How JFK's road to The White House started in Glasgow

On what would have been John F Kennedy's 100th birthday, we look back at his first appearance as an official representative of the United States when he arrived at a Glasgow hotel to meet victims of the sinking of the SS Athenia.

Monday, 29th May 2017, 2:30 pm
Updated Sunday, 4th June 2017, 9:37 pm
John F Kennedy made his first offical appearance as a representative of the United States in Glasgow in September 1939 aged just 22. PIC: Getty.

JFK was just 22 when he was dispatched by his father to meet survivors of the attack on the Govan-built passenger liner which was targeted by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland on September 3 1939.

He was to address around 150 US citizens who had been brought back to Scotland following their rescue and put up in the Beresford Hotel on Sauchiehall Street.

It was to be JFK’s first official engagement representing the United States after his father, Joseph, then the American Ambassador to the US, sent him from London to deal with the aftermath of the attack.

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The Govan built SS Athenia which was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland on September 3 1939 just hours after war was declared. PIC: Wikicommons.

He was to be sworn in as President of the United States 22 years later.

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JFK was to meet a “grimly determined” crowd of Americans at the hotel, according to newspaper reports, as survivors demanded extra security measures and a convoy on their passage home.

The Scotsman on Friday September 8, 1939, reported the meeting.

The Govan built SS Athenia which was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland on September 3 1939 just hours after war was declared. PIC: Wikicommons.

“Several women shouted “we must have a convoy, we are not going in a small freighter without a convoy. You can’t trust the Germans now’.

“‘We want an armed escort,’ shouted another woman who had a bandage around her head.

“Mr Kennedy, obviously taken aback by the display of feeling in the meeting said he would report to his father on a suggestion of a convoy,” the report said.

The passenger liner was torpedoed en route from Glasgow to Montreal with a total of 117 people killed, 28 of them American.

The vessel was targeted and sunk within hours of Britain and France declaring war on Germany.

JFK arrived at Central Station as international security sat on a knife edge with 8,000 Americans living in the UK to be shipped home that month.

He told survivors at the hotel that a boat to take them home had left the United States and had been due to arrive in Glasgow within six days.

During his stay, JFK and Leslie A Davies, the American consul-general in Glasgow, also met with survivors in hospital and attended a “cordial reception” at a special meeting of the Glasgow Corporation.

The Scotsman report added: “From the American embassy in London, Mr Kennedy brought an American flag which he presented to Lord Provost Dollan as a mark of appreciation of what Glasgow had done for the Athenia survivors.

“At a special meeting of the Glasgow Corporation, Lord Provost said he wanted Mr Kennedy to take back to his father the assurance that while the Americans were in Glasgow he would like to have the privilege of regarding them as his guests.

“In reply, Mr Kennedy expressed appreciation of the excellent way in which the survivors were being taken care of. Anybody he had spoken to wanted him to tell his father and the government how grateful they were to the city of Glasgow.”

JFK, who was assassinated in 1963 just two years after being sworn in as the US President, first entered politics eight years after his appearance in Glasgow.

He entered the House of Representatives in 1947 and then the US Senate in 1953.