Gray Ghost - a Small town with a big Heart

 Ghost title


By Shannon Gray
, Vintage Wings of Canada, Veterans Relations

0800 hours, August 9th 1945 – In the far reaches of the Pacific, Robert Hampton Gray, a Canadian fighter pilot in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, takes off from the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable in his FG-1D Corsair as part of a three-raid operation against a coastal convoy in the Onagawa Bay area of Northern Honshu. He never returns. 

1435 hours, May 31st 2009 -  On a cold, blustery Sunday, an FG-1D Corsair bearing Hampton Gray’s squadron markings and numbers suddenly appears over a small town in the Ottawa Valley just as a commemorative ceremony in honour of Canada’s naval and merchant marine veterans is about to conclude.  The final wreath has been tossed onto the water, and as the bugler begins the first notes of The Last Post, the Corsair materializes out of the heavy overcast.  Coming straight on, it is phantom- silent, but there is no mistaking the outline of that massive radial engine and gullwing profile.  The Corsair curves past the town hall clock-tower in full view of those attending the ceremony and the many townspeople-joggers, cyclists, skateboarders, motorists, shopkeepers - who stop what they are doing to look skyward.  It makes four passes - slicing alternately through swirls of mist and shafts of sunlight- and as the bugler finds his way to the final, solemn notes of The Last Post, the Corsair climbs into a ragged patch of blue sky that opens to the northeast, rocks its wings in a final salute to the veterans watching below, and disappears.

Sounds a little ghostly, doesn’t it?

Of course, we now know the sad and brave story of Robert Hampton Gray’s last mission; how the twenty-seven year old pilot from Trail, British Columbia pressed home his attack through a hail of anti-aircraft fire; how, as he raced in just above the water, gunfire tore off one of the 500 pound bombs slung under the Corsair’s wings, and that at fifty feet, Gray released his remaining bomb at his target- the destroyer Amakusa-which struck the ship just below the Number Two gun platform and eventually sank her.  We know, too, that as he roared over the stricken ship his Corsair exploded and crashed inverted into the waters of Onagawa Bay, killing him instantly.  We know a memorial in his honour overlooks Onagawa Bay, the only memorial to a foreign soldier on Japanese soil, and that along with the Distinguished Flying Cross, Hampton Gray was awarded the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest honour for bravery in combat.

So how is it that, sixty-five years later, as a small town reflects on the sacrifices of its citizens, as a group of aging veterans along with their families and supporters listen to the roll call of Canadian ships lost in World War II, “Hampton Gray’s  Corsair” flies over the ceremony, so low that at times the pilot’s helmet and flying goggles are clearly discernable?

The explanation is an encouraging reminder that profound moments are possible when people share a belief and work together.  Many of the individuals who helped create a special, solemn moment on May 31st, 2009, will never meet.  Many of them were, for various reasons, unable to attend the ceremony along the river and did not actually see what happened.  But they heard about it afterward, and what they were told made them glad they had decided to get involved.  

The ceremony itself is an annual event in the town of Almonte, a community of some 6000 people about forty-five minutes west of Ottawa (fifteen or so minutes if you happen to be at the controls of a Corsair).  It is called The Battle of the Atlantic Ceremony, and is held on the last Sunday of May.  It is organized by the White Ensign Naval Association and supported by the Royal Canadian Legion, personnel from CFB Petawawa, and several other organizations, businesses and individuals in the area.

