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Pacific War veteran: Rob Dempsey

By Barbara Dreaver

Published: 4:08PM Monday April 22, 2013 Source: ONE News

The second in a series of profiles of New Zealand veterans travelling to New Caledonia for the 70th anniversary of the Pacific War. Barbara Dreaver will be travelling with them and covering the event for Tagata Pasifika and ONE News.

Rob Dempsey has a certificate that is his pride and joy.

It shows he was one of 26 New Zealanders who actually witnessed the surrender of the Japanese in 1945.

But his story starts two years earlier when he resigned as head storeman to join the navy.

"I always wanted to travel and I thought maybe the best chance would be to join the navy because they did have advertisements going saying, join the navy, see the world."

And see the world he did. Because New Zealand didn't have enough ships, some Kiwis like Dempsey were posted to British ships.

He travelled to England, Scapa Flow, Malta, Colombo and Australia before heading into the Pacific on board the Duke of York to join up with the British Pacific fleet.

Rob's job was with the first launchers crew doing a lot of gunnery and watch-keeping.

He remembers climbing down into the bowels of the ship. Every time they went down a level the watertight cover would be bolted behind them.

"The thoughts when you are down there are, well, if we get hit this part is cut off, you are gone, there is an end to it. But at the time you don't have much time to worry about it you have a job to do."

That job included filling shells with ammunition and sending them up to deck in a cage. It was hot hard work with little air flow.

"I suffered claustrophobia after I got out of the navy and I put it down to being enclosed in very confined spaces, especially in gun turrets, for very long hours."

Unlike servicemen based in on Pacific Islands with nothing to do in their leisure time,  there was no time for boredom in the navy.

"You took every opportunity to sleep. It wasn't so good being woken in the middle of the night to do a four hour watch, two hour watch, so you wanted to sleep."

Rob found the English very easy to get on with and had no shortage of friends. "I had one very good friend who was not in the same mess as me but we used to get together whenever we could in our leisure times, which was not very much, and we would share a tin of condensed milk from the Red Cross parcel.

"He'd have a spoonful, I'd have a spoonful".

Not so popular were the hydrated potatos and herrings in tomato sauce. "I don't ever want to see another tin of them," he says.

Travelling through the Pacific the crew were always aware of kamikaze pilots and were on action stations most of the time.

"At the age of 18 or 19 you didn't have any fear at all, it didn't worry me. Some of the chaps who joined early and went through the whole war they must have had a helluva time really, but I was lucky just having over two years."

Rob was lucky to cheat death on at least one occasion. He recalls a time when he and two mates came out of a London hotel and a V-2 ballistic missile landed around the corner and exploded, knocking them to the ground.

"I thought I was very lucky, and my two mates who were with me, if we had been another minute earlier we wouldn't be here today. But a lot of people in England went through that, I felt sorry for them."

The Duke of York managed to avoid any conflict in the Pacific. After Guam, the battleship headed up to Japan but it was too late to take part in the bombardment.

Rob remembers seeing the atomic mushroom cloud in the distance and then came the news the Japanese had surrendered.

"We were all very pleased that the war was over but we were a bit disappointed some way that we hadn't had a shot at these guys."

The surrender ceremony took place on September 2, 1945 aboard the USS Missouri. Dempson was there to witness it.

"That was all done in a typical navy fashion where the Japanese admiral was frisked when he came aboard. He must have felt very despondent, I think. He didn't look very good."

After the surrender signing there was an enormous fly past.

"It was the whole US and British forces up there, it was masses. I often wonder what the Japanese thought when they flew over Tokyo.

"And then of course we got another issue of rum. That was a big thing!"

Rob looks back at his time in the navy as "a good adventure, a great adventure".  Now 70 years later he is looking forward to meeting up and comparing notes with the other forces involved in the Pacific War.

"I think it will be wonderful," he says.