frantically frisking himself in an attempt to locate his medallion. Arms folded across his chest the stocky Marine corporal stood glaring at the man.

“Hey Fitzy, take your time! Nobody’s got nuthin’ ta do here!” Someone called out from down the line.

“Yeah, no rush. Hitler’ll wait.” Sporadic laughter added to Fitzy's consternation until, finally, he was able to locate the all important item and was waved through.

With the line once again flowing freely, the seemingly endless stream of work boots paraded past the guard and fanned out across the pier, making their way towards the behemoth-like luxury liner looming in the berth before them.

A large, rectangular wooden sign, hung on a pair of thick, square timbers, adjacent to the main gangplank, amidships. As an afterthought a dirty grey tarpaulin had been lashed over the sign, but one end flapped loosely in the breeze revealing the words, “New Troopship” and “Lafayette”. As if to reinforce the contradictory pattern which had thus far characterized the U. S. war effort, high above the sign, prominently embossed across the bow of the ship, was the name, ‘NORMANDIE’.

By way of protesting her forced make-over and imposed new identity, the magnificent vessel had stubbornly sulked in harbor for nearly three years while argument after argument ping- ponged off commander’s desks as to what to do with her.

The Generals wanted a new troopship to ferry troops into the European Theatre while the Admirals reasoned that after Pearl Harbor, a new carrier fit the bill.

Her official designation up till now was AP-53 and, despite the fact that politicians of the highest level were involved, no one could possibly guess that the events of the next few hours would result in her remaining in harbor for the rest of her life after which she would emerge as a symbol of poor judgement and wasted effort.

As each of the men gravitated towards their respective work stations no one seemed to notice the lone figure who carried no lunch pail. His unscuffed boots peaking out from long hemmed, crisp Levi denims shuffling across the creosote soaked timbers. He carried a small, grease-stained brown paper bag at his side. The lanky individual walked directly towards the gang plank amidships.

Focused on the sheaf of papers clutched tightly in his fist the Site Foreman was far too angry to notice the new man as they crossed paths. Making his way to the Site Overseer who stood behind a partially sheltered podium, the irritated foreman stared at the man hunched over his work and was greeted with forced cordiality.

“Morning boss. How’s . . . SHIT! What now?”

“‘What now?’ As if you‘re the only schmuck in the yard that doesn’t know! Where are they?”

“You talkin’ about the riggin’ the fire hose, fake leak in the hull thing?”

“I’M IN NO MOOD EDDIE! DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS IS?! It’s a report! And guess what's in it? Where are they?” Eddie inadvertently glanced over his boss’ shoulder and turning, the Foreman spotted his two victims. “Never mind!” He anetheziesd the Overseer's agony and re-directed his fury. “YOU TWO, BUD AND LOU! HERE, NOW!” The two workers were taken completely off guard and hesitated before slinking over to the gallows.

“I just spent twenty minutes explaining to ten people we really don’t have a leak in the forward hold!” By way of response the shorter of the two was seized with a sudden urge to scratch his head.

“See this? This is our quarterly safety review which happened to occur exactly the same day you two morons GAVE UP GOOD JUDGEMENT FOR LENT!!”

“But Boss, Lent ain’t til’ . . .”

“STOW IT!”

“Stowing it, boss.”

“Boss we have no idea what you’re talkin’ about.” The tall worker responded with near sincerity.

“I told you it was a bad idea.” Prompted the co-accused.

“The Personnel Department says I’m to sack you two jerk offs! Friday. But I, in my infinite generosity and benevolence, I told them there are no more fitters down the hall. DON’T MAKE ME CALL ‘EM BACK!”

“Boss, we’re sorry. It’s just . . . the freakin’ boredom!”

“It's not really so much the boredom as it is the tedium!”

“Just get your shit together will ya?!” He pleaded. “This big grey taxi has ta be ferryin’ dog-faces by mid-March and my Damage Control crew runnin’ around playin’ sophomoric pranks, disruptin’ operations don’t exactly help matters. Besides . . . ”

“It’s all fun n’ games till somebody gets an eye poked out.” Tall man interjected.