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The annual parade and memorial service for the Battle of the Atlantic is organized by the members of the White Ensign Naval Association and local branch of the Canadian Legion, the Canadian equivalent of the American Veterans of Foreign Wars/VFW. Photo: Peter Handley

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Veterans, cadets, serving members, and Legionnaires march each year down Main Street of Almonte Ontario on their way to lay wreathes in the Mississippi River (another one) and at the Almonte memorial to the fallen of both World Wars. Photo: Peter Handley

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Amidst the skirl of the pipes and the rattle of the drums, the parade marches down Main Street. Photo: Peter Handley

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Veterans needing a lift ride the parade route on the author's Willys Jeep driven by another dedicated volunteer. Photo: Peter Handley

Almonte, like many communities in the Ottawa Valley, has a strong tradition of Remembrance, both proud and sad.  The number of individuals who have heeded the call (and continue to do so) since the town was incorporated is a source of pride, and the lists of names on the cenotaph are far too long.  Remembrance is literally a growing tradition here.  Not far from the cenotaph is the Veteran’s Memorial Walkway, a carefully tended path lined with Red Maples, each recently planted tree adorned with a plaque naming a veteran, some still living, others departed.  The project, again, is a collaborative effort in support of the Legion, and the number of trees is such that the surrounding green space is all but taken up.  School children planted the trees, and are the town’s unofficial official guardians of the walkway.  Almonte is a place where the tradition of Remembrance is being passed on, and where people are willing to consider and support new ways to acknowledge those who served.

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Called "The Volunteer", the cenotaph monument was constructed in the memory of the men of Almonte who fell for freedom. The Memorial was requested by the widow of Lt. Alex Rosamond and was a likeness of her late husband, based on photos. The finished work by Dr. R. Tait Mackenzie, looked so much like her late husband that she had it changed. Mrs Rosamond also left $1000.00 for its upkeep. The Memorial was redone in 1967. Lt. Alex Rosamond was killed in action at Courcelette on Sept. 15, 1916. The Volunteer was dedicated on Sept.11, 1923 . Photo: Peter Handley

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Wreathes, laid by veterans and dignitaries wrap the spectacular memorial in honour and sadness. Photo: Peter Handley

There is awareness, too, that the time of being able to thank many of the veterans personally is running out.  The town is blessed with the presence of a good number of active veterans in their late eighties; they represent all branches of the service, and are still visiting schools, sitting on committees, and dropping in to RCL Branch 240 for a “social.” But still, the last ten years have seen noticeable changes; smaller numbers in the parades, shorter parade routes, more wheelchairs.  These changes have given rise to a sense of urgency among the townspeople, which in turn has led to questions.  Beyond what is being done each year already, what else can we do to thank them?  In the time that is left, how else can we show them that what their generation went through and achieved still matters very much?  Out of these queries came the idea of a fly-past, perhaps one featuring an aircraft from the Second World War.

When Michael Potter, founder, president and CEO of Vintage Wings of Canada, was asked in September 2008 about the possibility of a fly-past in support of the Battle of the Atlantic Ceremony for the following May, his answer was immediate.   “Absolutely; we would be honoured.  It’s what we do.  Make sure the date and time goes on to the calendar, and we’ll be there.” 

For Vintage Wings, a fly-past over Almonte would not only be consistent with the organization’s mission of commemorating veterans; it would also be an opportunity to show people that Vintage Wings is not restricted to high profile air shows, large cities and appearances over the parliament buildings on Canada Day.  This would be an outreach event; a way to make people aware of the organization’s desire to form partnerships at all levels, and to help communities stay in touch with their own traditions and histories. 

Back in Almonte, people were surprised at the possibility.  “What?  They (Vintage Wings) would actually do that?  They would come here? 

Yes “they” would, and yes “they” will.
 
The idea evolved through a series of conversations and meetings.  It was decided that a collaborative effort on the part of the community to help defray the costs of a fly-past would enhance the gesture to the veterans.  A target figure was established.  Legion presidents promoted the idea at their respective branches and the idea was taken to the zone level.  Momentum gathered with support from Legion branches in Arnprior, Carleton Place and Kanata.  And so it did in the community; the idea was well received by organizations like the Civitan Club, individuals and businesses of every description from insurance companies, law firms and banks to farm implement stores, bakeries, boutiques, automotive shops and small construction outfits.  The response was the same everywhere.  Downtown, people would stop me on their way to the post office or the bank.   “I heard about the ‘idea’.  Wonderful; please count me in.  Marvellous.”

