Article by Rich Thistle ©

Into the Wind by Rich Thistle © Canadians recognize heroes reluctantly. In fact, heroism seems almost antithetical to the Canadian identity. Is this attitude shaped by our northern climate? Isn't everyone who can survive our hostile north a sort of a hero anyway? But, once in a while - and certainly more often than that in wartime - we are confronted by the life and acts of a single Canadian which challenge our natural Canadian reserve toward heroism. I have depicted the stories of three other Canadian pilots in my paintings for a series VALOUR OVER DANGEROUS SEAS. Robert Hampton Gray is the fourth. In fact, when I decided to paint this series, Hammy Gray was the first on my list.

Robert Hampton Gray, VC, DSC, was born in Trail, British Colombia November 17, 1917. He was completing his pre-med degree at the University of British Columbia in 1940 when he joined the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve. Hammy won his wings and a commission in the Fleet Air Arm, serving with various squadrons. In August of 1944, Lt Gray joined 1841 Squadron on HMS Formidable, replacing the senior pilot, and almost immediately led Corsairs in a daring attack on heavy anti-aircraft positions in a Norwegian fjord where the German battleship Tirpitz lay at anchor. On his return to Formidable with most of his rudder shot away, he had to circle the ship in his badly-damaged Corsair for forty-five minutes before making a successful landing. He was mentioned in dispatches for "undaunted courage, skill and determination".

Soon after this attack, HMS Formidable was detached to the Pacific Fleet and by the end of 1944 her squadrons were hammering the Japanese in the Far East. By mid July, Hammy was a veteran of several raids, bombing airfields along the Japanese Inland Sea. For these actions, he received the Distinguished Service Cross, although it wasn't gazetted until twelve days after his death.

Gray's mount was the F4U-1 Vought Corsair which first flew in May, 1940. Planned around the most powerful engine and the largest propeller ever to power a fighter up to that time, it was the first US service aircraft to exceed 400 mph. Its trademark inverted, gull wing design was conceived to raise the nose for propeller clearance while maintaining the short, sturdy undercarriage required by a carrier-based aircraft. Possibly the finest American fighter of World War II, it finished the war with a loss ratio of 11:1. The Corsair was a superb ground-attack aircraft, armed with six 0.50 inch machine guns and various ordinance up to two five-hundred pound bombs. It achieved great popularity among its pilots, and was highly respected and feared by its opponents.

On August 9, 1945, the same day that the second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, Hammy was leading an aggressive Ramrod against airfield targets north of Tokyo. The Corsair he flew that day has always been identified as number 115, since his "personal" aircraft, 119, had apparently been trapped below in the hangar deck just at the time the operation was to be launched. Just before takeoff, new intelligence regarding a secondary target was conveyed to Gray before he took off, but because of time constraints and radio silence, not communicated to the rest of the Corsairs in his formation.

Finding that the target airfield had already received a pounding, Hammy turned for the secondary target, which included several Japanese warships including a 2500 ton battleship hiding at anchor in Onagawa Bay surrounded by high hills. Having been briefed about these shipping targets, Hammy elected to go after the ships.

Swooping down from 10,000 feet he made the short, exposed run at his chosen target, the ocean escort vessel Amakusa. Almost immediately, his Corsair was hit by enemy machine gun and cannon fire from shore batteries and five warships, and appeared to catch fire, one of his bombs being shot away and falling clear. However Gray maintaining control of the stricken Corsair, pressed the attack home, hitting the Amakusa amidships in the ammunition magazine with his remaining 500 pound bomb. Then, as Hammy cleared the stricken vessel and headed for safety, his aircraft, now with smoke and flame erupting from the lower engine area, flicked to the right in a vicious roll and crashed upside down into the bay. His body was never recovered. Robert Hampton Gray was the last Canadian to die directly in combat in WW2.

The Amakusa was wracked by heavy explosions and swiftly capsized and sank, taking with her a total of 71 crew. Lt Hammy Gray was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for courage in the British Commonwealth, "for great valour...brilliant fighting spirit and most inspiring leadership". His citation in the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame reads: "His winning of the Victoria Cross in aerial combat must be regarded as the most outstanding contribution possible to Canadian aviation."

Gray was the last Canadian to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Almost fifty years later, a granite monument was raised on the shoreline overlooking the Japanese bay which is Gray's last resting place. Donated by the province of British Columbia, the monument is the first in Japan to honor an allied service person.

It's Japanese inscription reads: "Now former enemies have become friends. It is hoped this will contribute to the repose of the souls of those who died for both sides and be a lasting symbol of peace and friendship between our two nations."

My wartime aviation work often depicts true Canadian heroes. My painting INTO THE WIND is no exception. It depicts the launch of Hammy in Corsair 115 from the deck of HMS Formidable early on that fateful morning. The original acrylic painting is accompanied by an original graphite portrait of Robert Hampton Gray. The image INTO THE WIND was published as a collector plate in a four plate Canadian series VALOUR OVER DANGEROUS SEAS which is now sold out.

INTO THE WIND
  • original painting available in catalog
  • limited edition fine-art print available in catalog
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