My father worked for Eliot Ness.

Ness was the crime-busting government agent who organized a team called the Untouchables that brought down Al Capone and other mobsters during the Prohibition era. It is chronicled in the 1950s and ’60s television series, “The Untouchables,” starring Robert Stack, and in the 1987 movie starring Kevin Costner.

During World War II, Ness was director of the Social Protection Division, dedicated to eradicating prostitution around U.S. Army camps. My father, Irving K. Furst, was part of a staff of 24 who reported to Ness.

“No one really wanted to talk about the venereal disease problem in the military, but it couldn’t be ignored,” Douglas Perry writes in his 2014 biography, “Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero.” “The service branches would reject more than sixty thousand of the first million men called in the draft because they showed symptoms of VD.”

My dad’s job was to visit with local officials and Army generals to rally them to shut down red-light districts.

On the Internet, I found a letter my father wrote on Ness’ behalf to an official with the Public Safety Department in Pittsburgh. “A comprehensive venereal disease control program involves health, law enforcement, welfare and other types of agencies each of which can engage in elaborate procedures which have direct bearing on the problem.”

Army generals were reluctant to combat prostitution, my father told me. They believed that the red light districts were a good release for the men.

My father, who died in 1968, recalled being sent to Louisville to confer with military officials. The night before, he met a reporter in a bar. He thought their conversation was off the record but the next morning, he picked up a Louisville newspaper to read a front-page headline, “Fed calls Louisville, ‘One horse town.’ ”

Not surprisingly, my dad said, his meeting with the general that day did not go well.

For the record, when I tell a source it’s off the record, it’s off the record.

 

randyfurst@startribune.com

twitter: @randyfurst