“Then it’s a sport.” Shorty nodded in affirmation.

“Get the hell outta here! Assholes!”

The work on the vessel proceeded until, the lunch break, when the loud cacophony normally present gave way to a relaxing silence. To avoid the long journey back down through the labyrinth of the vessel’s passageways and onto the pier, everyone more or less sat and began eating where they had been working. The topics of conversation ranged from the usual war news to the tragic death of Carol Lumbard in a plane crash in Las Vegas. Then, shortly after work had resumed, the routine on The 49th Street Pier, as well as the American war effort, was irreversibly altered.

Insidiously a narrow but widening plume of thick, black smoke slowly crept its way down the port side passageway leading from the promenade deck. Ominously, the treacherous dark cloud rolled along the deck contained only by the freshly painted bulkheads as small red-orange flames crackled behind it, fighting to gather momentum.  a minute later the plume was a blanket covering the 50 or 60 square feet of the deck.

A welder's helper shuttling tools back and forth for the workers rounded the corner and came out onto the promenade and a wall of flames exploded out into the open air and over the rail 100 feet over the dock.

To the crew members working on the pier, the trouble was not immediately apparent. However, as the yelling and the chaotic activity on the upper weather decks grew louder, an electrical sensation crackled through the air and was instantly recognized as something drastically out of sync. With animal like instinct, each man of each crew, through out each successive deck level stopped what he was doing, raised his head and listened. Then, either smelling smoke or sensing the steadily mounting pandemonium, ran for the exits. In less than ten minutes the port side promenade deck was completely engulfed.

The mild breeze which blew that afternoon fed the flames enough oxygen so that by half past two all the weather decks were involved. To add to the rapidly mounting problems, the freshly applied coat of paint allowed the entire main deck to be consumed only minutes later. The resulting one thousand degree temperatures were in stark contrast to the thirty-three degree levels of the ambient air of the harbor. To appalled observers, the involvement of the lower weather decks meant that anyone working above those levels, if they had not yet escaped, were suffering the most horrible death imaginable.

By now several things were occurring simultaneously. A variety of men working at pier level began to realize what was happening, and three of them ran for the guard shack, which housed the only land line. As they burst through the door, they discovered that the alert young Marine had already notified the N.Y.P.D., the fire department, and was currently in the process of dialing the Harbor Master on his emergency line.

“Did you call for the docs?!” One of the men asked in a frantic voice. The big guard held out his index finger while finished dialing.

“Yeah! The police are going to notify the hospital to prepare a triage team.” Talking into the telephone the Marine continued. “Harbor Master, this is Lance Corporal Deuth, Pier 88, Luxury Row! We've got a code two emergency! Yes sir, yes sir! Already done both of those! Thank you sir!” As he hung up the phone the Marine instructed two of the men to return to the ship to help, and one of the men to stand by the main gate to prevent anyone from blocking access by parking in front of it. As they ran back to the ship one of the men turned the other,

“Hey Harry!”

“What?”

“What the hell’s a triage?”

“I don’t know, but they better get a shit load of them out here!”

With Normandie longer than the width of Central Park, the two thousand foot long dock, plus the additional two to three hundred feet to the main gate, was a distance few of the men gave any thought to until that day. Running from the guard shack towards the ship was not only complicated by the bitter cold, but wading through the crowds of workers moving in the opposite direction while wearing heavy work boots and heavy winter coats made it a triple effort. Tools and gear and canvas fire hoses littered the dock, half of them covered in ice and men tripped and stumbled regularly.

Several workers, noticing that all four gang planks were clogged with fleeing workers, immediately set about erecting ladders against the hull at appropriate hatchways.

Through the unending stream of panic stricken workers the Foreman fought his way back up the starboard side, forward gang plank. Halfway to the Quarterdeck he recognised the exhausted face of his chief engineer. Taking the awestruck man by the shoulders, the Foreman looked straight into his eyes.

“Mac, what’s our status?” Gasping between phrases the out of breath engineer stared through the Foreman in response.

“Bilge to ‘C’ level is clear. But if it reaches the POL stores, everything from Jersey City over to Broadway’s gonna be a fuckin' airfield!”

