A new monument in Onagawa, Japan dedicated to Nelson’s Lt. Robert Hampton Gray was unveiled Friday, symbolizing in part the community’s strides since a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck 17 months ago.
Gray, a pilot, was shot down in Onagawa Bay during the final days of World War II — the last Canadian killed in action during that war. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
Townsfolk erected a monument in his honour in 1989 in Sakiyama Park, overlooking Gray’s final resting place. However, following last year’s earthquake, the cliff face cracked and eroded into the bay, knocking the monument over.
The granite cairn survived but the plaque went missing. A crane operator volunteered to move the cairn to a new site and a local stone mason offered to mount a new plaque, recreated by Canadian military experts.
The new monument still overlooks the bay, but from a small piece of land in front of the town’s hospital, near a new memorial to the victims of the tsunami. Its bronze plaque calls for the “peaceful repose of the souls of all those who died in battle.”
Attending the re-dedication ceremony were members of the Kanda family, instrumental in erecting the original marker; Onagawa mayor Yoshiaki Suda and many other town officials; plus representatives from the Canadian Defence Attache, Japan Ground Self-Defence Force, and Onagawa Lion’s Club.
Capt. Bruce (Skip) Walker conveyed greetings to Onagawa from Nelson mayor John Dooley, and to the Kanda family from Gray’s sister, Phyllis Gautschi.
In remarks printed in the official program, Walker said the ceremony was very special.
“It is more than a monument to a great Canadian,” he said. “It goes beyond the symbol of the friendship and bonds that have grown between Onagawa and the Embassy of Canada in Tokyo, with Nelson, with Canada.
“Today shows that Onagawa is recovering from the devastation of March 11, 2011 … We cannot forget the tragedy of March 11, like we cannot forget the events of World War II, but like then, with positive attitudes and strong will, we can overcome the loss, the destruction, and the tragedy and work together to build something stronger and better.”
Walker also quoted former mayor Suda Zenjiro who spoke at the original monument’s unveiling 23 years ago.
“We must not allow the recurrence of our sad experiences but we must learn from them,” Zenjiro said.