Unique, extraordinary, and historically significant JFK correspondence archive from the family of a PT-109 sailor lost at sea
In the early morning hours of August 2, 1943 in Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri rammed and sank PT-109, a torpedo armed fast attack vessel used by the U.S. Navy in World War II commanded by Lt. John F. Kennedy. Two sailors, Harold Marney and Andrew Kirksey, did not survive this attack.
This extraordinary archive was kept by Harold Marney’s mother Jennie and preserved by family members after her death for over 70 years, unknown and unpublished until Ronnie Paloger acquired it from RR Auction in 2014. This incredible archive documents 18 years of correspondence between John F. Kennedy and Harold’s mother in spite of Kennedy having known Harold Marney for only one week before he was killed. These letters show the extraordinary character, compassion, empathy, and loyalty from a 26-year-old man and no one can read these letters and be surprised that one day John F. Kennedy would become the president of the United States. This archive also documents a mother’s anguish over her son’s classification as “missing in action,” her denial, and finally acceptance of her son’s death.
Highlights of this correspondence include two handwritten letters that Kennedy wrote to Mrs. Marney in late September 1943 from Chelsea Naval Hospital, where Kennedy was recuperating from his back injury caused by the PT-109 collision with the Amagiri, responding to her inquiry regarding any information about her son, after receiving official notification that Harold was missing. Kennedy writes two poignant and compassionate letters to Mrs. Marney. In the first he writes, “This letter is to offer my deepest sympathy to you for the loss of your son. I realize that there is nothing that can say [that] can make your sorrow less; particularly as I knew him; and know what a great loss he must be to you and your family. Your son rode the PT 109 with me on the night of August 1-2 when a Japanese destroyer, travelling at high speed cut us in two, as we turned into him for a shot. Harold had come aboard my boat a week before to serve as engineer. He fitted in quickly, and we very well-liked by both the officers and the men. He knew his job and he did it effectively, and with great cheerfulness—an invaluable quality out here. I am truly sorry that I cannot offer you hope that he survived that night. You do have the consolation of knowing that your son died in the service of his country. He left a fine reputation, and those of us who knew him think of him with respect and affection. Again, Mrs. Marney, may I extend to you my deepest sympathy.”
The second letter: “I received this morning your letter requesting more definite information in regard to your son Harold. I deeply regret that I cannot give you more than I have already written from the time that the destroyer hit us—nothing more was seen or heard from Harold. When the crew was finally united around the floating bow—we could find no trace of him—although every effort was made to find him. I am terribly sorry that cannot be of more help...I know how unsatisfactory is the word ‘missing’—but that is all that we can tell—that is all of the information we have. Again [my] I express my deep sympathy to you both for your great loss.”
The third handwritten letter in response to a condolence card that Mrs. Marney sent Kennedy, after his brother Joe was killed in action flying over Germany during a secret mission on August 15, 1944. It reads: “I want you to know how much I appreciated your card. I know you know how we all feel—boys like Harold and my brother Joe can never be replaced—but there is some consolation in knowing that they were doing what they wanted to do—and were doing it well. Thank you again and I hope that I shall see you sometime again.”
The fourth letter was typed and signed by President Kennedy on April 24, 1961 on official White House stationary, 18 years after his first letter to Mrs. Marney in 1943. President Kennedy spent the time and effort to send Mrs. Marney an original wood framed photograph of the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial along with this letter noting her son Harold’s name on this monument honoring. He writes: “I recently requested from the American Battle Monuments Commission a picture of the Manila American Cemetery, whose memorial wall bears the inscription of your son and my former shipmate. I thought that you might be interested in having the picture, which I am enclosing. If ever you are in the Nation’s capital, I would like very much to have the White House and other public places here shown to you.”
This archive includes three letters that Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge wrote Mrs. Marney in responding to her asking for his help in getting more information about her son, despite the letters she had already received from Kennedy telling her that her son was dead. In one of these letters Lodge responds to Mrs. Marney’s feelings of “belief that your son is not dead but is probably alive somewhere on a Japanese Island or prison.” Also included are typed letters with secretarial signatures of Senator Kennedy to Mrs. Marney in 1958 and 1959, where Kennedy interceded on her behalf for social security benefits and other issues that he tried to help her with.
Significantly Harold Marney’s Purple Heart inscribed on the back “FOR MILITARY MERIT HAROLD W. MARNEY MOMM 2c USN,” and citation from October 16, 1944 for “MILITARY MERIT AND FOR WOUNDS RECEIVED IN ACTION resulting in his death August 2, 1943” is part of this archive.
As Dave Powers writes in his book “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye” the PT-109 incident made John Kennedy a war hero that helped him in his first political contest in the 1946 Congressional Campaign. Power’s notes that Reader’s Digest reprint (the original is in this archive) of John Hersey’s article “Survival,” about Kennedy’s heroism was sent to every veteran on the voting list, and the whole district was blanketed with copies. Kennedy’s wartime heroism was highly effective when the vote of the veterans was to be a big factor. None of Kennedy’s opponents had a war record worth talking about and Kennedy’s well-known display of incredible courage in the South Pacific aboard the PT-109, gave him an aura of glamour that overshadowed his political inexperience. Though Kennedy supporters played up his War record during the primary campaign, Kennedy himself seldom mentioned it and squirmed uncomfortably when he was introduced at rallies as a war hero. In one particular speech Powers remembers Kennedy talking at length about the heroism of Patrick McMahon the 41-year old engineer of the PT-109 who was badly burned when the torpedo boat was run down and wrecked by the Amagiri. Kennedy referred to himself only once, and very briefly as McMahon’s commanding officer and never mentioned in the speech, that he himself Kennedy had saved McMahon’s life, by swimming for 5 hours with a strap on the crippled engineer’s lifebelt clenched between his teeth.
In terms of content this archive represents the pinnacle of any John F. Kennedy wartime correspondence and specifically the two letters describing the PT-109 incident in such detail to Mrs. Marney are arguably the two most historically significant handwritten John F. Kennedy letters ever written and is the highlight of the entire Paloger John F. Kennedy collection.
Additional items included in this lot, which were not part of the Marney archive:
- John F. Kennedy’s signed “retirement card” from the Navy, June 11, 1944, listing his “Home Address, Hotel Bellevue—Boston”
- Original June 25, 1957 shooting script from “Navy Log” television series signed “To Peter Miller, John Kennedy US Senator, Mass.” who played McGuire
- 1961 book PT-109 by Robert J. Donovan with over 2000 words and detailed maps annotated by Capt. Katsumari Yamashiro (circa 1962) in great detail disputing many facts from this book including the collision of the PT-109 with the Amagiri.