by Peter Kross
In the latter part of 1944, the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, mounted a plan called Operation Chrysler in Italy to “act as a liaison with partisan commanders, attempt to guide and control developments in northern Italy, and create a unified partisan command under the direction of the supreme allied commander.” This seemingly simple order was just the start of one of the most controversial and mysterious events to come out of the war, affecting the OSS directly, and leading to a congressional investigation.
The genesis of Operation Chrysler (also referred to as the Mangosteen Mission) was laid out by William Donovan, director of the OSS, and Colonel William Suhling, chief of Special Operations in Italy. Throughout the war, the OSS had been supplying the various Italian Resistance groups, including some of the Communist factions, with military and communications equipment. Toward the end of the war, the OSS decided to suspend these air drops because of intense quarreling among the various groups. However, other items such as food, clothing, and medical supplies continued to be parachuted in for the rebels.
Donovan and Suhling decided to send an American team into Italy to sort out the troubles that had been brewing among the various factions of the resistance. The Americans wanted a non-Italian officer to lead the mission because he would not be unduly influenced by the factions. The man chosen to lead Operation Chrysler was Major William Holohan. Bill Holohan was a Roman Catholic, a graduate of Manhattan College in New York and later Harvard Law School. Prior to the war, he had worked as a lawyer for the Securities and Exchange Commission. When Donovan approached Holohan about taking over the mission, he immediately volunteered his services.
Holohan Reigns in the Troops
The units that had overall responsibility for running Operation Chrysler were the Fifteenth Army Group, under the command of British General Harold Alexander, and the National Committee of Liberation Headquarters in Northern Italy, located in Milan. During the height of the war, the Po Valley, where this mission was to take place, was under German control. However, by 1944 the various resistance groups were in charge, vying with each other for superiority in the region. It was the job of Holohan and his team to reign in the competing entities and make sure they took orders from the Fifteenth Army Group.
Holohan’s team was dropped behind the lines on September 26, 1944. Their jumping-off point was the Maison Blanche Airport in Algiers, and their destination was an area near Lake Orta, north of Milan. The unit was comprised of Major Holohan; Lieutenant Victor Giannino, second in command; Lieutenant Aldo Icardi, the intelligence officer; Sergeant Carl Lo Dolce, the wireless operator; Gianni, an Italian partisan agent; Tullio Lussi, an Italian partisan agent also known as Captain Landi, who belonged to the Di Dio resistance organization; Sergeant Arthur Ciarmicola, a weapons expert; and “Red,” an Italian radio operator.
Lieutenant Icardi, 23, Major Holohan’s immediate deputy, was a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in political science. He was a professional intelligence officer whose job was to oversee the dangerous crossing of Americans into enemy-held territory. He was also in charge of a special intelligence training school in southeastern Italy. He was fluent in Italian; Holohan did not speak the language.
Upon landing, the Americans were met by members of the resistance and taken to their camp. They spent the next month hiding from German patrols in the town of Coiromonte. At one point, the Germans sent out scouting parties looking for the Chrysler team.
A Powder Keg of Confusion for Holohan
The OSS headquarters in Switzerland had been operating agents in the Ossola Valley of Italy for some time. This rugged region was controlled by the partisan brigades, and served as a natural boundary that prevented all but a frontal attack. OSS-Switzerland encouraged these partisans to launch hit-and-run raids against German fortifications in the area and promised arms and equipment. But by the time the Chrysler team landed, the Ossola Valley had been liberated of German activity, a fact not related to them.
To add to the confusion, the Chrysler team was met by Vincenzo Moscatelli, the leader of the Communist faction in the area. Moscatelli’s Communist brigades had been attacking German units in the region for some time, inflicting heavy casualties. With the Germans now cleaned out, Moscatelli in effect began to operate what he called the “Republic of Ossola,” with himself as its leader.
In this highly charged mix, Major Holohan and his men had to deal with the appearance of Alfredo Di Dio, leader of the Christian Partisan Brigade. Di Dio harangued the Americans for not supplying his group with the promised weapons and materiel. He said, “I have been abandoned by the traitorous Communists, and the Americans too, have abandoned me after encouraging me to create the situation.” The Di Dio group lost 4,000 partisan fighters due to what its leader believed was OSS malfeasance.
Holohan carried with him a sum of money that was to be used to finance espionage operations headed by a man called Giorgio, whose real name was Aminta Magliari. He was head of a partisan group called SIMNI, or Military Information Service of the Partisan Forces in Northern Italy. He was also head of security for the Chrysler mission.
Striking a Fair Deal
Before leaving Algiers, Holohan was given gold coins totaling 2,100 Marengos. Holohan and Icardi also carried $16,000 U.S. and $10,000 in Italian Lira. Later, the disposition of the money would play a part in the tragic events that followed.
Holohan used some of the cash to pay the expenses of Giorgio’s men, but as time went on it was decided that the men would not be able to carry the heavy gold coins with them. Giorgio offered to sell the gold at market price and return the cash to Holohan. Instead of taking the funds, a business deal was worked out between Giorgio, Icardi, and a few local Catholic priests in the Lake Orta area. The money, about $15,000, would be used to finance the purchase of buildings, machinery, and land to be used after the war.
The Chrysler team lived in a large villa located south of Langa on the shore of Lake Orta. Two partisans, Pupo (Gualtiero Tozzini) and Manin (Guiseppi Manini), guarded the house. Only they, the caretaker of the estate, and a man named Don Carlo, vice-director of the San Guilio Seminary, knew of the refuge of the Americans and handled liaison activities with the resistance and the Northern Italy General Command.
