Robert Dempsey

The greeting for Robert Dempsey came by mail in 1942.

Its message was brief and to the point.

“The President says you’re needed,” Robert recalled his draft notice scant months after the United States declared war on the Axis powers.

Robert, who grew up in Bellmond, Iowa, where he graduated from high school in 1939, was working in the family business – interior and exterior decorating – at the time as a paper hanger and painter.

But he dutifully left that job and soon found himself going through processing near Des Moines. Then he was off to Camp White, Oregon, for basic training.

Eventually he was assigned to the 55th Combat Engineers as a painter. When the unit was sent to the Aleutians off the coast of Alaska Territory, Robert was put to work painting warehouses the combat engineers built.

He spent 21 months in the north and saw action in the lesser known campaign to oust Japanese forces from their toehold in the Aleutian Islands.

One of the Japanese toeholds was a base on Attu Island and Operation Landcrab was launched on May 11, 1943, to retake the island.

The 55th was assigned the task of ferrying ammunition to the top of a mountain so soldiers could fire down on the Japanese base.

That was the plan anyway.

“But the Japanese came over the mountain to us,” Robert said.

The assault was believed to be one of the largest banzai charges of the war.

The Americans would prevail, but at a heavy cost – 3,929 casualties including 549 killed in action, 1,148 wounded and 1,200 suffering severe cold weather injuries. Disease claimed another 614 American lives and 318 were lost to Japanese booby traps and friendly fire. 

When the battle ended, 2,351 Japanese were dead. Only 28 Japanese were still alive and taken prisoner.

It was on Attu Island that Robert’s life was saved by his faith. Literally.

He carried a Bible with him, a Bible with a metal cover. He kept it close and on this day it was in his breast pocket.

As chance would have it, Robert was shot and that’s where the bullet struck.

The round dented the metal cover and the impact undoubtedly smarted like the dickens, but other than that, Robert was uninjured.

On his return to the States, Robert met Alycia Ramsey. They married one week before his discharge and moved to Oklahoma City where Robert attended business college on the G.I. Bill.

After Robert graduated, they moved back to Iowa and a postwar America different from the one he knew growing up in the Great Depression.

Then everyone’s focus was on “keeping food on the table .”

As a youngster Robert did his part by hunting pheasant and fishing.

“Iowa has a lot of birds,” he said.

The Dempseys raised five sons and two daughters – Tom is the oldest followed by John, Jim, Deanna, Cynthia, Robert Joseph and Dennis – and there are 10 grandchildren now.

Two of his sons served in the Navy and a grandchild is in the military. Cynthia was killed in a car wreck some 30 years ago.

Robert worked for a film company and later learned computer programming.

He signed up for Social Security when he was 62. He’d work six months and then rely on the government checks for six months.

He was in maintenance at Perfection High Test off and on for 13 years.

“I was 73 when I quit there,” he said.

He and Alycia lived near the prison east of Lexington and moved to his present home in Purcell in 1993. Alycia died July 7, 2008.

He joined Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church in 1981 and is a member of the Knights of Columbus.

He isn’t certain, but doesn’t think he is the oldest parishioner.

On March 7, 2019, Robert was on an Oklahoma Warrior Honor Flight to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Ninety-seven at the time, he has a plaque attesting he was the oldest veteran on that trip.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seriously curtailed Robert’s social life.

Pre-pandemic, Robert was a regular fixture on the dance floor at least twice a week.

The Troubadors band even adopted him as an honorary member and he has the jacket to prove it.

He recalled all those Saturday gigs near Ardmore.

“Five boys on the stage making music and I dance,” he said.

He favors country-western tunes and lists the waltz and two-step as his favorite dances.

Never at a loss for a partner, Robert said the ladies “keep me going.”

And to prove his point, he does a little jig from his seat in a recliner.

The word is weekly dances will resume September 26.

Robert, who will be 100 on May 30, is ready.

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