“Yes,” reflected one busy entrepreneur.  “It has been a tough go this year, but this isn’t charity, this is thank-you.  What a great idea.  I’d love to help out.” 

Contributions varied according to individual circumstances, but were identical in terms of meaning and intention.  The fact that so many offered to help simply reduced the pressure on the individual and added to the communal spirit of the endeavour.  Everyone was on the same wavelength; very often reference was made to a relative who had served, grandmother or grandfather, aunt or uncle, brother or sister, and in one case, a daughter serving in Kandahar.  In the end, the target figure was surpassed by a significant margin.  Local newspapers were generous in their support, providing assistance and guidance with regard to advertisements, announcements and coverage of the event.  Posters went up everywhere; schools, store fronts, banks, libraries, pubs, and Legions from Smiths Falls to Arnprior reminded people of the occasion, time and date.

Most of this activity took place in the late winter and early spring of 2009.  As to the aircraft to be involved, over at the hangar in Gatineau, Vintage Wings settled upon the Corsair.  Yes, it was a Battle of The Atlantic ceremony, and Hampton Gray had died in the Pacific.  However, prior to his being transferred to the Pacific theatre, Flight Lieutenant Gray had flown and fought with distinction against the German Navy.  Even though the Corsair was used primarily in the Pacific, a Corsair painted, lettered and numbered in his honour was deemed as historically and thematically appropriate.

Everything was in order by the middle of May; colour parties from the various Legions in Zone G6 had been organized, the pipe and drum band notified, and owners of historic vehicles advised as to mustering and parade times.  Cadet, Scout and Brownie troops knew the form, having participated in many parades and ceremonies over the years.  The only remaining factor was the weather, which would, as things turned out, play its own dramatic role.

Early on Sunday, May 31st, there was sunshine and a stiff breeze that hinted at mischief.  Those big clouds, still letting sunlight through by 10:00, were showing a disturbing tendency to clump together.  Oh well, hope for the best and ignore the weather forecast which called for heavy rain during the ceremony and specifically, for the time of the fly-past.  The Legion, where the parade was to start, was a busy place by noon.  The big Canadian Forces bus from CFB Petawawa was parked across the way, veterans were arriving, and pipers were hauling their instruments out of trunks and the side doors of vans.  By 13:00 the wind was blowing hard and it was pouring, first rain and then hail. The vintage jeeps parked alongside the Legion building were being pounded by it.  One piper walked past, looking morosely at a mound of the stuff cupped in his hand.  “That’s not just hail,” he murmured.  “That’s snow, too.  Snow.  That’s just wrong” He shook his head, and then wandered over to his car to retrieve his black slicker from the trunk.

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Veterans line up for inspection. Each year, the line up becomes shorter. Time is running out to honour these men while they can still attend the ceremony. The small town of Almonte puts together a ceremony of great dignity - one that far outsizes those of communities ten times their size.  Photo: Peter Handley

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There is sadness to be read on the faces of the men assembled, each with their own thoughts. Photo: Peter Handley

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But there is also the great joy that comes with comrades being together again. Photo: Peter Handley

Everyone went about their business, regardless.  Veterans grinned at each other and remarked that the weather suited the occasion.  Never fails; it does this every year.  As one grey haired fellow remarked, “I was in the artillery, but I always try to make it to this one.  After all, I had to get there first.”  And then, as he looked down to straighten his medals, “Besides, by this stage of the game, come May, a fellow can’t count on being around on the eleventh.” 

With everyone lined up and in position, the parade Marshall gave the order and the assembly moved off through the rain, which was tapering off to gusty drizzle.  The weather channel had just been checked.  A heavy but thin band of active weather was moving down the Ottawa Valley like a long blade, heading right for Gatineau where the Corsair was waiting, hopefully, to take off.  If it did take off, it would have to punch its way through the mess that had just done a job on Almonte.  In a few minutes the parade was at the cenotaph, where a few words were spoken, prayers recited, and wreaths placed, and then it moved to the riverside for the main program.  Shortly after 14:00 it was raining again, and the wind was gusting.  Colour party flags and the Canadian flag atop the town hall snapped and fluttered.  The chances of a Corsair appearing in these conditions were remote indeed.  More than likely, the hail that had passed through earlier was now over Gatineau, and with heavy hearts, pilot Michael Potter and his crew would be rolling the Corsair back into the hangar.  It just wasn’t meant to be.  Maybe next year.  Those individuals who had worked to organize the fly-past resigned themselves to the conclusion that it was not on and concentrated on the ceremony, which moved through the program right on schedule. 

