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These weary and emaciated Canadians were prisoners of war from December of 1941, when they fought the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, to August of 1945, when Japan surrendered.The Canadian Press

On Christmas Day 80 years ago, 19-year-old George MacDonell and his fellow soldiers from D Company of the Royal Rifles of Canada buttoned a bullet into their shirt pockets after losing a battle against the invading Japanese forces on Hong Kong Island.

It was the 18th day of the Canadian soldiers’ fight to protect what was then the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. They were exhausted and running out of food and ammunition. Of the 120 men who clashed with the Imperial Japanese Army in Stanley Village, 26 died and 75 were wounded.

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“So we put one round in our pocket for ourselves rather than be captured by the Japanese,” Mr. MacDonell, who led part of the attack, said in an interview.

However, hours later, the troops learned that the British governor of Hong Kong had surrendered to the Japanese forces. Mr. MacDonell, now 99, said Canadians were forced to lay down their arms.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Hong Kong, which was the first land combat that Canadians fought in the Second World War. Mr. MacDonell was among the 1,975 Canadians sent to the colony in the fall of 1941.

George MacDonell was among the 1,975 Canadians sent to the British colony of Hong Kong in the fall of 1941.Mike Babin/Courtesy of Mike Babin, president of Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association

The Canadians from the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were volunteers with no battle experience or proper front-line training. However, Mr. MacDonell said, “We never surrendered, never gave up, never let our country down. That’s what I remember.”

For Canadians who survived the battle, including Mr. MacDonell, the nightmare was far from over: They were subjected to nearly four years of brutal Japanese prisoner of war camps where they were forced into slave labour. Some of them were held in Hong Kong, but the rest, including Mr. MacDonell, were shipped to the Japanese mainland.

“There were 12-hour shifts on a starvation diet; was no rights. … It was the worst condition you could imagine a human being could be subjected to,” said Mr. MacDonell, who was born in Edmonton and now lives in a retirement home in Toronto.

In all, 290 Canadians were killed in the battle. Another 264 died of starvation, abuses and diseases as prisoners of war.

Scout troops take part in a ceremony in Hong Kong earlier this month to mark the battle's 80th anniversary at the Sai Wan cemetery.The Globe and Mail

In August, 1945, Mr. MacDonnell learned of the Japanese surrender while he was forced to mine iron ore in northern Japan. Once back in Canada, he spent some time in a hospital on Vancouver Island and in December, he jumped on a train to Ontario, where he finally reunited with his family.

Mr. MacDonell is one of only four Canadian veterans of the Hong Kong battle who are still alive, according to Mike Babin, the president of the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association. Mr. Babin, whose late father Alfred was a veteran, said he fears interest in the history of the Battle of Hong Kong will fade away when the last of the veterans dies.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, veteran Po Tin Chak also fought in the battle and joined the St. John Ambulance Brigade of Hong Kong in 1937.VINCENT L. CHAN/Invisionation Photography Inc

“It’s sad because there’s a risk that their stories will end up passing away with them,” he said.

Alfred Babin drove an ambulance and collected wounded soldiers in the battle.

Mr. Babin said he remembered his father saying food was constantly on his mind when he was a starving POW. His father once recounted seeing a small piece of orange peel on the ground, so he quickly picked it up and shovelled it into his mouth.

“These soldiers sacrifice for their country, they were all volunteers. … They were fighting in a place that was strange to them, a foreign country with foreign customs,” Mr. Babin said.

Colleen Au, whose father Po Tin Chak also fought in the battle, agreed.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Dr. Chak joined the St. John Ambulance Brigade of Hong Kong in 1937. When the Second World War broke out, he was transferred to the military division.

Dr. Chak was one of a few witnesses to the aftermath of a brutal incident that took place on Christmas morning of 1941, when Japanese troops stormed into St. Stephen’s College, which was serving as a military hospital, and killed the doctors, nurses and wounded soldiers being treated there.

Japanese troops take part in a ceremonial parade on horseback as part of their occupation ceremony in Hong Kong in August, 1942.The Associated Press

The following day, Dr. Chak was on his way to the hospital when he saw the bloodstained campus.

“He still [had] nightmares for a while. He [told] us that it was pretty tough,” Ms. Au said.

Dr. Chak died earlier this year at the age of 99.

Ms. Au said her father loved telling his war stories during Christmas, which would sometimes stir up mixed emotions. This will be the first Christmas without her father.

“[These veterans] weren’t recognized before, but now they’re more and more people hearing it. But hopefully, people will know what Canadians have done,” she said.

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