Tom Dempster

Below is a small excerpt sent by Jack Rhem, from a book produced at Tom Dempster’s church in Tennessee. A church member there transcribed the experiences of church WWII veterans. This is Tom’s story (undated).

Tom Dempster was born in Warrior, Alabama on July 6, 1917. He joined the Naval Air Corps in 1941. In November 1943, he was injured in flight and spent thirty-four months in the hospital, which was the remainder of his time in the service. When he got out, he was a lieutenant commander and had earned a Purple Heart, an Air Medal, and, with his squadron, the Presidential Unit Citation.

“I’d been out the university with a degree in mechanical engineering for about one year when I joined the service in August 1941. I didn’t take ROTC in school, and I knew the war was coming along, and I thought I’d better do something. So I joined the Navy and went to Navy flight school. It took about nine to ten months, and I finished in July 1942.

“About flight school, I had order to report to San Diego for training school. When I got there, I checked in and they didn’t have time, so they sent me across the hall to the pilot’s replacement squadron. The man there said, ‘You’re gonna go to New Caledonia,’ but he didn’t tell me where it was. He said, ‘You’re gonna go to VP71,’ which is a squadron, and he gave me a train ticket to San Francisco to get a ship to find this VP71. Well, I got up there, reported to Naval headquarters, and stayed there about two weeks. One day they called me – I was staying in a hotel, about to run out of money – and they said to be at the pier to catch a ship to go to VP71. So I went down and caught that thing, and we went twenty-six days at sea and ended up at Auckland, New Zealand. And when I got to Auckland, they said, ‘You go to New Caledona,’ which was 800 or 1,000 miles up the ocean. So they put me on another ship, and when I got there, they said VP71 had been relieved and that they went back to Honolulu. So they hitched me a ride with the Marine Corps on a plane to go back to Honolulu. To go there, we had to go to the Fiji Islands, then to Samoa, then to Canton Island, and then Midway. So, I got a whole tour of the South Pacific. But anyway, we hadn’t drawn any fire and this guy – I think his name was Carlson – said, ‘Do you need to get paid?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ so he said, ‘Let me put your name down as crew on my airplane.’ So I got my flight pay because he certified that I was there in New Caledonia, to Samoa, to Canton, to Johnson, to Midway.

“I really had two tours of duty in the Pacific – one in the central Pacific with the old Navy PBYs in late 1942 and the early part of ’43, and then they split our group up into two groups and put us in B24s, which the Navy called PB4Ys. And we went back into the south Pacific, and it was down there that I got hit and spent the rest of the time in the hospital.

“Our job was patrolling the ocean in twelve-hour planes, flying sectors looking for enemy ships, mostly. The Japanese had all these little islands – what seemed liked thousands of them – and they had these garrisons on each of them to maintain shipping around them; it was our job to keep them isolated. We’d go out about 400 miles out left by 15 degrees, and then you’d go another 400 miles, then come crosswise – making a “Y” – and you could patrol a whole lot of water. Somebody figured each sector would cover 600,000 square miles of area, which was mostly water – you might see a little island, but mostly water. We had twelve-hour planes and 15 flight crews, and we’d make these patrols about every third day or every other day. There wasn’t anything else to do anyway.

“On this particular day, in November 1943, we were out at the very end of our sector – 800 miles out – and we saw a little ship, a little freighter, and we decided we would bomb it, which we did. We went over it about three times and dropped bombs at low altitude – we weren’t over 150 feet above the water. We dropped a bomb on it, missed, and then dropped another one. Then the last time, the ship blew up underneath us. I got hurt, and another boy named Griffin, who was a belly gunner, got hurt. See, when the ship blew up underneath us, it just exploded, and we got shrapnel that came through the bottom of the airplane. We got back all right, but it took a little over five hours to get back. We had to throw everything over the side that we could – we had some pretty good damage to our airplane, but we got back. When we got back, they already knew we had some trouble, and they met us at the airstrip with an ambulance and took us to the hospital. Then I left that group at the end and stayed in the hospital for thirty-four months. Sounds bad, but it really wasn’t. I had a fractured mandible – the jawbone – which didn’t heal, and they had to do bone grafting, and that just takes time. The first bone graft didn’t take, and I had to wait four months to do it again, and that didn’t take, so you have to wait all the time. But now I actually don’t have any teeth on the left side because there isn’t any place to mount any. They all got knocked out.

“The Navy had a mobile hospital, which were tents, in Guadalcanal, and from there they would sent you to another one that was more advanced. That one was in a building – Quonset huts – and from there they brought me back to the states, to California, and I was there about two years. From there they transferred me to Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., and that is where I finished up.

“Most of the patients in the hospital were Marines, some with a leg lost. I had my mouth wired shut – when they do the grafting, they have to keep it immobilized, so they wired it shut. I had it wired together for about fourteen months – that wasn’t fourteen months at one time. It was three months one time, then another three months, then four months, and then another four months, a total of 14 months. I could only drink out of a straw, just liquids. So it wasn’t too bad; you could spend a lot of time boozing it up. If you were married, you could bring the family out there.

“When I heard about the atomic bomb, I thought it was good that they dropped it. It didn’t surprise me; the scuttlebutt was that there was something big being produced in Oak Ridge – nobody knew what it was, but they knew something real big was going to happen. I don’t think anybody expected a bomb; they probably expected some sort of high-class or high-pressure missile or cannon or something. When it was dropped, I guess I was in the Naval hospital out in California.

“During the war, I got about a weekly letter from my family. They would send me a little newsletter or something. The company that I went with had a newsletter – a local thing – and they would send that out. I got the Air Medal for just being in the war, and we had a presentation ceremony at the hospital. My unit got the Presidential Unit Citation, so each person in that unit was awarded that. I was a lieutenant commander when I got out – not for pay purposes – they gave me an honorary rank. I was a lieutenant, and when I gout out, they advanced me one rank just for “hanging up on the wall.” Then they gave me a medical retirement.

“After I got home, I went to work for the Dempster Dumpster Co. – that was the old family business, but I hadn’t been with them before – just went to work for them when I got back. I didn’t have any problem readjusting; some said they did, but I didn’t. Probably, if the war did anything to me, it sort of broadened me out a little – and especially some of these kids who were fresh from home, just out of high school, got a fast education, and when they got back took advantage of the GI Bill. A lot would not have had the opportunity if they hadn’t gone in the service.

“Our group gets together every two years for a reunion. Last time we were in Oakland, California, and this year, we will be in Washington, D.C. Usually we go every two years, but this time it will be just after one year because everyone is getting too old. We’ve been to San Diego two or three times and Portland, San Antonio, Pensacola, St. Louis, Norfold – we’ve been pretty much all over. But we’re losing so many of them it’s not enough to put on a party. Last time it was sixty-nine, and that counted women, children, and everybody else. There were originally about 300 – well actually there was 150, but the squadron went back with another 150, so there were about 300 total.”