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The day JFK visited Glasgow days after WWII broke out

The young president-to-be visited the city in the wake of the sinking of the SS Athenia.

A young John. F. Kennedy arrived in Glasgow days after war broke out. <strong>: ©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections</strong>
A young John. F. Kennedy arrived in Glasgow days after war broke out. : ©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections

Eighty years ago, a young man named Jack Kennedy visited Glasgow for the first time.

The future US president visited the city to meet American survivors after the SS Athenia was attacked on the day WWII broke out on September 3, 1939.

The vessel was heading for Montreal after first setting sail from Glasgow, with over 1000 passengers on board, including 311 Americans when it was torpedoed by the Germans.

It was the first maritime casualty of the war, claiming 122 lives, 30 of whom were from the United States of America.

At just 22, Jack had been dispatched to Glasgow by his father Joseph Kennedy, the US ambassador to the United Kingdom.

After a disaster fund was set up by the Lord Provost of Glasgow, Patrick Dollan, he invited Ambassador Kennedy to Glasgow, but as war had just broken out, he sent his son instead.

Then going by Jack Kennedy, later he would be known as JFK and would become President of the United States before his assassination in 1963.

The young man’s mission was two-fold; to reassure those affected by the torpedoing of the ship that they would be safely transported back to the US and to gather first-hand information as to the actual circumstances of the attack.

“It was JFK’s political debut in many ways, he had never given a speech or acted in any capacity,” explains Michael Gallagher, an archivist with Glasgow City Archives.

JFK arrived in Glasgow on Thursday, September 7 and was welcomed by Patrick Dollan and together they visited around 150 survivors in hospital and at local hotels.

JFK meets Lord Provost Patrick Dollan in Glasgow. : ©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections

He said: “I have never seen people more grateful for all that has been done for them by Glasgow than those to whom I have spoken today.”

A telegram from his father Joseph Kennedy states: “May I on behalf of the President and people of the United States express heartfelt thanks to you and your citizens of Glasgow for this humane and generous action in aiding survivors of the Athenia disaster.”

A letter from President Franklin Roosevelt said: “I wish you to know how deeply I and the American people appreciate the efficient, generous and humane manner in which Glasgow and its citizens came to the help of our fellow countrymen and women in their need.

“I assure you that Glasgow’s gesture will not be forgotten.”

Now 80 years on, Glasgow City Archive has revisited the impact of the Athenia disaster relief fund through public records at the city’s Mitchell Library.

As well as notes from JFK and his father, the files contains letters from ordinary Glaswegians and beyond, who donated money and offered accommodation to survivors.

More than £2000 was raised in 24 hours, and almost £6000 in total, which is equivalent to over £250,000 today.

The donations helped house survivors in hotels and went towards food, clothing and some spending money for those affected.

Tours of Loch Lomond, afternoon tea at the City Chambers and even a performance by Harry Lauder were also arranged.

“The letters are absolutely unique, you won’t find them anywhere else in the world. The two pieces of correspondence from JFK himself, signed Jack Kennedy, are quite special letters,” adds Mr Gallagher.

“They talk about his time in Glasgow, he speaks very warmly about his visit. He writes about the Lord Provost and that ‘the people of Glasgow treated me very well, I hope to come back and I hope my Dad comes back’ – he was the ambassador in London at the time.

“They’re absolutely unique records and anyone in the city, anyone in Scotland can come visit us, view the records.”

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