Banana WarFrom 1964 to about 1969, the last great war in which a leading Mafia crime family sought to take over a king-sized portion of organized crime was fought. If the aggressors had succeeded, they might have altered the underworld nearly as much as Lucky Luciano’s purge of the Mustache Petes. This new conflict of the 1960s was triggered by an aging don of towering self-assurance, Joseph C. Bonanno, the head of a relatively small but efficient New York crime family, known by nickname as the “Bananas” family. The war was called the Banana War. In a sense the war was inevitable. Had Bonanno not struck first, other Mafia leaders would have hit him, having become upset about his “planting flags all over the world.” Bonanno had established interests in the West, in Canada and in Italy where, as later related by the Italian Mafia’s celebrated informer, Tommaso Buscetta, Bonanno was instrumental in getting Sicilian mafiosi to establish a commission, American style, to deal with disputes among the 30 Italian crime families. If Bonanno had been allowed to develop close contacts in Sicily with this commission, he would have been in a position to tie up the entire drug traffic out of Europe. In a broader sociological sense the Bonanno drive demonstrated that America was being polluted less by Italian criminals than Italy was being corrupted by American criminals.
As Bonanno watched many of the older American dons fade away, he decided it was time to strike out for greater glory and more loot. He developed an attack program for eliminating in one swoop such old-time powers as New York’s Carlo Gambino and Tommy Lucchese, Buffalo’s Stefano Magaddino and Los Angeles’s Frank DeSimone. Bonanno involved in his plot an old ally, Joe Magliocco, who had succeeded another longtime Bonanno friend, the late Joe Profaci, as head of another Brooklyn crime family. Magliocco’s loyalty to Bonanno was beyond question and he went along despite misgivings and his own ill health.
The plot began to unravel when Magliocco passed along the hit assignment on Gambino and Lucchese to an ambitious underboss named Joe Colombo, who had been a trusted hit man in the organization for Profaci. Colombo weighed the situation and, not realizing the extent of Bonanno’s involvement, decided the Gambino-Lucchese forces looked the stronger. Colombo sold out to them. It did not take Gambino and Lucchese long to determine that Bonanno was behind the plot.
The national commission treaded softly on the matter, realizing that Bonanno could put 100 gunmen on the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan and produce a bloodbath on the level unwitnessed in this country since the Capone era. Bonanno and Magliocco were summoned to a meeting with the commission, but Bonanno contemptuously refused to attend. Magliocco showed up, confessed and begged for mercy. They syndicate leaders let him live, deciding he lacked the guts to continue the battle and was so ill he’d probably die soon anyway. He was fined $50,000 and stripped of his power, which was given to Colombo. This leniency, not typical for treachery in the Mafia, was aimed at encouraging Bonanno’s surrender. Within a matter of months, Magliocco was dead of a heart attack.
Bonanno took off for the safety of his stronghold in the West and in Canada, keeping on the move while avoiding orders from the commission to come in. In October 1964 he returned to Manhattan to appear before a grand jury. On the evening of October 21, he had dinner with his lawyers. Afterward, as he stepped from a car on Park avenue, he was seized by two gunmen, shoved into another car and taken away. The newspapers assumed Bananas had been executed.
While Bonanno was out of sight, war broke out within the Bonanno organization. The national commission ruled that Bonanno had forfeited his position and installed Gaspar DiGregorio to take charge of the family. This split the family in two with many members backing Bonanno’s son, Bill, while still hoping that Joe Bonanno would come back. After considerable shooting, DiGregorio called for a peace meeting with Bill Bonanno. The confab was to be held in a house on Troutman Street in Brooklyn. When Bill arrived, several riflemen and shotgunners opened up on him and his men. The Bananas men returned fire but in the dark, everyone’s aim was off. There were no casualties.Meanwhile Bonanno had been held captive by Buffalo Magaddino, his older cousin. The rest of the commission apparently did not deal with Bonanno directly but Magaddino conferred regularly with them. It soon became clear to Bonanno that the commission did not want to kill him because that would only lead to further bloodshed. Instead, negotiations were carried on while at the same time Bonanno’s foes tried to wipe out Bill Bonanno and his loyalists.
Bonanno offered a deal. He would retire from the rackets, give up control of this crime family and move to Arizona. He wanted his son Bill and his brother-in-law Frank Labruzzo to take charge. The commission would not buy this, realizing they would just be puppets and Bonanno would remain in control. Instead, they said they would name the new family head. Bonanno was in no position to hold out and finally agreed.
Bonanno was released and then surprised the commission by not returning to New York but disappearing again. He was still out of sight when DiGregorio was named and the Troutman Street ambush was attempted.In May 1966 – 19 months after he had been kidnapped – Bonanno reappeared. It soon became obvious to the other Mafia leaders that Bonanno had no intention of sticking to their arrangement. Upset with DiGregorio’s failure to prosecute the war successfully, they dumped him and brought in a tougher man, Paul Sciacca. However, Sciacca could not handle a Joe Bonanno-led opposition. Several of his men were badly shot up in gun battles and in the most spectacular incident in the war three Sciacca henchmen were machine-gunned to death in a Queens restaurant. In short order five others on each side died. Then in 1969 Bonanno, felled by a severe heart attack, flew off to his Tucson, Arizona, home. He sent word now that he was retiring, a statement the commission not surprisingly greeted skeptically. They continued to wage war in Brooklyn and appeared to make some moves against Bonanno and his followers in Arizona. A bomb went off at the Bonanno home, and, in a bizarre development a number of other bombs were exploded at other homes; some or perhaps all of these were planted by a rogue FBI agent. Finally the conflict petered out and an arrangement was made. The Bonannos kept control of their Western interests but Sciacca (and later Natale Evola) was accepted as the boss of New York. The war was over and with it Bonanno’s dreams of vast new powers.
It may be the Banana War made a valuable object lesson for the other Mafia leaders. When Bonanno’s long-imprisoned underboss Carmine Galante emerged from prison in the late 1970s, took command of the family and started a violent drive to extend his power, he was summarily executed. Galante was accorded no opportunity to come before the board and explain his actions.