“You’re sure there’s no one else below?”

“Only those two lunatics.”

“Which two lunatics?”

“How many lunatics you got working Damage Control?!”

As the Foreman continued to struggle his way through the fleeing workers deeper into the ship, it occurred to him how easily a man could vanish into one of the thousands of human sized pigeon holes the partially stripped down ship had become. Fighting through the passageways below decks he spotted an OBA case on the port bulkhead. The Oxygen Breathing Apparatus would buy him at least fifteen minutes of breathable air while he searched for his two derelict ship fitters. Grasping at the latch handle he stared in dismay as the case opened and in lieu of the life saving devise a large, pink inventory tag appeared.

“Fucking bean counters!”

After an eternity of choking through the ever thickening grey smoke he reached the Paints, Oils and Lubricants cages and his attention was immediately diverted as he detected singing in the far corner of the large storage area.

Through a shroud of grey he saw the two men he had chewed out earlier that morning, both with sledge hammers, alternately beating a four inch water spigot in unison to the ‘Anvil Chorus’. Over the roar of the encroaching flames he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled.

“What the hell are you two assholes doin’ here?!”

Tryin’ to rig a leak!” Both continued to pound away at the thick brass spigot. As if on cue, the fixture burst and the resulting torrent of water dowsed the flames just as they were about to reach the main POL stores. Breaking into a celebratory dance both men dowsed themselves in the water.

“Never mind that shit! Get the hell outta here!!” Smiling angrily and following the men out of the compartment the Foreman muttered to himself. “Assholes!”

Back on the dock area a few of the men who initially fled were now returning to lend a hand and began to set up an area away from the ship to gather the casualties for the docs to assess.

One of the men was the man who earlier asked what a triage was.

 

***

 

Staring through the over sized binoculars the young boy felt more like a man then he ever did sitting in a classroom. Jimmy quit school two months ago when the war broke out, and through some friends who were connected got a job in the Harbor Master’s shack. Next year, when he turned seventeen he would sign up.

Although the building which housed the Harbor Master and his team was still referred to by its eighteenth century name, it was anything but a shack..

The red enameled two story, clapboard structure, which sat on what was essentially two sets of steel stilts, overlooked most of the harbor from its strategic position on the tip of Pier 62 just off West 23rd Street and was equipped with the latest in modern advances. High definition FM radio, lamp lit map boards and a dedicated direct telephone line to the fire tug outposts along Manhattan island.

Due to the immensity of the New York Harbor, it was impossible to view the entire area at one time from any land or sea position. So Jimmy was unsure exactly where the smoke plum he now observed originated. In this instance protocol dictated an emergency procedure be enacted whereby the area of the potential trouble was approximated, and a grid mapped out. Then all hands would man the radio and phone lines to pin-point the location of the problem and notify the nearest tug team.

“Hey, Mr. Rorro. Mr. Rorro, sir. I think I see something way out there.” Jimmy said, now squinting through the ship’s binoculars.

“You’re supposed to see something way out there Jimmy. That’s what binos are for.” The old HM was annoyed but tolerated his work being interrupted by the young boy’s enthusiasm.

“Sir, can you have a look at this please?”

“Son, I have got to get these tug escort reports done today! So stop buggin’ me!” The old man remained at the desk and continued to write.

“Sir it looks like something. A fire maybe.” The old man’s head came up from the paperwork. “Out near the tunnels.”

The HM walked over, and took the glasses from the boy. Even before he raise them he knew. “That’s a fire alright! Get on the grid! I’ll notify the tugs!”

Just as he reached for the emergency line it rang.

“Hello! HM shack, who is this?” It was Lance Corporal Deuth. “Yes corporal! Have you notified the fire and police departments? Alright than, keep the main gate clear of traffic and continue to man your station. Report to the fire chief when he arrives! The tugs are on their way. Corporal Deuth, good job!”

“John! I got Harbor Side on the line. How many units?” The Assistant HM spoke hurriedly but remained cognizant of his professionalism.