Finally, the Canadian ships lost in World War II were named, the bell was rung each time, and wreaths were tossed gently into the Mississippi River.  It was down to the last ship, the last wreath, a two minute silence, and The Last Post.  No sounds of traffic trespassed on the full silence; only the wind.  Then, at 14:35, Steve Racey, a long time resident of Almonte and the son of a Battle of the Atlantic veteran, looked up and across the river, and said in a quiet tone of surprise “He’s here.” 

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Veterans salute the fallen. Photo: Peter Handley

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The author, centre, addresses the parade and the hundreds who came out to share the ceremony with our veterans.  Photo: Peter Handley

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A wreath is placed in the fast flowing waters of the Mississippi River which runs through the town and past City Hall - a wreath for each Canadian ship lost during World War Two. A long line of wreathes followed the currents on their way down stream. Photo: Peter Handley

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The author (left) chats respectfully with one of the many naval veterans in attendance. Photo: via Shannon Gray

And there he was.  At the moment; one second there was nothing but a bank of grey overcast, and in the next second a Corsair was in full view, as if it had been there the whole time, waiting.  Despite the weather, he was here.  He had, as the story came out later, taken off in pouring rain, knowing how much it would mean to the people gathered along the river.  ”No sooner was he off the pavement,”  recounted Vintage Wings maintenance manager Andrej Janik, “ and he was gone from view.”

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As the ceremony came to an end, a sound was heard overhead - Michael Potter and the Robert Hampton Gray Corsair thundering out of the broken clouds while below, the parade still stood in the rain. Photo: via Shannon Gray

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Despite their military training, the veterans could not help but crane their necks to follow the flight of the Corsair in and out of the sun and rain. Peter Handley

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The look on this veteran's face describes the emotions that welled from the crowd as Potter passed overhead. Photo: Peter Handley

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Overhead, Potter makes his second pass.  Photo: Peter Handley

Michael Potter later admitted to having concerns about appearing prematurely and “interrupting”, or arriving too late.  As it turned out, he could not have timed it better.  Notes of The Last Post and the sound of the Corsair blended in a touching manner; the trumpet sounds dominating as the aircraft made its turns in the distance for successive approaches, and still clearly audible as it passed overhead.   On the third approach, as the Corsair curved past, sunlight came through, glinting off the long nose and canopy.  One sensed very keenly the connection between the pilot and the people assembled along the river; like them, he was saying “Thank-you.”

One young observer, reflecting afterwards, said, “Dad, it was like he was up there protecting the most critical part of the ceremony.”

Interesting point. 

Protecting the ceremony from... what?  From a tendency, brought on by time and the hectic pace of daily life, to lose sight, to forget? 

It was a sincere gesture of gratitude and remembrance, one made despite the weather and the passage of time.  The citizens of Almonte, the White Ensign, the Royal Canadian Legion, and Vintage Wings of Canada made it happen.  For the veterans, all veterans, we can only say Thank-you, and keep saying it, and hope that you know. 

by Shannon Gray

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The heartfelt thanks that were offered up by the veterans for Potter's flypast were summed up in the simple words of one of our veterans who sent author Gray a note a couple of days later:

I wasn't feeling well enough to do the whole ceremony, but I managed to get down there just as he came over, and saw the whole thing from the car.  It was beautiful; it was lovely.  Please tell Mr. Potter thank-you and that I will remember it forever.

 J.C. "Jack" Smithson,
Aged 89 years
Veteran of North Africa, Sicily, and Italy

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