Robert Hampton “Hammy” Gray (November 2, 1917 – August 9, 1945) was a Canadian naval officer, pilot, and recipient of the Victoria Cross 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.
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.
Africa and Norway
Gray was first assigned to the African theatre, flying Hawker Hurricanes for shore-based squadrons, where he spent two years.
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 Despatches for his participation in an attack on three German 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 which was involved in the invasion of Okinawa.
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”.
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. 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, numerous other sites in Nelson, and the wardroom of HMCS Tecumseh (his RCNVR home unit) also bear plaques in his honour.
A memorial service honouring Gray’s act of bravery was held in 2006 and a memorial erected at Onagawa Bay, just metres 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.
A cousin of Gray, filmmaker Ian Herring, in 2005 made a fictionalized film about him, The Last Battle of Hampton Gray.
To celebrate the Centennial of the Canadian Navy, during the 2010 air show season, Vintage Wings of Canada flew at events across Canada in a Corsair bearing the markings of the plane Gray was likely flying that fateful day.
Grays Peak, British Columbia
On 12 March 1946, the Geographic Board of Canada named a mountain in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park, BC, after Gray and his brother, John Balfour Gray, who was also killed in World War II. Rising to a height of 2,753m, Grays Peak is well known in Canada as the mountain pictured on the label of Kokanee beer.
Hampton Gray Memorial Elementary
The elementary school at CFB Shearwater is named after Gray.
In 2012 the Royal Canadian Air Cadets created a squadron in his honor called 789 Lt Hampton Gray VC Squadron