Description

    Franklin D. Roosevelt: Typed Letter Signed as President.
    -June 1, 1944. Washington, D.C. One page. 7" x 9". White House stationery.
    -To: Mr. Joseph P. Curran, President, National Maritime Union of America, New York.
    -Central mailing fold, else fine.

    FDR writes, "I am deeply touched by that beautifully inscrolled resolution adopted by the National Maritime Union at its convention last year. This expression of confidence in my leadership is particularly gratifying to me. You and the members of your Union have my warm thanks and appreciation for the loyal spirit which the resolution evidences." Amazingly, FDR took time to write a union leader during the final countdown to D-Day.


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    Letter signed June 1, 1944, just five days before D-Day during World War II, on The White House Washington stationery to Joseph P. Curran, noted labor leader, concerning FDR's ongoing support of and relations with organized labor in the United States. FDR writes: "My dear Mr. Curran:/ I am deeply touched by that beautifully inscrolled resolution adopted by the National Maritime Union at its convention last year. This expression of confidence in my leadership is particularly gratifying to me./ You and the members of your Union have my warm thanks and appreciation for the loyal spirit which the resolution evidences./ Very sincerely yours,/ Franklin D. Roosevelt." The history of organizations, as of nations, is defined by the story of certain individuals. In the case of the National Maritime Union, indeed, the whole story of the emancipation of seamen which began in the 1930s, the dormant figure is Joseph P. Curran. He was born in New York City in 1906. His father died while Curran was still a very small child. His mother had to take work as a domestic and boarded young Joe with a German family in New Jersey. It was a warm family with several children of their own and they welcomed Joe as one of the family. Formal schooling had little lure for the boy. He was, in his own words, a "handful" to the nuns and public school teachers whose classes he attended. In the sixth grade, Joe abandoned school altogether for a series of jobs in factories, a brief period of caddying at a country club and a year's stint at 15 (he lied about his age) in the Life Saving Service, the forerunner of the Coast Guard. When he was nearly 16, he took a job as an office boy in New York City. This, it developed, was a decisive turn in Curran's career. The office was at 17 Battery Place in New York City, blessed with a commanding view of the city's harbor and constant traffic of ships. Joe was fascinate by the scene. He kept gazing out the windows at the ships entering and leaving the harbor, imagining the far ports to which they were bound or returning from. Looking out those windows he made his decision – he was not going to go on imagining what those voyages were like, he would find a way to sail them. This was 1922. The industry was in a post war depression. There was no open door for would-be seamen. But young Curran got himself hired as a "deck boy" by Munson Lines. The "deck boy" category was a company device for getting sailors at less than the going rate of $40 to $50 a month. When Curran reported to the ship, however, it turned out that he hadn't been hired to sail. All they wanted him to do was the job of removing broken bricks from the fire box of ships during their stay in port. That wasn't what Joe was looking for. But through the short-lived pier-side assignment to a ship, he had his seamen's papers. Next stop was the government sponsored Emergency Fleet Corporation, which operated the large "white elephant" fleet, built during the World War I, but completed too late to serve in the war. Here, Curran had his first experience with the harpies seamen had to contend with. Tall, strong and eager to prove himself at a sea-going job, Curran found it difficult to accept the kickback system. But, as he said many years later, "I started to get wise very rapidly." Changing the system would have to wait; his first problem was to get to sea. It took several months but at last, in 1923, he got out aboard a Mallory Transport Company's ship bound for the Mediterranean ports. The two-and-a-half month voyage turned out to be a rough initiation. The weather was fierce all the way. Joe spent rainy, snowy days climbing up and down masts, cursing the food and foul living conditions - as everyone else in the fo'c'sle did. Yet, for all the discomforts and hazards that went with it, he soon decided he was going to stay with the sea. When the ship returned to New York, he recalled "I stayed. I stayed because I felt that I was home. I made another trip and this one wasn't so bad. I got initiated into the secrets of seamanship. There was an old sailor on there who took me in hand. I must say that he made a good sailor of me. I took to it and I am proud to say that I could splice and handle any and all the gear on the ship as well as anyone else and better than most." Pride in his skills and a high degree of responsibility marked Curran's attitude toward his job from his earliest days at sea. Ashore he could be as wild as any seaman but only a major catastrophe could keep him from getting back to his ship on time and, regardless of condition, turning to for his watch. By the same token, he was impatient with the abuse