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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, second right, accompanied by his wife Laureen, right, Canadian veterans and officials, attends at a Remembrance Day ceremony at Sai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. The ceremony honored the 1,975 Canadian soldiers who fought to defend Hong Kong during the WWII and remembered over 550 Canadian soldiers who died in the battle.Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

Stephen Harper marked Remembrance Day with a visit to Hong Kong, where nearly 2,000 Canadians waged a grim but exceptionally valiant battle at the start of World War II that ended with hundreds being captured and sent to brutal Japanese prison camps.

On the last day of a swing through Asia, the prime minister visited Sai Wan War Cemetery, where many of the dead are buried from the Battle of Hong Kong, in which a contingent from Canada suffered one of the highest casualty rates in any theatre of action involving Canada during the Second World War.

Mr. Harper saluted "the courageous, desperate and bloody defence of Hong Kong in which badly outnumbered Canadians gave their lives."

They had little combat experience and no hope of victory, but Canadians from the Prairies and Quebec nevertheless helped Commonwealth soldiers hold off the overwhelming might of the Imperial Japanese war machine for more than 17 days.

Sai Wan cemetery, which slopes gradually down a hillside toward the harbour, is dotted with white granite headstones. Among those commemorated are 283 soldiers from the Canadian Army buried here, including more than 100 who are unidentified.

"Across our great land and around the world, it is November 11," the prime minister said.

"On this day, in such places of quiet rest for the fallen – and beside monuments to their sacrifice – we gather in the old act of remembrance."

"We recite the old words and speak, sometimes of old friends or forebearers who, to our lasting benefit and their lasting glory, served our country to the full," he said.

"And we call with reasonable hope upon the Ancient of Days that He will deal mercifully with their eternal souls."

The defenders of Hong Kong refused repeated requests to surrender and gave up only after the Japanese overran their positions.

About 290 Canadians were killed defending Hong Kong. On December 24, 1941, according to a Canadian Department of Veterans Affairs recounting, the Japanese overran a Hong Kong hospital, "assaulting and murdering nurses and bayoneting wounded Canadian soldiers in their beds."

But further horror awaited those who were taken prisoner. More than 265 Canadian soldiers died as prisoners of war over the next 3 1/2 years in Hong Kong and Japan at the hands of the Japanese, who treated their captives cruelly, forcing them into hard labour despite a near-starvation diet.

"In the filthy, primitive POW quarters in northern Japan, they would often work 12 hours a day in mines or on the docks in the cold, subsisting on rations of 800 calories a day," Veterans Affairs said.

The Sunday ceremony featured a veteran of the Battle of Hong Kong, Ken Pifher, 91.

He was taken prisoner after Commonwealth forces surrendered and he spent the rest of the war in a Japanese prison camp. "It's hell in a basket," he told reporters when asked to describe his experience as a POW.

Mr. Pifher, who now lives in Grimbsby, Ont., said "lack of food and disease" were a daily constant. "The basic situation was starvation. They would not feed us properly. And also the slaps and the kicks. And diphtheria at the camp."

Mr. Pifher said he's returned to Sai Wan five times over the years. "There's a lot of history and lot of my boys, the friends, that are here."

Mr. Harper was accompanied to Sai Wan cemetery by the family of Lieutenant Commander William Lore, the first Canadian of Chinese background to join the Royal Canadian Navy. He died recently at the age of 103.

"In August 1945, then Sub-Lieutenant Lore was part of the force that relieved Hong Kong after the Japanese surrender and led a platoon of marines to free Canadian, British and Hong Kong prisoners of war from the notorious Sham Shui Po Camp," he said.

"It is especially appropriate that we should remember his service to Canada today," the prime minister said.

Stories of heroism during the battle abound. For example, Sergeant-Major J.R. Osborn and his party found themselves under attack as the Japanese began to lob grenades. Sgt.-Major Osborn caught several and threw them back.

Finally one fell that he could not retrieve in time, so the soldier shouted a warning and threw himself on the grenade as it exploded, giving his life for his comrades.

Sgt.-Major Osborn was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross for this act.

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