Posted by: Editor | June 23, 2010

From Only Child to Twin Sister

From Only Child to Twin Sister

– Esquimalt pursues a partner

Esquimalt is quite literally a very unique place. While there are many places named Victoria on the world map, there is only one Esquimalt. Since first incorporating as a town in 1912, we have pretty much been one of a kind, but now there are plans afoot to seek out our very own twin sister in a far away land. The man playing matchmaker is local resident Terry Milne, a former Canadian Defence Attaché in Tokyo. The target of our sisterly affection is Onagawa, a Japanese seaside town similar in size and stature to Esquimalt. This week, Esquimalt Council officially voted to pursue a sister city twinning relationship with Onagawa.  Terry Milne shares his report with Esquimalt Review readers that convinced Council to pursue his proposal.

Esquimalt’s Twinning with Onagawa  – By Terry Milne

Tokyo is on the main Island of Honshu, and 200 km’s NE of Tokyo is the major provincial capital city of Sendai…., smaller than Tokyo but still a few times larger than Vancouver, and 40 km’s to the east of Sendai on the ocean is the small town and seaport of Onagawa.

The history of the Onagawa area goes back to the 16th century, a time of civil war in Japan.  At that time, the great Warlord of Sendai made a habit before battles of sending his court ladies away to the peace and safety of a river down by the coast which as a result became known as “Woman or Ladies River” which translates as” Onagawa” in Japanese.

For most of the past, it has been a quiet area, a small farming and fishing community with a port for coastal and fishing vessels, and in recent years, significant aquaculture.

However, as with most of Japan, Onagawa was caught up in WW II, with ships of the Japanese Navy based in the bay.  The link between Onagawa and Canada began in the final days of the War, when Canadian pilots operating off the British aircraft carrier HMS Formidable were ordered to attack Japanese navy ships and nearby airfields. Leading the attack was a young Canadian pilot from Nelson B.C., Lt. Hampton Gray, or Hammy Gray as he was known to his squadron mates. Already awarded the DSC in Europe for pressing home air attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz, he fearlessly flew into the narrow, well-defended confines of Onagawa Bay, sank the Japanese destroyer Amakusa before being shot down and crashing into the Bay. He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously making him the most highly decorated Canadian Naval Officer in WW II. A biography of Hammy Gray entitled “A Formidable Hero” was  subsequentlywritten by local author Stuart Soward, himself a former carrier pilot.

Forty years later in 1985, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa sent a letter to the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo asking if any steps could be taken to recover the aircraft from the Bay. It became my job to check on this and with some 149 local Onagawa people killed in the allied air attacks, you can imagine I approached the task with some trepidation. However, my visit and mission were both received with kindness and consideration by the Onagawa Council and the local veterans association. In fact, a large number of local divers joined Canadian civilian and US navy divers in searching for the plane. Unfortunately, the first thing found was a number of unexploded bombs from the attack, still fused after sitting on the bottom of the harbour as ships had sailed over them for forty years. We were ordered to suspend the search and the Japanese navy countermined the bombs and detonated them, cancelling any hope of finding the aircraft.

It was then Stuart Soward asked if there was any chance we might be able to erect a memorial to Hammy at the site. This was a tall order indeed considering he had been an enemy, but after some meetings, explanations, and discussions over time,  the local people and veterans not only agreed to Lt Gray’s memorial, but also donated a beautiful site in a park overlooking the bay, and the Onagawa Lions Club undertook to maintain it in perpetuity. This set a precedent throughout Japan: Never before had a memorial been erected to a former enemy. However, Onagawa Mayor Suda encouraged his fellow citizens, saying:-

“By forgetting past sentiments and feelings of rivalry we can make our best effort to enhance ties of goodwill and friendship between Canada and Japan and deepen exchanges and understanding between our two people. It is I trust a most relevant and excellent thing for us to do”.

At the time the memorial was dedicated, the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo assessed it as the biggest Canadian news event ever in Japan with over 60 million Japanese being exposed to the story. The dedication ceremony was broadcast worldwide on CNN television.

Since that time, whenever Esquimalt-based ships have visited Japan, they have sent a contingent of sailors to conduct a ceremony at the memorial, and in 2008 HMCS Ottawa sailed into Onagawa Bay for a highly successful first visit ever made to that community by a Canadian naval vessel.  Sadly, Mayor Suda has passed away but before he died he expressed the hope Onagawa would twin with a Canadian city.

We see a twinning with Onagawa as an excellent opportunity for Esquimalt to build on a relationship that already exists. It will provide the chance to engage in the wider world beyond local boundaries and connect with a very fascinating cultural counterpart. The current naval association is limited to occasional visits and by itself will never be able to fully exploit this unique and rather wonderful chance for a fruitful   exchange of ideas, information and people, which also has the potential to present economic opportunities. I have discussed this with Admiral Pile, the Naval Commander, and he supports the concept of Esquimalt supplementing the current naval connection by forming a vibrant and rewarding twin city relationship.

In addition to providing the opportunity for Esquimalt citizens, and organizations such as the Council, the Lions Club and the Legion to connect with their Onagawa counterparts, I especially hope it will provide an opportunity for the young people of both communities to communicate, interact and perhaps exchange visits. I know from personal experience, it would open a whole new world to them and contribute something of great value in their lives.

Email Terry Milne at:


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