“Dispatch unit 52 Able and tell him to report as soon as he’s in sight of the fire, then tell South Park Baker to standby and get South Park Able up there for back-up. Tell ‘em to step on it. Those creosote soaked piers get involved there’s gonna be one helluva a lot of freight landin’ in Jersey!”

“Why not dispatch 52 Baker with them?” Rorro didn’t miss a beat.

“If the wind shifts north we’ll need somebody up there to intercept. Ronnie, get on channel nine notify all vessels as of . . . 14:21 hours, unless associated with the fire, we are on radio blackout until further notice. Frank, get busy! Divert all traffic south of the G.W.”

"I'm on it!" Frank shot back.

The HM notified the harbor side fire-brigade, and then proceeded to broadcast on the emergency band, channel nine, to divert all traffic away from the area. For a full twenty minutes the old HM showed why he was in charge, running back and forth across the shack directing personnel and issuing orders.

Through all the activity, Jimmy dutifully sat at the small corner table, struggling to plot the grid as he'd been trained. As the situation in the shack gradually came under control, the HM noticed the youngster still tucked away at the desk. Walking over to him, the man placed a hand on the boys shoulder. Jimmy continued to plot.

“Hey, Jimmy.” He said quietly.

Without looking up, Jimmy responded. “I’ve almost got it sir. Just one more minute!”

“You can stop now. We’re there. It's 88.” Masked in a look of despair the youngster turned towards the leathery faced man. Rorro turned to walk away, than hesitated.

“Hey, Jimmy, nice job. You done good. You’ll get credit in my official report for spotting the fire.” A dejected Jimmy slumped in his chair. Rorro crossed the room and without turning back added, “You may have saved a few lives today.”

Jimmy hoped his parents would understand when he told them he wouldn't be joining the Navy. He was going to sign on to become a Harbor Master.

 

***

 

Back at the Normandie events were mushrooming out of control as the number of men streaming out of the flaming vessel and on to the narrow pier, steadily swelled. Realizing that the entire dock may be engulfed, they began moving back towards the gate area carrying as many of the injured as possible with them where they met head on by fire-fighters, dragging hoses hard pressed to reach the entire length of the berth.

As one of the men rushed back to the blazing vessel, for what was his third time in half an hour, he was forced to avert his eyes in horror. A body, its arms and legs flailing, fell through the hot air, over 100 feet from the main deck of the ship, and violently slammed into the hard wooden timbers of the pier.

Forty-five minutes into the blaze, the burning had progressed far enough that the fire was declared out of control. Smoke and flames were visible across the Hudson River in New Jersey, and several fire units from that state had been mistakenly alerted.

Ripping spectacular wakes through the river as they sped northward a dozen fire tugs were under full throttle, their sirens heard all across the west side.

They arrived only seconds behind the smaller, swifter police boats, and immediately entered into their life saving ballet from the outboard side of the vessel. In an effort to coax the flames back into the ship, the small boats furiously pumped icy sea water onto Normandie. The resulting black plumes of smoke floated into the grey of the afternoon Manhattan sky and were carried by the Winter breeze out over the island, meandering through the tall buildings. The upper levels of most of the garment district skyscrapers were obscured and traffic was at a stand still as the smoke filtered down and settled at street level.

The cloud had not quite reached the office of the city’s highest official as of yet, however City Hall parking lot was full and the mayor’s office was crammed with reporters.

Fiorello LaGuardia sat at his desk, his large form nearly invisible from the neck down for the forest of microphones fanned out in front of him. his flabby chin wagging. The big man spoke to his constituency in one of his regular radio broadcasts. Just as he was building up steam, telling everyone how good he and his party had done so far this political season, not to mention how many of his campaign promises he had fulfilled, an aide entered from the side lines and handed him a message. LaGuardia read it and asked if it had been confirmed. When the aide nodded the politician stood, and with an alarmed look on his face, apologised to the press and excused himself.

Ten minutes later, with a police escort screaming around them LaGuardia and two men selected from his army of aides were in their official limo plotting strategy.

“I want an update on traffic problems ASAP. And prep for additional manpower in police, fire and road works.” The Mayor ordered to the senior of the two aides.

“It’s taken care of it sir.” There was a brief pause and the two aides exchanged glances.

