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Aubrey Flegg still remembers the thump of the bodies under his truck's wheels as he raced blind along Hong Kong's tortuous roads in a bid to rescue two wounded British women.

"There's about 250 men lying dead in the road," Mr. Flegg, 87, said Sunday in a cemetery that harbours some 283 fallen Canadians from 1941's brief and bitter battle of Hong Kong.

"We had to drive thump-thump-thump over their bodies. I've had people say to me, well why didn't you get out and pull them out of the way? With a bunch of Japanese guns on you, at one o'clock in the morning, you're going to get out there and start pulling for 100 yards dead men off the road so you can get through?"

Mr. Flegg paused for effect.

"We were in a war," the veteran concluded.

Prime Minister Paul Martin had just wrapped up a moving remembrance ceremony at Sai Wan Military Cemetery, perched on a steep hillside above this former British protectorate.

Magpies squawked in the rising spring heat and school children and cadets fainted under the humidity. But a group of seven veterans of the December 1941 rout - including three Canadians - endured, as they had a half century earlier.

Two Canadian battalions, some 1,975 soldiers from the Royal Rifles from Quebec and the Winnipeg Grenadiers, were among 14,000 Allied troops sent to defend Hong Kong from the Japanese.

Winston Churchill knew the task was hopeless: "If Japan goes to war with us, there is not the slightest chance of holding Hong Kong or relieving it," he wrote at the time.

But the Canadian soldiers, barely trained and untested, had no idea. They arrived on Nov. 16, 1941, believing they would act as a deterrent to invasion. The Japanese hammer fell three weeks later on Dec. 8. The Canadians' heavy equipment hadn't even arrived yet.

The island fell on Christmas Day, Mr. Flegg told the gathering, his voice breaking. "To me, that's touching."

Martin was in Hong Kong at the end of a nine-day Asian trade and diplomatic mission, and he used the Sai Wan ceremony to mark the start of Canada's Year of the Veteran.

Mr. Martin paid tribute to what he described as an under-equipped, barely trained force facing a much larger, heavily armed and trained foe.

"The people, these men, engaged in acts of heroism that those of us who read of history by the fireplace couldn't even begin to understand," Mr. Martin told the gathering near the foot of the long, sloping cemetery.

"They fought and they fought and they fought."

Mr. Flegg and his buddy Frank Brown, who also survived the war and today lives in Kelowna, rescued the injured women after running two Japanese checkpoints that night in December 1941.

To this day Mr. Flegg thinks the Japanese simply couldn't believe two men in a locally commandeered truck would challenge their positions, and assumed the vehicle was one of their own.

"I had a name and reputation as being that crazy Canadian lorry driver," Mr. Flegg later confided to reporters.

It was the British Columbia native's first visit to the Hong Kong cemetery and he appeared deeply moved.

The white headstones speak to the chaos of the battle.

"A Soldier of the 1939-1945 War - A Canadian Regiment," say many inscriptions.

"Known unto God."

Montreal-born John Lowe, who fought with the Royal Rifles, broke down when he visited the grave of his brother for the first time this weekend. Mr. Lowe, like the other survivors of the initial battle, was interned in Japanese force labour camps until the war ended almost four years later.

Some 129 Canadians would die in the camps under brutal conditions.

Larry Stebbe, a large Manitoban with the build of a man who cut his teeth in the family blacksmith shop, described his arrival in Shamshuipo camp on the Kowloon side of the island: board huts, no windows, no bunks, no cooking utensils, broken toilets.

"It was the degradation that a person experienced immediately, just immediately," said Mr. Stebbe, who turns 82 next month.

"The first meal we had there - about a week later - was cooked out of an oil drum. When I first tasted it, I threw up," said Mr. Stebbe, laughing.

Mr. Flegg couldn't even muster grim humour when asked to compare the doomed battle with the desperation of internment.

"The battle of Hong Kong was hot and heavy and furious, and you didn't have any time really to think about it," he said.

"I was never frightened during that battle and I don't think any of the other Canadians were, either."

Once again, Mr. Flegg took a long pause in his tale.

"So the bad times came when we got in the PoW camps."

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