Oral History Interview with
Official of the Operating Engineers Union since 1940, and national vice president in 1956. Later a member of the executive board of the International Union of Operating Engineers, and president of the Greater Washington Central Labor Council, 1958-70. Has served as a member of the District of Columbia City Council as well as on other District boards and committees and in other labor positions. Also served as a labor liaison man on the Truman campaign train in 1948.
J. C. Turner
December 28, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened August, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
J. C. Turner
December 28, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Turner, to begin this afternoon, would you give me a little of your personal background; where were you born, where were you raised and what are the positions that you have held?
TURNER: Well, I was born in Beaumont, Texas on November the 4th, 1916. I came to Washington when I was fifteen years of age, and finished high school, and went to Catholic University here.
I joined the Operating Engineers Union, which I represent, in 1935. I have been a fulltime official of that union since 1940, except for a brief time in 1950 when I was on leave from the union working with the International Labor Organization. About six months was the time I was away.
First I started out as business representative of this local of Operating Engineers, 77, and then I
became business manager in 1950. I have been business manager ever since for the local union. I became a national vice president of the union in 1956 and I am currently a member of the twelve man executive board of the International Union which has 400,000 members in the United States and Canada.
I have been a president of the Greater Washington Central Labor Council since 1958. I was vice president of the former AF of L portion from 1948 on.
I have been a member of the D.C. City Council, which was appointed by (the first one three years ago), by President [Lyndon B.] Johnson, although I have, back in 1951, when they established the -- I guess it was '52, they established a Citizen's Advisory Council, I was on that first organization which preceded our city council. I served on the Public Library Board, and I've served on the D.C. Minimum Wage and Industrial Safety Board. I have been president of the Washington Building Trades at one time for about ten years. I was also, and still am, second vice president of the Maryland State, and D.C., AF of L and CIO, which includes our union members in those areas. Those are some of the more important positions I've held.
HESS: Quite an impressive labor background. What are your early recollections of President Truman?
TURNER: Well, my earliest recollections are his service as chairman of the, I guess they called it the Truman Committee, in World War II, in which he conducted a very exhaustive, continuing study of the conduct of the war, and made some, I thought, very significant contributions to decision-making and policy-making during that period. I may have met him probably along about 1944 or '45 , but I can't recall exactly when and where, that is while he was -- I had met him while he was a Senator, but my closer association with him began in 1948 when he was running for re-election.
I recall that along in August 1948, late August, they had set up the headquarters, the joint headquarters, of what they called the Truman-Barkley Club and the Democratic Central Committee of the District of Columbia, and we set the headquarters up down on New York Avenue, just east of Fourteenth Street.
We made an appointment at the White House and Carter Barron, and Melvin Hildreth, who was then the Democratic National Committeeman, Tilford E. Dudley, who was vice-
chairman, I think, of our -- he was active on our Central Committee, and Mr. Al Wheeler, who was the Chairman of our Democratic Central Committee; and Mr. Arthur Clarendon Smith, who was very active there in both the Central Committee and the Truman-Barkley Club; a fellow named Thomas Morgan. It seems to me those were the ones. I have a picture of that meeting in the Oval Room at the White House.
And at this particular meeting we told the President that we were opening our headquarters. As I recall, I think we asked him to come down. It seems to me he did come down briefly when we opened the headquarters, but this was to tell him about it. I remember I said, "Mr. President," I said, "how does it look to you?"
He said, "Well," he said, "I want you fellows to know that I'm going to put on the God damndest campaign that this country's ever seen." And he said, "I want you to know that you're looking at the next President of the United States."
Well, not long after, he went out to Detroit to make his initial speech of the campaign and he came back -- incidentally we had involved a lot more residents of the District and the Truman-Barkley Club and in our
whole campaign here. And Milton Kronheim was quite active and "Jiggs" [F. Joseph] Donohue, who later (both of whom you know are still living), they were very active in the headquarters. And then after he made this short speech, we decided to have a welcome home party for him at least, down at the Union Station. And I was given the job of addressing the words of welcome to the President.
Actually, what happened was the car went into the station, and he got in the car and brought it out to the exit there on the east side of Union Station, and you know, I said a few words of welcome and then he made a speech. And we didn't have over about, oh, maybe five or six thousand people there to welcome him; mostly union people, by the way, members of labor unions. As you know, he had vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act and was making this a big part of his campaign, and organized labor was very, very strong in its support of Truman. In fact, I think all studies indicate that organized labor never turned out in such large numbers as was the case in the '48 election.
Well, anyway, we came behind him, coming up the Avenue, we drove in behind the White House, and we had
a long caravan of cars, and that was the occasion.
Well, you know, after the campaign when the President was re-elected, he said, "Well, those fellows who put on the welcome home back in September," he said, "they can put it on now."
So, we put it on again, and this time I was in charge of arrangements up at Union Station. And I think there were 650,000 people this time, but one thing I was able to do was to see to it that some organized labor people, particularly William Green and Philip Murray, George Meany, Harry Bates, Jack Kroll, and Joseph Keenan were in the caravan that come from Union Station down to the White House. And I was also in charge of passing people through the Secret Service lines to greet the President.
I remember one fellow came through hadn't shaved, you know, and he had his hat sort of down over his eyes, and he said, "I'm Secretary [James V.] Forrestal."
And I said, "Go in."
Well, he looked terrible, but obviously I recognized that he was Forrestal, and he went through the line and went up on the platform. The President shook hands with him, but Barkley wouldn't shake hands with him. Mr.
Barkley just let him go on by because, as you know, he hadn't campaigned for the ticket. And, as far as I know, he never even endorsed the ticket. He thought they were losers, that they couldn't win. But, of course, as you know, subsequently he committed suicide and he had a severe mental problem.
But the labor leaders and the various citizens came through and shook hands with the President. He had this railway car parked, the Ferdinand Magellan, there in the station and they went in through the rear door and out through the train.
We came on over to the White House, and the President said to Meany and to Murray and to Green in my presence, "Well, we couldn't have won it without you. We owe a great deal to organized labor in this campaign. And," he said, "I want you fellows to know how much I appreciate it." And he had said that also to Green when Green came up on the train over at Union Station.
So, it was a great day after the election when he came back.
I remember staying up on election night, November 19, 1948. I was with Meany and with Keenan and with
Bill [William] Dougherty at the A.F. of L. Labor's League for Political Education and stayed up till 4 o'clock in the morning. It wasn't until 4 o'clock in the morning that Ohio came through. When Ohio came through then we knew he had won the election, because with Ohio ours that made the difference. There weren't very many television sets around at that time, perhaps that's probably the reason none of us had them at home, but we had one at the Labor's League for Political Education, which was on "H" Street next to St. John's Church in an old brownstone building, which is still standing.
Well, we, through the time that he was in office in '48 until '52, we saw quite a bit of him, at that time, at different Democratic functions, but I was not a personal friend of the President's. I think I probably got to know him better toward the end of his term and in particular I was with him in the '52 campaign, when he was campaigning for Adlai Stevenson. I'll go in to that and then maybe I'll think of some other things.
Coming back, in the ' 52 campaign, as you know, he went to Chicago to the convention. On the third ballot when he put out the word that h