“Your Honor . . . there’s something more important we need to consider.” LaGuardia looked back from the window.

“Depending on how this thing happened . . . sabotage, accident, we could get hurt.”

“How bad?”

“Depends on the death toll. With an event this size, a few bodies would be acceptable. . .” The junior aide chimed in.

“Depending on who they are.”

“Of course. But dozens, god forbid hundreds . . . “

“Do we know who the scene commander is?” LaGuardia inquired.                

“Chief Patrick J. Walsh”

“Democrat or republican?” The junior man began flipping through a note pad.

“Irish. Hell’s Kitchen.”

Arriving at the scene LaGuardia had to struggle through the crowd. He was escorted past the medical triage center on the south side of the pier which had been established by medical support personnel, and it was at that moment the gravity of the situation hit home.

Over the encroaching dusk a 1000 foot wide fog of smoke rose over the ship, painting half the grey sky black, then leaned south and floated towards the Atlantic.

In gut wrenching contrast to the misleading serenity above Luxury Liner Row, over a dozen fire tugs danced around the vacant adjoining slip deciding how to keep the largest ship in the world from listing any further and becoming swamped. Suddenly the chaotic cacophony of the casualties flooding in at an unmanageable rate, snapped him back to reality as he watched the woefully outnumbered doctors and nurse, hard pressed in their heroic efforts to keep up.

The mayor dispatched an aide to seek out the fire chief, and fifteen minutes later Chief Walsh, his face smeared in soot, was briefing LaGuardia as to the current situation. The chief spoke in a controlled, professional tone, but was compelled to raise his voice above the clamber of the rescue efforts.

“Your Honor, at this point we have every fire tug on the West Side involved as well as all of the shore based apparatus we can effectively manoeuvre on this narrow pier.”

“Chief, why is she leaning so far to the side?”

“From all the water we’ve pumped into her sir. There’s no way for it to drain out.” He explained above the din.

“What happens if she flips over?”

“In that event Mayor we have a crew standing by to cut the mooring lines. But we’ve secured permission from Admiral Andrews to cut holes in her hull to drain the water and try and balance her out.”

“Why not just stop pumping all that water into her? Or at least slow it down a little?” The mayor’s inexperience in disaster management was obvious.

“Mayor we have reports of over two hundred men still trapped below decks. If those men were able to secure themselves in the various compartments and we stop pumping water onto the flames . . . sir, they’re as good as dead.” LaGuardia folded his arms and looked down. If two hundred lives were lost in this tragedy, and the decision for the action causing those deaths could be traced to him in any way . . .

“I understand chief. How long before it’s under control?”

“Your Honor, we may not be able to get her under control.”

As the Chief excused himself the mayor realized he had no choice but to accept the senior fire-fighter’s expert opinion.

As night fell, the ever darkening backdrop highlighted the spectacular display of top side flames and dancing shadows. Glancing up at the burning hulk, the mayor’s thoughts turned to the potential affects on his political career now that German saboteurs had brought the war to America.

Suddenly a small swarm of reporters appeared around him, and began the traditional feeding frenzy of questions. Nearly surrounded, LaGuardia held his hand up, messiah-like, and began to speak. The press listened.     

“Gentlemen! I’ve just finished speaking with Fire Chief Walsh. He assures me the blaze is under control and that the Normandie can be salvaged. They’ll be a press conference in the morning. No more questions. Thank you.”

Swiftly walking away from the mob, amidst a barrage of questions, LaGuardia nodded to his junior aide. The well groomed young man stepped between the press sharks and their intended chum and, paying particular attention to detail, began to speak at length about nothing, and then pretended to answer questions as the politician vanished through the gate and into his limo.

 

Now with the fire nearly extinguished, and very little available light remaining, not much else could be done for Normandie that day. Walsh’s men had cut the mooring lines as well as several holes in her hull, but it didn’t help. Sometime during the night, the eloquent lady nearly twice the size of Titanic who had twice held the trans-Atlantic record, gently rolled over and came to rest in her berth at ninety degrees port.

