A 99-year-old Malden man who served his country in World War II and then came home and served his community for more than 70 years will be honored on Veterans Day, as a square in the city is named for him.
William T.J. “Bill” Dempsey became a longtime educator in Malden and Somerville, a eucharistic minister in the Catholic church, and a father of four. But before any of those accomplishments, he was a soldier awarded the Bronze Star for extraordinary heroism, gallantry, and valor.
Dempsey was honored for his actions in Würzburg, Germany, in early March 1945, when he single-handedly fought off Nazi soldiers who were trying to take control of a bridge. Armed with just a .45-caliber pistol and a captured enemy rifle, Dempsey was able to block the enemy’s path to the bridge, according to Kevin Jarvis, Malden’s veterans services director.
“Although exposed to intense enemy automatic weapons fire coming from the German forces only 20 yards away, he tenaciously held his position and halted two attempts of the enemy to charge across the street, killing two and wounding several more with his deadly fire,” the citation for his Bronze Star reads. “Corporal Dempsey’s prompt and courageous action eliminated a dangerous threat to the rear elements of our advancing forces.”
Dempsey grew up during the Great Depression, the eldest of 10 children living in Malden’s Linden neighborhood, home to both the Linden School, where he was later principal for 26 years, and Linden Square, where he will be honored with the designation of Corporal William T.J. Dempsey Memorial Square.
It was a tough time to grow up, and many young people took on heavy responsibilities, Dempsey recalled in a phone interview Thursday.
“I actually remember on my 16th birthday sitting on the front steps with my father,” Dempsey said. “He said, ‘Well, Billy, you’re a man now. You’ve got to get a job, and you have to help us pay for raising the family.’ So I did.”
Two years later, the United States entered World War II, and Dempsey was drafted by the Army shortly after he turned 18. He was inducted at Fort Devens in Middlesex County and then shipped for basic training to Little Rock, Ark., where he experienced culture shock as a New Englander suddenly exposed to Southern culture, weather, and wildlife.
“That was an eye-opener,” he said. “One time we were on levee duty when the [Arkansas River] overflooded, and the cottonmouth snakes were swimming around in the river there. I got so scared of those damn snakes, I couldn’t find my watch.”
Dempsey served in France and Germany as part of the 232nd Infantry Regiment in the 42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge before the actions in Würzburg that earned him the Bronze Star.
During the Battle of the Bulge, Dempsey said, the German military sent 9,000 men from its best divisions to the Ardennes forest to fight the outnumbered Allied soldiers, who believed they had two options: Win the battle or perish.
“We said, ‘If they’re going to kill us if we surrender, why surrender?’” he recalled. They kept fighting, and “9,000 men with rifles stopped, abandoned their positions, and their crack infantry division, and they couldn’t get to us.”
None of the men in Dempsey’s squad died in the battle, and only a couple of them were wounded, he said.
“We were a very good fighting unit,” he said. “I was with the best of the best, and we knew we could depend on each other.”
Just a few months later, Dempsey and his squad were in Würzburg, where his abstemiousness made him a hero, he said.
“The Germans wanted to blow the bridge up, so when I took my walk outside — because I didn’t drink, and some of the guys were having a grand time with all the liquor they found — I got into my trouble,” he said, meaning that German soldiers began shooting at him. “So naturally I fired back at them, and they couldn’t get out because I was able to trap them in there. And then when my friends inside heard the firing, they came out to help me. Then [the Germans] all surrendered.”
A few weeks later, Dempsey was among the American soldiers who liberated the Dachau concentration camp, where starving Jewish prisoners and others performed forced labor, were treated as lab rats for medical experiments, and were executed in mass shootings. Outside the camp, US soldiers found more than 30 railroad cars filled with decomposing human bodies.
“It was so bad, we all got sick. It’s as simple as that,” Dempsey said. “We could not see how anybody could be so cruel to anyone else.”
After returning Stateside, Dempsey briefly played professional baseball for the Cleveland Indians, but he found the post-war Major Leagues to be too competitive, he said.
“I didn’t like it. It was cutthroat,” he said. “All the guys coming back wanted their old jobs, and all the guys that had the jobs didn’t want to lose them. There were no friends in dugouts back in 1946.”
So Dempsey returned to Malden, earned a degree at Boston College, married and had a family, and spent more than half a century as a teacher and principal. It’s been a good life, he said, and at 99 he is just slowing down a little bit. He’s currently writing books for other seniors and is always available if a friend or neighbor needs help.
“God has been good to me,” he said. “It has been a happy life. I mean, it’s had its ups and downs, naturally. But I couldn’t ask for anything more than what God has allowed me. I have a beautiful family, and beautiful friends, and beautiful students.”
Corporal William T.J. Dempsey Memorial Square will be dedicated at 9 a.m. Saturday at the intersection of Lynn and Beach streets in Malden.