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Victoria monument planned for Nelson’s Hampton Gray

Fundraiser underway to create memorial to Second World War pilot killed in Japan
Nelson’s Lt. Robert Hampton Gray was the last Canadian awarded the Victoria Cross. He was killed in an aerial attack on a Japanese destroyer late in Second World War.

A group on Vancouver Island is planning to create a new monument to Nelson’s Lt. Robert Hampton Gray in time for the 75th anniversary of his death in battle.

Retired Navy Capt. Terry Milne says fundraising is underway for the memorial, to be installed at a newly designed entrance to the B.C. Aviation Museum, on the grounds of Victoria International Airport.

The proposal calls for three vertical pillars standing on a large flat slab of polished grey granite. The outer pillars will be of polished black granite, standing almost seven feet (2.1 meters) tall.

The right pillar will display an etching of Gray in uniform, the left pillar an etching of his Corsair aircraft in action, and the middle pillar will have a plaque listing his titles, awards, and citations.

The total cost of the memorial, foundation and site preparation is expected to be about $60,000. One-third of that amount has already been raised, with an application to the BC Community Gaming Fund pending.

Gray died on Aug. 9, 1945 when his plane was shot down in Japan while leading an attack on naval ships. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, making him the most highly decorated member of the Canadian Navy during the Second World War and the only pilot from B.C. to receive the honour.

Thirty-five years ago the Canadian War Museum asked Milne — then the defence attache in Tokyo — if Gray’s plane could be found on the bottom of Onagawa Bay, a small seaport in northeastern Honshu.

While the plane was never recovered, the request set in motion a chain of events that culminated in 1989 with the establishment of a memorial above the bay — the only such memorial ever erected to a former enemy on Japanese soil.

Canadian warships and dignitaries in Japan visit the monument regularly and held remembrance ceremonies there. However, the giant earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 caused the monument to topple and destabilized the hillside where it stood. The monument was later removed to a safer area of town.

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The quake also stymied plans for a twin-city relationship between Esquimalt and Onagawa. A man who worked with Milne on those efforts, Master Seaman Joe Buczkowski of the Esquimalt Lions Club, was the one who suggested a new monument to Gray be built on Vancouver Island.

“We were aware that Hammy received a number of honours with schools named after him and plaques and cairns,” Milne says. “However we recognized that the 75th anniversary of his last battle and the almost simultaneous 75th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War is rapidly approaching.

“Not only are we losing touch with Hammy’s contemporaries, but before long we will be losing touch with the wartime children like myself, who knew Hammy and his fellow warriors.”

Milne says while they are pleased a monument stands over Gray’s last resting place, nearly all of its visitors are Japanese.

“We want to be able to pass Lt. Gray’s story of duty, honour, courage and sacrifice down to future Canadians, particularly young Canadians.

“This inevitably means we must find the right location where people visit regularly, and a form of memorial that can project an image and atmosphere that informs and connects with visitors.”

Milne is serving as project manager and several other former Canadian Navy members are involved. The Naval Association of Canada endowment fund kicked efforts off with a $2,500 grant and the local branch agreed to accept donations on the project’s behalf. A promotional brochure is expected to be issued soon.

Gray’s family has also offered financial support. Peter Keith-Murray, Gray’s nephew by marriage, met his famous uncle as a nine year old, but didn’t fully appreciate the circumstances of his death until nearly 50 years later.

“I donated to this memorial project because I’m proud to be connected to this talented pilot and I believe his sacrifice is worthy of honour,” he says.

Until an online donation system is established, tax-deductible donations can be sent by cheque to the Naval Association of Canada, Box 5221, Victoria, V8R 6N4, payable to the association, with “Lt. Gray Project” on the memo line. Donations of $5,000 or more will be recognized on the memorial, expected to be unveiled on Aug. 9, 2020.

Other tributes to Gray include the Gray Building in Nelson, Gray’s Peak in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park (named after him and brother John, who also died in the war), a street in Fairview, and an elementary school in Nova Scotia. The local sea cadet corps is also named after him, along with an air cadets squadron in Ontario.

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A group wants to build a monument in Robert Hampton Gray’s honour honour outside the B.C. Aviation Museum (seen here in a conceptual sketch by Ken Faulks and John Kilbank).