 

***

 

The battle ship grey and pumpkin orange, ice encrusted hull glimmered in the morning sunlight, and it was impossible to resist the visual images it projected. Only a couple of hundred yards across the river, on the Jersey shore, some high school kids had gathered on the rail road tracks which paralleled the river. They stood and watched a lone fireboat continue to coat the sleeping beauty with sea water.

“Jeez-o- Pete! Look how big them propellers are!” It was the younger of the three boys who spoke first.

“They ain’t propellers dummy! They’re called screws!”

“Says who know-it-all?”

“Says my brother!”

“Aw lay off Jerry! Just `cause your brother’s in the Navy that don’t make you in the Navy!”

“Yeah? Well it will next year! Whatta you civilians know anyways?” He waved a hand in disgust and, the lesson in marine engineering concluded, the three boys moved on to more mundane things such as class work and teachers.

 

***

 

The noise and confusion of the previous day on the 49th Street pier had, during the night, subsided. However, early next morning it was resurrected into an organized rhythm of work. The long, tedious task of clean up had commenced.

A small wooden building, sat on the north east end of the dock. Originally built in the 1920’s as a ticket office, it had only last month been transformed into a supervisor’s office for management of the Normandie refit project. This Tuesday morning however, the tiny structure was once again transformed into something it had not been intended for, a press room.

The single sheet of paper taped to the front door, the only door, was hardly discernable through the Winter dark and read, ‘Press Conference 0700 hours’. The interior had been made into a makeshift facility by shifting the chairs around, classroom style, on either side of the room. At the front stood a small podium, behind which was a large blackboard. The board bore an outline, in chalk, of Normandie, in profile. In one corner of the board someone had scribbled a laundry list of statistics down the right hand side, “83,000 tons, 1,029 ft long,” etc.

The throng of reporters, far outnumbering the amount of available seats, were dressed in heavy winter clothing, sipping coffee from blue & white paper cups and trying to keep warm in the unheated shack. As they spoke, their breath formed puffs of steam in the air, adding to the atmosphere of drama which hung in the room.

They were verbally bombarding a junior Naval officer trapped between the podium and blackboard. With his great coat open and his tie undone, the beleaguered Lieutenant, Junior Grade, heroically fought off the questions, but was hampered by his inability to control the crowd.

He was sent in from the Public Relations office to buy time for the Admiral who was now twenty minutes late. Their press deadline approaching, the reporters wanted a statement, and they wanted it now. Particularly about certain rumors no one would comment on.

“Come on Lieutenant! Give us a break! What’s the dope on this sabotage thing? Who actually spotted the submarine?”

“Hey, L. T.! We heard two hundred guys were burned alive below decks! When can we get pictures of the bodies?” It was the representative of the Enquirer.

“Now that she’s sunk, do we got a Pearl Harbor East?” In exasperation, the officer held up a hand, but to no avail.

“Sir could this be a coordinated plan by the Germans to sink ships up and down the Eastern Seaboard?” From behind the mob the sound of the door closing was heard and a voice rang out.

“Where do you aspiring Walter Winchells get these questions?” Everyone quieted down and turned to see who had entered. A visible expression of relief came over the J. G.’s face. The Admiral, flanked by two officers, strode up the aisle while removing his overcoat.

As he was replaced from behind the podium by the Admiral, the J. G. sat down, and became aware of the state of his uniform. The other two officers stood off to one side, the J. G. began to collect himself and the Admiral waited until all of the pressmen were completely silent. He didn’t have to wait long. Like a fourth grade class about to be given crucial answers to their next exam, they poised, pens and pads in hands.

“Now why the hell couldn’t I do that?” The young Lieutenant whispered to one of the officers on his flank.

“Because you’re not a god-damned admiral.”

“Gentlemen, I am Rear Admiral Adolphos Andrews, Commandant of the Third Naval District. Apologies for being late. Let me start by asking you to hold your questions until I finish my statement.”

“First, in response to the rumor that 200 men were trapped below decks, everyone got out. Sorry Dave.” The Admiral looked at the reporter from the Enquirer and the rest of the room broke into a ripple of laughter which quickly subsided.

