A Formidable Hero, Flight Sergeant John Gray, Homefront & Battlefront, Nelson BC, Onagawa Japan, Phyllis Gautschi, Robert Hampton Gray, Stuart E. Soward, Sylvia Crooks, Victoria Cross, West Vancouver, World War II
by Laura Anderson,
North Shore News
IN 1989, West Vancouver resident Phyllis Gautschi set off across the ocean to a town in Japan, a journey 44 years in the making.
Born in New Westminster in 1914 to J.B. and Wilhelmina Gray, she was raised in Trail and Nelson.
For Phyllis and her two younger brothers, John Balfour, known as Jack, and Robert Hampton, it was an idyllic childhood in a closely knit community where lifelong friendships were forged. At the end of World War II, 70 men from a town of 7,000 had lost their lives.
Jack joined the RCAF in 1940 at 18, just graduated from high school. Flight Sergeant John Gray was killed in action in Europe, the first man from Nelson to lose his life in the war. His brother, Hampton, would be the last.
On August 9, 1945, just hours after the atomic bomb demolished Nagasaki, Lieutenant Robert Hampton “Hammy” Gray, a pilot with the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve on HMS Formidable, led a flight of Corsairs against Japanese warships.
There were plenty of Allied eyewitnesses to what happened next. Another was a boy from the town of Onagawa, Japan named Zenjiro Suda.
Though his aircraft was blasted by enemy fire, Gray sank the Japanese destroyer Amakusa. Seconds later, he pitched into the waters of Onagawa Bay.
Gray’s body was never recovered.
VJ Day, Aug. 15, 1945, was a day of rejoicing. “We thought the war was over,” Phyllis recalls. “There was a feeling of relief: he’ll be coming home.”
When the news of Hampton’s death arrived two days later, J.B. Gray, himself a veteran of the Boer War, said, “I don’t know how I can go back and tell my wife this story again.” Jane, Anne and Marcia, daughters of Phyllis and her husband, Edouard Gautschi, would never know their uncles.
Hampton Gray, awarded both the Distinguished Service Cross (for previous achievements in battle) and the Victoria Cross posthumously, is the last Canadian to receive Britain’s highest military honour. It was presented to the family in Ottawa on Feb. 27, 1946, four years to the day after the death of Hampton’s brother, Jack.
Mr. Gray died in 1949. Mrs. Gray, who lived into her 90s, was the Royal Canadian Legion’s Silver Cross Mother of 1969.
Phyllis and Ed, an executive with Cominco, lived in Calgary and Montreal before moving to West Vancouver in 1970. Widowed in 1999, Phyllis has four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
On August 9, 1989, in recognition of the peaceful relations between Canada and Japan, a memorial to Lieutenant Gray was established in Onagawa, the first to a former enemy ever erected in that country.
Phyllis and her family, representatives from the Canadian Navy, surviving members of Hampton’s squadron and his friend, Peter Dewdney, with whom he had enlisted, made the journey to Onagawa to attend the dedication ceremony.
Representing Onagawa were Yoshi Kanda, a veteran who had been instrumental in establishing the memorial, survivors from the Amakusa and the mayor of the village, a middle-aged man named Zenjiro Suda.
The ceremony confirmed the reconciliation between Canada and Japan, replacing the arms of war with the bonds of friendship.
Over the years, the communities of Nelson and Onagawa strengthened those bonds. The Gautschi family established equally strong ties with Mayor Suda and with the Kanda family.
When Yoshi Kanda and his wife, Fumiko, died, their business, a general store, passed to the Kandas’ daughter Emiko and her husband. Their three children would not take over the store. To their parents’ regret, they moved inland to the big cities, away from the town on the bay.
In March 2011, the earthquake-powered tsunami engulfed Onagawa. It is estimated that the village lost 1,300 from a population of 10,000, among them Emiko Kanda and her husband. Their children, far away in the big cities, survived.
Hampton Gray rests with the Kandas in the waters of Onagawa Bay. As the years roll on, and the memories of the cataclysms that took their lives recede, they will be remembered by family and friends.
Thanks to the Gautschi family for their assistance and the books, Homefront & Battlefront, Nelson B.C. in World War II by Sylvia Crooks and A Formidable Hero by Stuart E. Soward.