CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Dorothy Riley Dempsey
Dorothy Dempsey was born Dorothy Riley in July 1922, (Dempsey is her postwar married name) in New York City’s Bronx Borough, where she was living with her family and working as a business machine operator in a Manhattan office at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. One of her two brothers worked for Sperry Gyroscope in a war industry job that exempted him from the draft, and her other brother was too young to be liable for military service.
Dempsey mentioned that after Pearl Harbor, “it seemed that life stopped.” Believing that she had to contribute to the war effort in some way, she joined the American Women’s Volunteer Service, an organization that was formed to assist civilians should the war come home to the United States. Dempsey was assigned to her neighborhood where she worked in soup kitchens, as well as was trained in the basics of nursing.
Volunteering was not enough for Dempsey, however; she decided to enlist in the military after seeing draftees board a train in the Bronx. She decided to join the US Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, and nicknamed a SPAR “Semper Paratus – Always Ready”, as she was familiar with boating and swimming and hoped to be accepted for some sort of service at sea. Her best friend also wanted to enlist in the Coast Guard, but was rejected because she was born in Ireland and had never received US citizenship.
The SPARS were trained to perform land-based duties, freeing Coast Guard men for sea service. Dempsey went to Palm Beach, Florida for boot camp. It was her first time away from home, which she recalled was common for young women in the 1940s. Dempsey remembers boot camp as being very strict and consisting of physical training and classes about seamanship and Coast Guard procedures under strict discipline. She wanted to become a chaplain’s assistant; yet despite an initial promise of that position, the commanding officer denied her request. Due to her apparent communication and people-related skills, Dempsey was appointed as a Master-At-Arms, a job title with the responsibility for handing out assignments and maintaining morale.
Following boot camp, Dempsey was stationed in Boston, but her area of responsibility was all New England. She processed the paperwork of servicemen leaving on ships for the South Pacific, as well as gave out SPAR assignments to bases all over the New England coast. Dempsey enjoyed her job and even declined offers for positions that offered higher pay. Among her other tasks as Master-At-Arms were recruiting and raising and lowering the flag. She recalled that the flag froze around the pole one day. She was unable to get it lowered for the night; so, the next day she was reprimanded by her commanding officer.
Another Dempsey duty was monitoring a jukebox. For example, she had to remove “We’ll Meet Again” from the song selection, because it made the women in the office cry when they listened to it. Dempsey also had to counsel women who were upset, as well as comfort them to bolster their morale. She often consulted the Navy “Blue Jackets Manual” which helped with her duties. While on leave, Dempsey enjoyed dancing at Boston’s USO and skiing. She was also able to get passes to see several Broadway shows. Dempsey participated in a traveling War Bond show, where she worked with movie star Veronica Lake, who she did not like very much.
Dempsey received her honorable discharge from the Coast Guard in March 1946. After the war, she worked at a Fifth Avenue advertising agency in New York City. In 1969, Dempsey used her G.I. Bill to obtain a degree in Education from Newark State College (today’s Kean University) and pursued a teaching career.
In 1989, Dempsey served on the New Jersey Advisory Committee on Women Veterans under NJ Governor Florio. Also, in 1989, she sketched the design for the ‘Minutewoman’ statue, like the “Minuteman” of Concord, 13” high and cast in bronze, which previously did not exist. It was dedicated in 2003, just a few months after this interview, and can be found at the NJ Military Cemetery. Dempsey worked with women in nursing homes and hospitals, as well as made presentations about military women and women in history at schools and veteran groups. She attended veteran reunions in Washington D.C. Dorothy Dempsey was recognized for her service by being awarded the American Campaign and Good Conduct Medals. She died of natural causes on November 15, 2018 at the Paramus Veterans Memorial Home at the age of 96.
Many inspiring tributes are recorded on her obituary page.