and corruption that were imposed on seamen aboard ship and ashore. Shipowners and most skippers could abide incompetence and irresponsibility in seamen far more readily than they could a tendency to sound off about rotten conditions. So the going was often rough for Curran. Once, as his ship was outbound through Delaware Bay, the crew was served putrid chicken. The ship was a particularly bad feeder; but this was too much. Who was to complain - who else but Big Joe. Without hesitation, Curran went to the captain. He didn't just tell the captain about the chicken, he brought the foul-smelling bird with him and shoved it in front of the captain's face. The Captain got the message but little good it did. The crew's mess did not improve and Curran was fired at the next port. He kept learning as he sailed. He learned about ships and navigation and about people and what makes them tick. He sailed on vessels of all types all over the world, having his share of drama and danger, adventure and hardship. There was an interlude in which Curran got a job through what was known as "the slave market" on a dredge in Southern Florida, reclaiming land that later was the center of the sensational real estate boom there. Living conditions and pay on the dredge were sensational compared with those on deep sea vessels, he remembers. Curran was put in charge of the dredge operation but that job ended when the dredge's job was done and he went back to sea. The kid who had been a "handful" in school developed a thirst for knowledge. On the long voyages he had plenty of chance to read and his favorite reading was history. There was little indication in those early years, however, as the young seaman read how certain individuals affected the course of history, that he had any sense of mission for himself. He was devoted to the sea, proud to be a seaman. He had no ambitions beyond the ships. He would work to master his craft, take no gruff from anybody, and if a decent break came his way, he'd make the most of it. The onset of the Great Depression brought a change in Curran's thinking. It did not bring any personal disaster or personal threat. He had known hardship and hunger often in the past. He knew the ropes well enough now to be confident of being able to get along even in the leanest of times. But the spectacle of national collapse, the mass tragedy, the breakdown of the economy made a deep impression on him. Where he had been content in the certainty that he could make his own way by his wit and strength in spite of the injustices and oppression of the system, he now felt a need to take a hand in changing the system that had created this national tragedy. And the place for him to begin was on the ships, among his fellow seamen. Joe now began devouring books on economics, politics, parliamentary procedure and trade union organization. He became more active in union affairs. He was always ready to serve as union delegate aboard ship and his shipmates were glad to elect him to the post. He developed a reputation not only as an aggressive spokesman but as a wily and effective one. His reputation grew, not only among seamen but also among the companies and the ISU shore side officials as well, where he was not regarded with favor. Under the Presidency of FDR, the growth of the industrial union movement served as an inspiration to Curran. He saw this as the wave of the future for workers and resolved to help set his union on this course. He joined in setting up the rank-and-file movement in the ISU with this objective. The seeds had been sown. Curran still had no specific ambitions other than to be a good seaman. But this now meant doing all he could to make the ISU strong, honest and effective so it could do the job for seamen that had to be done. How far he would go couldn't be foreseen, but his role of leadership in the struggle for seamen's rights was inevitable. Only a suitable occasion was needed for the beginning. The occasion was March 1, 1936, the day the S.S. California was to sail from San Pedro harbor. Curran recalled: "the skipper came down and asked if we were going to stand by fore and aft to let go. I was department delegate so I told him our answer: ‘No.' It was my birthday, I remember. It was sure a milestone for me. We didn't know what we were starting and maybe it's just as well or, who knows, we might have had cold feet." What Curran and his shipmates were starting, as future events proved, was nothing less than a revolution. It led to the founding of the National Maritime Union and the eventual ascendency of seamen to first class citizenship. At a later date a federal judge ruled that Joseph Curran, and nine other present or former officers of the National Maritime Union, had to pay as much as $1million in funds they embezzled.  The judge concluded that they had taken the money through unauthorized perquisites on income taxes, excessive pension and severance payments and unearned pay in lieu of vacation, so Curran's true legacy as a union crusader should be evaluated in context of the noted illegal activities he engaged in. However, at a much earlier time, this letter, a grateful wartime President writes to Curran thanking him for the support of the National Maritime Union of America.



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    Auction Dates
    June, 2008
    7th Saturday
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