On August 9, 1945 Lt. Robert Hampton Gray led two flights of Corsairs on one of the last operations of World War II. The first atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima two days before. Senior officers had been informed that a second bomb would be dropped on the 9th. Admiral Vian, commanding Royal Naval forces attacking Japan, ordered that his pilots were to take no unnecessary risks — they would only take one run at a target, for instance. Gray’s planes were set to attack an airfield near Matsushima but, at the last minute, Gray was informed that the field had been intensively bombed and was probably unusable. If so, Gray was to seek out secondary targets such as ships.
The Corsairs took off from the flight deck of HMS Formidable and flew inland to check out the airfield, It was indeed devastated and Gray ordered his planes to Onagawa Bay where at least four ships were anchored. Gray chose the largest, the escort Amakusa, as his target and dived to the attack. The Japanese ships and the shore anti-aircraft batteries opened up and Gray’s plane was hit and began to burn. One of the two 500-lb bombs he was carrying was knocked off the plane by enemy fire. Gray continued on course and dropped his remaining bomb perfectly, hitting the ammunition hold. The Amakusa erupted in flames, rolled over, and sank in minutes. Meanwhile, Gray’s burning plane rolled over and plunged into Onagawa Bay.
“There goes Hammy!”, radioed another pilot. Lt. McKinnon took over the mission and the Corsairs went on to attack two more ships. A few hours later, a nuclear bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The next day, Japan surrendered. Hampton Gray was the last Canadian to die in combat in World War II. He had already been cited for a Distinguished Flying Cross for an action near Tokyo where he sank a destroyer, now the military authorities listed Gray for a Victoria Cross. He is the last Canadian to date to win that honor.
Hampton Gray was born in Trail and raised in Nelson, B.C. His brother, John Balfour Gray, was the first man from Nelson to die in the War. He enlisted in 1940 in the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve and transferred to the air arm in 1941. He saw action in Africa and the Mediterranean and was part of an effort to sink the German battleship Tirpitz in the Baltic. His carrier force was assigned to the Pacific in 1945 and fought at Okinawa and then the Home Islands. He was well respected as a flier and a soldier. He was twenty-seven when he died.A number of locations around Canada bear Hampton Gray’s name. In Nelson, the post office building, the Legion post, the local air cadets unit; in Halifax, the aviation school and on the monument to Canadians lost at sea; a mountain in Kokanee Glacier Park (named after both Hampton and his brother); the War Memorial gym at UBC; his bust is one of the fourteen Valiants at Ottawa; there have been two movies and several books about him — but the most interesting monument to Hampton Gray is at Onagawa Bay. There, a local named Yoshi Kanda began a campaign to create a memorial to Gray that was dedicated in 1989. The Gray memorial was seriously damaged in the quake/tsunami of 2011. It was refurbished and remounted across the bay from its original location in July, 2012. It is the only monument to an Allied soldier in Japan. The inscription contains these words:
Now former enemies have become friends. It is hoped this will contribute to the repose of the souls of those who died for both sides and be a lasting symbol of peace and friendship between our two nations.