Nelson Star

Nelson war hero’s sister dies at 98

ABOVE: On a 2010 visit to Nelson, Phyllis Gautschi visited the memorial dedicated to her brother, Lt. Robert Hampton Gray, outside the post office, which is also named after him. Gautschi died last month. BOTTOM: Gautschi and daughter Anne George in front of the Nelson cenotaph. - Greg Nesteroff photos
ABOVE: On a 2010 visit to Nelson, Phyllis Gautschi visited the memorial dedicated to her brother, Lt. Robert Hampton Gray, outside the post office, which is also named after him. Gautschi died last month. BOTTOM: Gautschi and daughter Anne George in front of the Nelson cenotaph.
— image credit: Greg Nesteroff photos

Phyllis Gautschi, the elder sister of Nelson’s Lt. Robert Hampton Gray, has died at 98. She passed away January 24 of a heart attack, according to her daughter.

“She had a long happy life, starting with her wonderful childhood in Nelson,” Anne George said.

Gautschi was the sometimes forgotten elder sibling of Hampton Gray, Canada’s last Victoria Cross recipient, and their brother Jack, who was also killed during World War II.

Several memorials to Hampton were unveiled in her absence because organizers either didn’t know where she was or weren’t aware that she existed.

Phyllis Wilma Gray was born December 3, 1914 in New Westminster to John (J.B.) and Wilhemina Gray. Her father, a Boer War veteran, had a jewellery store on Baker Street in the 1930s and ‘40s where Ted Allen’s is today. Phyllis worked there in her youth.

She recalled packing a lunch and climbing Pulpit Rock on Saturdays with two sisters who lived nearby. “One was sort of bossy,” she told the Star during her last visit to Nelson in 2010. “She would never let us have our lunch until we reached the top.”

She also remembered playing early-morning tennis on the old courts below the courthouse and taking swimming lessons from Paul Pittner — they would dive into the lake from aboard the ferry that crossed near where the orange bridge is now.

Phyllis studied nursing in New Westminster, then worked at the Trail-Tadanac hospital until marrying Cominco engineer Edouard Gautschi. In the meantime, her brothers enlisted. Jack signed up for the Royal Canadian Air Force at 18. On February 27, 1942, while returning from a mission over Germany, his Blenheim crashed over Doncaster, England.

By then Hampton had qualified as a pilot for the British Fleet Air Arm and was in Africa piloting Hawker Hurricanes. He later trained to fly the Corsair fighter. On August 9, 1945, with less than a week left in the war, he led an attack on a destroyer at Onagawa Bay, Japan. Under heavy fire, he stayed on course and bombed the ship, which sank as his burning plane crashed. Of the 158 people who died that day, Hampton was the only Canadian.

“We thought the war was over,” Phyllis remembered. “There was a feeling of relief: he’ll be coming home. It just didn’t happen. A week later, we heard the news, which was a blow to everybody.”

A few months later, Gray was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. An emissary was sent from Ottawa to tell the family, but “news got out long before he got there. By the time he reached Nelson, the whole town knew.”

In February 1946, Phyllis accompanied her parents to receive the award from the Governor General, as well as the Distinguished Service Cross. Hampton was cited for “great valour” and “most inspiring leadership.” Decades later, a monument was also erected in his memory at Onagawa.

Despite the honours and decorations, Gautschi said she never thought of her brother as a great hero: “He was just Hammy. He was just part of the family.”

Phyllis’ parents were planning to move to Vancouver in 1949 when her father died suddenly. Her mother moved alone, and spent the rest of her life living with her sister.

Gautschi was the last of the family who lived in Nelson. Through her husband’s employment with Cominco, she also lived in Trail, Calgary, Montreal, and since 1970 in West Vancouver.

In addition to her parents and brothers, she was predeceased in 1999 by husband Ed, to whom she was married 59 years. She is survived by daughters Anne, Jane, and Marcia, four granddaughters and seven great grandchildren.

A funeral service is planned for February 16 in West Vancouver.

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