Veteran Stories:
J. Don Dempsey

Merchant Navy

  • The SS Liscombe Park, 4700 Ton Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship (DEMS).

    J. Don Dempsey
  • The DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) Insignia/Badge.

    J. Don Dempsey
  • Permit to land at Antigua, issued during merchant navy travel with supplies and munitions for the Allied armies.

    J. Don Dempsey
  • Dempsey (centre), Edmands and Kennedy cleaning the 4" MK 19 in Kingston, Jamaica.

    J. Don Dempsey
  • J. Don Dempsey (centre), Paul Edmands and Joe Montalban setting the 4" shells for sea duty in Pictou, Nova Scotia, September 1944.

    J. Don Dempsey
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"May 1943 the Germans had 220 U-Boats out in the Atlantic and that's where I served in the Atlantic at that time."

Transcript

During the war, I was Joseph Dempsey, am now called Donald but Joseph Donald. But I was Joseph Dempsey and I was an able seaman gunner for the RCNVR DEMS - D-E-M-S which is Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships. I never thought I could get in the service. At an early age I had my left eye severed and was practically blind in the left eye, so never thought I could ever get into service, so I went to machine shop and studied it. And went and worked in a machine shop in a war factory. And one morning, this young fellow asked me to go down and keep him company, he was joining the Navy. So we went down and said, "Wanting to join the Navy." I took the glasses off and put them in my pocket. So we ended up passing by reading twice out of one eye - the right eye, and I ended up passing and got in. And I went into DEMS because there was no service in the merchant ships. We were the only service people. During the first part of World War II, the merchant ships were getting torpedoed pretty fast. We were losing many merchant ships. There was 2, 000 RCN personnel that were trained as gunners and signalers and telegraphers in the allied merchant ships. Merchant seamen, we also trained and if they qualified for gunnery they received an extra 20 cents a day. The merchant seamen, during the war, lost about 35, 000 men. The allied ships losses were about 2, 775. May 1943 the Germans had 220 U-Boats out in the Atlantic and that's where I served in the Atlantic at that time. The ships lost were about 122 ships. The boats were built, at one time, in 307 days. They were built in 237 days at the end of it. And the merchant seamen of course, long as they stayed aboard merchant ships, didn't have to go in the service. They didn't have to go into conscription at that time. They were highly unionized people and could demand pretty well what they got during the war. And were not considered veterans until sometime after the war when they were given the veteran status. So it was different with the Navy being aboard the ships and the merchant seamen who were at that time were civilians. But we had no problem. We got along great with the merchant seamen. There was no problems there. The difference of course, in the wages of merchant seamen and the navy men was quite a bit different. They made about a 135 bucks a month where we made 84 dollars. So that's a big difference in Navy pay and merchant seamen pay at that time. Plus, they got bonus if they were on dangerous ships which carried either oil or ammunition. So, they were pretty well off in those days. I ended up in one real dangerous situation of Cape Hatteras. You have to understand that, out of Halifax and the east coast, there was more ships being lost at that time, especially in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. There was more ships being torpedoed there than there was in Europe at one time. So when you sail from Halifax and New York, South Atlantic, West Indies, so on, you were in a very dangerous part of the Atlantic. Off of Cape Hatterras was a well-known area for submarines to come up. And I remember one time about October I think, 1944, we were in the tail end of a hurricane. We were stopped. We were three days and three nights in the same spot with a full head of steam up because the waves were about 60 foot. But we did have submarines that came out on the port bow. And we had American escorts at that time because we were in a convoy. And they were patrolling that area. And we were called of course to action stations, had our guns stripped and ready for action, when the Americans started throwing their flares up and lighting the whole area up like Christmas. And they apparently either scared the daylights out of them or got the submarines that come up. But anyway, we never lost any ships.
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