The mission members were rightly concerned about their safety, especially when it was learned that mop-up operations against the Germans were being carried out in the nearby Mottarone area. After hurried consultations, it was decided to move the Chrysler people to another location.
Traitor in the Midst?
Their move was made all the more important due to a major operational setback the team suffered. A large air drop of guns, ammunition, and supplies, code-named Pineapple 1, which was headed for the Di Dio Christian Partisan Brigade, was intercepted. The supplies were taken by a Communist group called the Sixth Nello Brigade. After all the equipment was divvied up, the Di Dio group got one-third of the supplies while the Communists claimed two-thirds.
The question was, how did the Communists know of the air drop? Was there a traitor among the Chrysler group or among its allies? Major Holohan met with Vincenzo Moscatelli, the Communist leader, to clear the air. He told Moscatelli that there would be no further air drops unless or until his men agreed to work directly under American supervision and stop their internal fighting.
On the evening of December 7, Holohan gave the order to leave the villa. Pupo and Manin helped load the supplies into a boat, which was then dragged across the road to the nearby quay. As they were doing this, Pupo said that he heard some footsteps near his position, and when he asked who was there, the answer was a round of shots fired in his direction. Pupo returned to the villa and notified Giorgio, who in turn located Sergeant Lo Dolce. The rest of the team scattered, deciding to reunite at a later time. In the ensuing battle (if there was one), and under circumstances that are still not clear, Major Holohan was found dead. His body was discovered floating in the cold waters of Lake Orta, wrapped in a sleeping bag, with two 9mm bullets in his head.
When Bill Donovan learned of Holohan’s death, he ordered Captain Landi to mount an investigation. While rumors abounded that the Communists or the Germans killed the major to get control of the supplies, Landi startled Donovan by saying that one of Operation Chrysler’s men was the actual killer.
Intercepted German radio traffic in the area of the Villa Castelnuovo reported no mention of the capture or death of Major Holohan. OSS radio officers did, however, learn from their intercepts that the Germans made mention of the disappearance of an “officer,” not an “agent.”
Digging Deeper Into The Mystery
Lieutenant Icardi took over command of the Chrysler team and was later awarded the Legion of Merit. In February 1945, Lo Dolce suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to Switzerland to recover. But the case was still not closed.
After the war an investigation was formed to look into the death of Major Holohan. The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division was given the job of ferreting out all the facts. The lead investigator was Agent Frederick Gardella. After a long and difficult process, Gardella came up with the following findings: “Icardi was going about interesting himself in business deals for the future and not letting his superiors know about it”; the disappearance of Major Holohan was a political move started by the Communists, headed by Moscatelli, and “that both Icardi and Lo Dolce did not cooperate with Major Holohan. Icardi was more interested in personal affairs and in elevating his position with the mission than carrying out his required duties.”
In 1950, the investigation was turned over to the Italian police. They chose Lieutenant Elio Albieri to look into the matter. Among the people Albieri interviewed were Giuseppe Manini (Manin) and Gualtiero Tozzini (Pupo). During the war, they served as Major Holohan’s bodyguards. Both men confessed that they, along with Icardi and Lo Dolce, murdered Holohan on the night of December 6, 1944, by poisoning him with cyanide, which was put in his soup. Lo Dolce then shot the major and his body was put in the lake.
Under orders from Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall, now ex-Sergeant Lo Dolce was taken in for questioning at a Rochester, NY, police station. He confessed and wrote an eight-page report on what happened that fateful night. He backed up the Manini-Tozzini story, saying that Manini poisoned Holohan and that he, Lo Dolce, then shot Holohan with his Beretta pistol.
Aldo Icardi was called before a congressional committee looking into the Holohan affair. Icardi said that upon hearing shots coming from the villa and the surrounding area he fired back, not seeing if he hit anyone. Icardi would write about his part in the Holohan case after the war in a book called American Master Spy.
Another question remains as to whether there was indeed a false firefight to cover up the murder of Major Holohan.
Holohan’s Fate to Remain a Government Secret?
Witnesses at the congressional inquiry told of official stonewalling at critical junctures during the Holohan investigation. One witness before the committee, an investigator named Stern, said that the Pentagon refused to supply him with the names of Holohan’s next of kin or a copy of his service record, saying that the case was “top secret.” When asked why the American Justice Department refused to request the extradition of Manini and Tozzini to the United States, Stern summed up the case rather remarkably: “There was no desire on the part of any United States governmental agency so far as I could find, that any particular action be taken. In fact, all indications were quite the reverse. All efforts were made to keep the matter of the Holohan case secret….”
Stern further stated that the Pentagon reluctantly admitted that Holohan was involved with the OSS. Stern went on to say that when he asked for any information regarding Lo Dolce or Icardi or their present whereabouts, the Army refused to supply that information.
From the moment Icardi and Lo Dolce were arrested on August 3, 1950, and confessed to the crime, no further work was done by government bureaus on the case, which was marked “top secret.”
Investigator Stern also made a rather interesting statement regarding further action by the Italian government. Stern said that he accompanied Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi on a plane bound for the United States for a meeting with President Harry Truman. The prime minister and the president talked about the Holohan case, and the Italian leader said that he asked that the extradition of the two men be sped up. However, nothing came of the order, whether because of interference by the U.S. State Department or by some other governmental entity.
In the end, no action was taken by the U.S. government against either Icardi or Lo Dolce. Since the Italians could not get jurisdiction over the two Americans, they were both convicted for murder in absentia. Manini and Tozzini were acquitted. To this day, there is still no final answer to the puzzling events at Lake Orta on December 6, 1944.