Monday, March 7, 2011
Strange but True Stories of World War II by George Sullivan
In fact, the only one I even had a vague recognition of was Chapter 5 “The Mafia Connection.” It seems that Allied supply ships was being torpedoed and sunk at an alarming rate in the early stages of the war. Most of these ships were sailing out of the New York ports bound for Europe. When the Navy began to suspect that the Germans were getting information from someone working on the docks in New York, Lieutenant Commander Charles Heffenden came up with a plan to utilize the Mafia to help stop the attacks. First, the Navy approached Joseph “Socks” Lanza, who was described as a “ruthless racketeer” and was about to stand trial for extortion. The Navy never offered him any kind of enticement to help, but he agreed to put out the word along the docks and on the fishing boats at the old Fulton Fish Market and made sure it was passed along from Maine to the Carolinas. Attacks began to decrease immediately. But “Socks” had no influence along the docks along the Hudson River, so the Navy called on the services of Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
“Lucky” was considered to be the king of the underworld and even though he was in prison, he still had absolute control over his outside connections. Because he was facing deportation back to Italy, he didn’t want to help unless the Navy kept it a secret, or his life would be worth nothing in Italy. The word was put out along the Hudson River docks and wartime supplies began to be safely shipped from there to Europe. Did these guys really have such power and notoriety? You bet! Many years later, long after the war ended, I remember hearing their names attached to the kinds of schoolyard Mafia stories that used to occasionally circulate like ghost stories around a campfire.
My favorite story was Chapter 1 “Major Martin goes to War.” When the Allies decided it was time to start retaking Europe, the first logical invasion would be Italy through Sicily. But, of course, they knew that is exactly was the Germans would expect. The trick was to make the Germans think the invasion was going to begin somewhere else. An idea to confuse and mislead the Germans was thought up by Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu of the British Navy. The idea, though brilliant, was somewhat macabre. A fake major in the Royal Marines was created named William Martin. Papers, both personal and professional, were created. Everything detail was thought of, including the kind of stuff a real person would carry in their pockets, right down to love letters from a girlfriend named Pam. The plan was for the Marine’s body to wash up on the coastline of Spain. Handcuffed to Major Martin’s wrist would be a briefcase containing documents that were intended to make the Germans think the invasion was going to happen through Sardinia not Sicily.
The problem was getting a real body to be Major Martin. As Mr. Sullivan writes, no one like the idea of violating the sanctity of the human body, but it was the only was the plan could work. When Montagu heard of a recently deceased man, he approached to family and explained what he could of the plan to them. Surprisingly, the family agreed to let him use the body.
The plan was carried out and worked. Everyone in German high command, right up to Hitler himself, fell for the ruse. The Allies held Sicily after 39 days of fighting and that led to the successful invasion of Italy and the fall of Mussolini. And hopefully the family of “Major Martin” had some comfort in knowing that their loved one helped save thousands of Allied soldier’s lives.
Major Martin is the most grim anecdote, some of the stories involve just dumb luck, others more careful planning. All lead to success for the Allies, though perhaps they were chosen because of that and the failures were left out.
One drawback to this book is that while it is loaded with photographs, they are sometime so dark and blurry; you can’t see them very well so they become somewhat meaningless. Otherwise, Strange but True Stories of World War II is designed to appeal to its target reader and I think it succeeds. All of the stories in the book are exciting and informative. None are so long and involved that the fail to hold the readers interest. I can honestly recommend this interesting, highly entertaining book.
This book is recommended for readers age 11 and up.
This book was read in the Rose Reading Room of the NYPL.
Non-Fiction Monday is hosted this week by Picture Book of the Day