FEATURE: Memorial forging bonds between Japanese town, WWII pilot’s family

    A memorial dedicated to a Canadian naval pilot who died while leading an air raid against Japan in the waning days of World War II stands in the northeastern town of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, one of the communities most severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

    There are, in fact, two memorials erected in the Pacific coast town — one commemorating the area’s Japanese war dead and the other Lt. Robert Hampton Gray, a recipient of the Victoria Cross for whom a cenotaph was erected on the shores of Onagawa Bay.

    Today, there is hope that a friendship forged between the two countries, once enemies, will continue into future generations.

    On Aug. 9, a memorial service was held in front of Gray’s monument overlooking the bay. He was 27 years old when, as a member of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, his fighter plane crashed.

    The Victoria Cross, which he was posthumously awarded, is the highest medal for valor in the British Commonwealth.

    “I believe it is more important than ever to embrace the opportunity like this, to recognize sacrifice and deepen peaceful bonds between two nations,” a Canadian senior defense forces officer in Japan said at the ceremony.

    Among the roughly 20 attendees was Yoshitake Kanda, 47, grandson of the late Yoshio Kanda, a communications officer in the Onagawa Defense Force of the former Japanese navy, who was instrumental in the construction of the two memorials.

    On Aug. 9-10, 1945, near the end of the war, U.S. and British aircraft carrier forces attacked Onagawa Defense Force vessels which were escorting Japanese naval ships along the Pacific coast.

    Gray led the attack on the Japanese vessels before his plane went down in Onagawa Bay. According to the Onagawa Town journal, over 200 people, both military and civilians, were killed on the Japanese side.

    Yoshio was born in Saitama Prefecture near Tokyo but ran a clothing store in Onagawa after the war. He called on his war comrades to help build a memorial for the Japanese victims, which was eventually completed in 1966.

    When the Canadian Embassy moved to erect the monument dedicated to Gray in 1989, some of the Japanese victims’ family members were opposed. It was Yoshio who changed their minds, convincing them by saying, “It is not enemy soldiers we hate, but the war itself.”

    After the monument was completed in Sakiyama Park, Yoshio invited Gray’s family members who had come to Japan for the occasion, to a reception at his home. They began to hold annual memorial services, and both families began a tradition of visiting each other’s countries.

    Yoshitake takes to heart the words of his grandfather Yoshio who said, “We should overcome the past and join hands.”

    Yoshio died in 2005 at age 83. When the disaster struck on March 11, 2011, Yoshitake’s parents’ home was engulfed by the massive tsunami, leaving his father dead and his mother, Yoshio’s daughter, missing.

    Gray’s memorial was toppled in the disaster, but it was restored and moved to higher ground in 2012. When the Canadian family learned that the Kanda family’s air raid-related materials had been swept away by the tsunami, they returned letters, photos and other mementos Yoshio had given them.

    Gray’s niece, Anne George, who has been to Onagawa several times, visited Yoshitake’s parents’ grave and the two war memorials for the first time after the disaster in 2018.

    “(The Kanda family) was very generous and kind to us and treated us as friends, rather than as war enemies,” George said recently in an interview with Kyodo News. “Although we were remembering the terrible loss of life because of war, the people of Onagawa showed forgiveness.”

    George also spoke about her respect for Yoshitake’s mother, whose body was never recovered, saying how fortunate it is that her three children and their families moved away before the disaster struck.

    “Had they stayed to work and live in Onagawa, they may have died as well. For that, I am happy that the family continues and know that Mrs. Kanda would be happy to know that.”

    Yoshitake brought his two sons — elementary and junior high school students — to the memorial ceremony again this summer.

    “I want children who have never heard firsthand about the war experience to be able to feel these thoughts and feelings,” he said.

    By Nadeem Faisal Baiga