BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. Robert Hampton “Hammy” Gray VC, DSC (November 2, 1917 – August 9, 1945) was a Canadian naval officer, pilot, and recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC) during World War II, one of only two members of the Royal Navy‘s Fleet Air Arm to have been thus decorated in that war.
This will be the last of our articles in 2012 on Heroes of the Pacific, and for now the last one about an American ally
Gray was born in Trail, British Columbia, Canada, but resided in Nelson from an early age. In 1940, following education at the University of Alberta and University of British Columbia, where he was a member of the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) at HMCS Tecumseh in Calgary, Alberta. Originally sent to England for training, Gray was sent back to Canada to train at RCAF Station Kingston where he qualified as a pilot for the British Fleet Air Arm in September 1941.
Gray was first assigned to the African theatre, flying Hawker Hurricanes for shore-based squadrons. After two years in Africa, he trained to fly the Corsair fighter and in 1944 he was assigned to 1841 Squadron, based on HMS Formidable. In August 1944, he took part in a series of unsuccessful raids against the German battleship Tirpitz, in Norway. On August 29, 1944, he was Mentioned in Dispatches for his participation in an attack on three destroyers, during which his plane’s rudder was shot off. On January 16, 1945, he received a further Mention, “For undaunted courage, skill and determination in carrying out daring attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz.”
In April 1945, HMS Formidable joined the British Pacific Fleet. By July 1945, the carrier was involved in strikes on the Japanese mainland. Gray earned a Distinguished Service Cross for aiding in sinking a Japanese destroyer in the area of Tokyo. The award was not announced until August 21, 1945, when the notice appeared in the London Gazette with the citation, “For determination and address in air attacks on targets in Japan”.
Gray was one of the last Canadians to die during World War II, and was the last Canadian to be awarded the Victoria Cross. His VC is owned by the Gray family.
As Gray’s remains were never found, he was listed as missing in action and presumed dead. He is commemorated, with other Canadians who died or were buried at sea during the First and Second World Wars, at the Halifax Memorial in Point Pleasant Park, Halifax, Nova Scotia. The War Memorial Gym at University of British Columbia, Royal Canadian Legion hall in Nelson, B.C., numerous other sites in Nelson, and the wardroom of HMCS Tecumseh (his RCNVR home unit) also bear plaques in his honor.
A memorial service honoring Gray’s act of bravery was held in 2006 and a memorial erected at Onagawa Bay, just meters away from where his plane crashed. This is the only memorial dedicated to a foreign soldier on Japanese soil. Following the devastation of the March 11, 2011 earthquake, the monument was moved from its original location in Sakiyama Park to one beside the hospital in Onagawa Town. A rededication ceremony was held 24 August 2012.
Gray is one of fourteen figures commemorated at the Valiants Memorial in Ottawa.
On August 9, 1945, at Onagawa Bay, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, Lieutenant Gray led an attack on a group of Japanese naval vessels, sinking the Etorofu class, escort ship Amakusa before his plane crashed into the bay. The citation for his VC, gazetted on November 13, 1945, describes what happened:
ADMIRALTY Whitehall, 13th November 1945.
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the VICTORIA CROSS for valour to: —
the late Temporary Lieutenant Robert Hampton GRAY, R.C.N.V.R.,for great valour in leading an attack on a Japanese destroyer in Onagawa Wan, on 9 August 1945. In the face of fire from shore batteries and a heavy concentration of fire from some five warships Lieutenant Gray pressed home his attack, flying very low in order to ensure success, and, although he was hit and his aircraft was in flames, he obtained at least one direct hit, sinking the destroyer. Lieutenant Gray has consistently shown a brilliant fighting spirit and most inspiring leadership.
Gray was one of the last Canadians to die during World War II, and was the last Canadian to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
To everyone who has read these articles over the last year, and helped to honor our heroes I send you my Christmas greetings:
Faith makes all things possible, Hope makes all things work, Love makes all things beautiful,
May you have all the three for this Christmas.