“There is a casualty list which will be released to you pending notification of next of kin. I can tell you, however, that at this time we have seventy-two hospitalized, ninety-three treated on the scene and one known dead.” The Admiral knew what they wanted to hear. He made the decision to skip the rest of the details of the prepared briefing, and get to the point.

“About the sabotage rumor. It was a fire. An accidental fire. Nothing more. There was no U-Boat. There were no spies in the yard. Just an accidental fire.”

“Sir?” One of the pressmen ignored the request to hold questions.

“How can you definitely rule out sabotage when there’s been no investigation?”

“Because we know where and how the fire started.” The Admiral replied, careful not to reveal his annoyance.

“But sir . . .” The reporter pushed, knowing he had the support of the entire press corps present. “It’s not even been eighteen hours! She’s still smouldering out there, fer cryin’ out loud!” Andrews realized he had to be more assertive.

“Gentlemen! From the best information I have available at this time, the fire started on the port side promenade deck. A spark from an acetylene torch ignited a life jacket. Exactly like this one.” Holding up an orange, thick collared Mae West, he produced a knife from his hip pocket and sliced deeply into the vest.

“This material . . .” He explained to his audience reaching into the hole and producing a handful of dark, straw-like substance, “. . . is Kapok. Very good flotation properties, but highly flammable. One of the welders got careless. A spark from his torch set off a pile of Mae Wests, and it got out of control.” Andrews hoped that by using a more familiar lexicon, he might get through to them more effectively.

“Sir we understand there’s gonna be a D. A.’s investigation. If it’s a clear cut accident why are the cops in on it?”

“Just covering all the bases Phil. We don’t want anything coming back on us later. You know what I mean?”

“C.Y.A., hey Sir?” There was another bout of sporadic laughter, but Andrews wasn’t off the hook yet.

“Sir can you honestly tell us that with thousands of people milling in and out of here all day long that a saboteur couldn't sneak in and start a fire?”

“I’m not telling you that couldn’t happen. However under the circumstances I’m telling you that it would have been impossible due to our unbreachable security.” Maintaining his professional attitude was becoming more difficult however, he sought to get the briefing back on track and so asked if there were any other topics they would like to discuss.

“Sir, can she be salvaged?”

“We are confident that the AP-53 can be salvaged. However that’s an engineering question, and I’m a ship driver.” Nodding to one of the other officers, he continued as the officer stood up. “Lieutenant Commander Scott is Chief of Naval Repairs for the Third Naval District. He’ll field all of your questions concerning the salvage operation. And then wow you with his technical knowledge.” Andrews explained. “I have to leave, however when the engineer is finished he’ll give you back to our P. R. man. Be gentle with him fellas. It's his first time. Thank you.” The Admiral stepped down and took his coat, while the Lieutenant Commander stepped up and prepared to speak.

The J. G., still in his seat, buried his face in his hands and shook his head.

Outside the street the Admiral’s Adjutant did his job. In the Admiral’s interest he asked the unthinkable.

“Sir, what if a subsequent investigation reveals the possibility of enemy agents? Are we prepared for that?” Andrews donned his gloves as he gazed out the hazy sunrise colorfully tinting the vast harbor.

“Gene, do you remember all the anti-war sentiment before Pearl?” Andrews spoke in a low, but firm tone.

“Yes sir.”

“A good part of that argument was because a hell of a lot of people in this country were sick of war, but thought we were invulnerable. Nobody could touch us, nobody would touch us! Nobody would touch America! So let the Europeans fight their own war, we’re safe way over here. And then came Pearl. All of a sudden the U. S. is not only in the war, we’re in it without a Pacific fleet. Now how do you suppose the general population of this country would react if they knew that we were losing upwards of fifty ships a month in the Atlantic, let alone that there might be enemy agents in New York City?”

Disarmed, the Adjutant stared out across the harbor.

“With our delusions of invulnerability gone, Gene, all we got left right now to hold the people together . . . is patriotism.”

 

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Normandie Poster
Normandie Poster

Normandie Pier 88
Normandie Pier 88

Normandie Burning
Normandie Burning

Normandie Capsized
Normandie Capsized