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Donald Dempsey

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Sadly, Donald Dempsey passed away in 2015. A man wears medals on his chest

Mr. Donald Dempsey comes from a military family. His father served in World War I and World War II. His older brothers, Clarence and Vincent Dempsey, joined their father in the service in 1939. However, Mr. Dempsey wasn't ever supposed to serve due to his eyesight. As a toddler, Mr. Dempsey pulled a tablecloth from the table and shattered glass severed the pupil in his left eye.

He didn't let that stop him though. At 17, while working 12-hour shifts in a machine shop, his friend asked him to keep him company when he went to the Navy recruiting office. His father and brothers were already overseas at the time, and Don decided to try to join as well. Of course, he knew his eye injury would be an obstacle. He did the reading test perfectly with his right eye, and when the recruiter turned around and asked him to switch, Mr. Dempsey repeated the test with his good eye. He successfully enlisted with the Navy, and from there, was one of 2,000 volunteers to go on the Merchant ships.

He joined the Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) gunners in January 1944 and ended up spending two years in the Merchant Navy. He was 18 at the time.

His mother believed he was in Halifax, while he was actually in the South Atlantic fighting submarines. He never corrected her assumption, as he knew she was already worried for his father and brothers serving in England. He also couldn't let her know where he was to maintain the security of the ships on which he served.

"You couldn't name a ship. And there were no names on the ship during World War II," said Mr. Dempsey. "Everything was just labelled H.M.C.S."

The designation Her Majesty's Canadian Ship (HMCS), is applied as a prefix to any Canadian Forces warship.

"In 1944, off Cape Haveris, I saw 60-foot waves," said Mr. Dempsey. "When you were on watch, you'd see the needle of the ship go down and you'd swear the ship would tip over. It was very scary."

There were many tragedies during the war that were hard for Mr. Dempsey to recall. "I met 10 gunners in a bar after docking in Barbados and then read the paper the next day to learn that their ship was torpedoed," he recalls sadly. "One of the gentlemen was headed home to get married and leaving for St. John, New Brunswick in the morning. The ship went down 17 miles out of St. John."

Two months later, his ship followed the same path and he reminisced about the loss.

"Think about how his fiancée felt, waiting for him to get home," he said. "It's sad - it's the young people who get hurt during war."

Although there were hard times during the war, Mr. Dempsey fondly remembers the good times as well.

"In New York City, we had gone to a place called Jack Dempsey's Bar in Times Square," recalls Mr. Dempsey. "I got talking about how my name was Dempsey and after proving it, my drinks were all on the house."

Although he only weighed 135 pounds and wasn't a boxer, he challenged a shipmate, six inches taller, to a grudge fight.  

"The guy would flick my ear every time he walked past me. But you couldn't just turn around and hit a guy in the Navy, you'd get suspended for seven days. So I challenged him to a grudge fight," he said. "We started sparring, and I drove him onto his back, twice, before my nose was broken by a surprise punch."

He was discharged in October 1945. He returned to his home in New Brunswick, where he took a trade in carpentry. Due to a hand injury from an explosion during the war, he wasn't able to keep up with it and eventually volunteered to be laid off. After a few years as a textile fitter, he moved to Ontario in 1951.

After returning home after the war, Mr. Dempsey worked 30 years for the Toronto Board of Education, while furthering his education. He got his fourth-class engineer papers and then his third-class engineer papers and eventually took over as the Chief Caretaker for the board.

Having lived through the depression, Mr. Dempsey doesn't like to see children suffer.

"I knew what it was to be hungry," he said. "Children should not go hungry." He would make sandwiches in his office for children with nothing to eat.

Mr. Dempsey explained how his time in the Navy made him a better person.

"Now, I serve my community." He speaks to children at local schools and represents veterans within the community.

Mr. Dempsey was married for 57 years to his wife, Ruth. She passed away a few years ago. He is the father of two boys and has three grandchildren - a grandson and twin granddaughters. His oldest son, Donny, followed in his footsteps and also joined the Navy.

At 84, Mr. Dempsey still works out three times a week and keeps active any way he can. He walks twice a day, bowls every Thursday, plays darts Monday nights and enjoys dancing.

"Last week, I danced Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday night - all fast songs," he proudly shares. "I love polkas."

Mr. Dempsey realizes how fortunate he was to survive the war.

"At the time, you don't realize the danger you're in. You're driving in areas where people have been blown up before and you don't know if or when you'll be hit," he said. "You can imagine how it would affect your nerves."

He's thankful that soldiers serving in Afghanistan can receive treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

"They didn't have that support when I was in the war," he said. "If you ran away from the frontline, they'd shoot you."

He also thinks the Highway of Heroes is a great show of support for our men and women serving around the world.

"These are young people who are sacrificing their lives for our freedom," Mr. Dempsey laments. "Some are only 20-years-old."

Mr. Dempsey is looking forward to speaking to students at a local elementary school and high school for Remembrance Day.

"I tell them the story of how I enlisted and show them my photos," he said. "I love speaking to kids and telling them about the war."