“Only 23 and gone.” A son commemorates the father he never knew

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Filed under Library News:  Archives & Research Collections
John Dorsey (pictured), son of McMaster alumnus Lieutenant Robert (Bob) Dorsey, holds a “wee small tam” and a pair of woollen mittens sent home by his father- a gift to the son he would never meet. These items are now part of a special archive donated by the Dorsey family to McMaster University Library.

John Dorsey (pictured), son of McMaster alumnus Lieutenant Robert (Bob) Dorsey, holds a “wee small tam” and a pair of woollen mittens sent home by his father- a gift to the son he would never meet. These items are now part of a special archive donated by the Dorsey family to McMaster University Library.

I stood beside a graveside and tears came to my eyes
Tears I didn’t know I had 
For a man I didn’t know with the same last name
First time I stood beside my dad
 

I really wish that I had known him 
Only 23 and gone
He never got off the beach in Normandy
But he left me to carry on.

These words were written by John Dorsey, lyrics to a song about his father, McMaster alumnus, Lieutenant Robert (Bob) Dorsey, who died in World War Two– a father he never met.

John, a teacher and a musician, wrote the song after visiting his father’s grave in France for the first time 30 years ago, a fitting tribute to his father, who by all accounts, shared his son’s love of music.

Lieutenant Robert (Bob) Dorsey.
Lieutenant Robert (Bob) Dorsey.

John was three months old when his father was killed in France on June 7, 1944– his life, and those of 19 others, claimed when a German aircraft strafed their position as they dug in on the beaches of Normandy.

“I never thought I had feelings for my dad because I never knew him, but when I was in France, I found myself standing beside the grave and crying,” says Dorsey. “You can’t escape these things- he’s part of me and I’m part of him, that’s why I wrote the song– I distilled my feelings into that.”

Bob Dorsey embarked for England in 1943, not knowing at the time that his wife Florence was expecting. But after hearing of his son’s birth, an excited Bob bought “a wee small tam,” and a set of tiny mittens, purchased while on leave in Scotland, and sent them home to Florence– a gift from a proud father to his son.

Now these items, along with a collection of photos, mementos and documents that shed light on Bob’s life, are part of an archive recently donated by the Dorsey family to McMaster University Library’s William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections.

“(The collection) helped me to learn about who I came from– it helps me understand my dad,” says Dorsey who, over the years, heard stories about his father– about his outgoing and fun-loving nature, and how he would often lead his regiment in song, earning him the nickname, “Tommy Dorsey."

John Dorsey as a baby wearing the woollen tam and and miss sent home by his father.
John Dorsey as a baby wearing the woollen tam and mittens sent home by his father.

Included in the collection is a number of family photos, as well as a stack of publications known as the “The Rocket,” a regimental newspaper co-founded by Bob that was full of cartoons, jokes, editorials and news from the front– it was intended to be a source of information, but also to help boost morale among the troops.

“We are grateful to receive this generous gift from the Dorsey family,” says Wade Wyckoff, Associate University Librarian. “This collection contains unique materials that will serve as a valuable resource to scholars seeking to learn about the lives and experiences of Canadian soldiers during World War II. We are proud to preserve this collection and to make it available to future generations of scholars.”

The Dorsey archive is part of a special Library initiative inspired by McMaster’s World War II Honour Roll project, led by Dr. Charles M. Johnston (class of 1949), professor emeritus of history, with the support of McMaster’s Alumni Association.

As part of this online project, Johnston researched and wrote comprehensive biographies of the 35 McMaster alumni who died in World War II, the names of whom are listed on the Honour Roll plaques housed in Alumni Memorial Hall.*

Johnston’s biography of Bob Dorsey provides many details and insights into his life, military service and student activities, painting a picture of a man who, while at McMaster, was an active and enthusiastic member of the Chess Club and of McMaster’s Political Economy Club and who also exceled at numerous sports, winning both tennis and badminton championships as a varsity athlete, and dubbed “a leader on the field” by the Silhouette for his contributions to McMaster’s championship-winning soccer team.

Read Lt. Robert Dorsey’s biography written by Dr. Charles Johnston, part of McMaster’s WWII Honour Roll project.

“The Library’s archive project compliments the comprehensive and meaningful work of Dr. Johnston intended to bring to life the stories the McMaster alumni who served and died in the Second World War,” says Director of Alumni Advancement, Karen McQuigge. “The Library’s archive initiative will help deepen our understanding of the contributions, and sacrifices made by the McMaster graduates who didn’t returned home from that tragic conflict.”

* Alumni Memorial Hall was named in honour of McMaster’s fallen soldiers from World War I and World War II. Each year the names of these graduates are read aloud during McMaster’s annual Remembrance Day ceremony.

Watch video of John Dorsey playing his song, “Bob,” written in honour of his father who was killed in World War Two.

Read the Hamilton Spectator story, “A dad he never knew: ‘He's part of me, I'm part of him'