OTTAWA -- Under a blazing hot sun, with Canadian flags flapping lightly around him and almost two dozen of his comrades looking on, George Peterson helped lift the black curtain off a new memorial to the veterans of the Battle of Hong Kong on Saturday.
It was the culmination of more than six decades of effort to have their contribution recognized and remembered properly. When the curtain came off, Peterson paused for a moment to salute the 1,978 names etched in the granite.
"It's a good day," he said later. "I'm very emotional."
Peterson was a 20-year-old corporal with the Winnipeg Grenadiers when he set sail for Hong Kong in the fall of 1941. The 911 members of the Grenadiers, along with 961 with the Quebec-based Royal Rifles of Canada and 106 with brigade headquarters, made up 'C' Force. It was a Canadian battle group sent to Asia to help Britain defend its colony of Hong Kong against an anticipated Japanese invasion.
When that invasion came Dec. 8, 1941, the members of 'C' Force became the first Canadians to see ground combat in the Second World War.
The Canadians fought alongside British and Indian soldiers, but the allies were outnumbered 10 to one by the Japanese. They still managed to hold out for more than 17 days before being forced to surrender on Christmas Day.
When the battle ended, 290 Canadians were dead and 493 were wounded. The survivors were taken prisoner and endured three years and eight months in horrific conditions in prison camps, subsisting on rations of 800 calories a day while forced to work as labourers on docks or in mines. In all, 267 died in the prison camps before they were freed following the surrender of Japan and the end of the war.
The memorial wall's unveiling Saturday came on the 64th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day, marking the war's end.
The veterans of Hong Kong were a small number and their battle has often been overlooked. They spent many years after returning from the war fighting for compensation and medical care to help with the diseases and ailments they developed in the camps.
Phil Doddridge, who fought with the Royal Rifles and is now the president of the Hong Kong Veterans Association, said the wall fulfils a dream that started years ago.
"To many, the defence of Hong Kong was a minor event," said Doddridge. "I am honoured and privileged beyond compare to be here today."
Doddridge said he remembered the "slender soldiers" who sailed across the Pacific in 1941, inexperienced in combat and oblivious of what they were heading into.
"We can look upon this monument and say, 'My name is written there. I am remembered,'" Doddridge said.
Nestled in a grove of maple trees, the wall sits just a few hundred metres up the street from the prime minister's residence and Rideau Hall. It is made of cement and topped with granite.
On the top sits a stylized version of the mountains of Hong Kong where the battles took place. It is unusual among war monuments in that the names include those who survived, not just those who died.
The Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association began raising money for the wall in 2007 and has brought in over $150,000 so far.
The group needs to raise another $175,000 to $200,000 to finish the landscaping around the wall.
Twenty-four of the 88 surviving Hong Kong veterans were in Ottawa for the ceremony.
Many, like Peterson and Larry Stebbe from Winnipeg, found themselves celebrities for the day, surrounded by friends and relatives of other veterans eager for stories and memories of their loved ones.
Stebbe, who was an 18-year-old private with the Grenadiers when the Hong Kong invasion began, said Saturday was a good day but a very difficult one, too.
"There's 10 million memories in all this," he said. "In one day they are going through. How does one absorb it?"
Leon Sokalski came in from Montreal to honour his father, Pte. George Sokalski, who fought with the Winnipeg Grenadiers.
"It's a very special day," said Sokalski, who had his photo taken next to his father's name.
"I was only eight years old when he left and I was about 12 when he died in the prison camp. His name will be remembered forever on the stone. It's something my sister and my late brother, we always wondered how he would be remembered."
How you can help
THE Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association needs help raising the final funds to landscape the park around the new memorial wall unveiled in Ottawa Saturday.
They are a charitable organization and all donations will result in a tax receipt.
You can make cheques payable to the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association 'C' Force Memorial Wall c/o P.O. Box 381 Winnipeg, MB R3C 2H6
You can also donate online at http://www.hkvca.ca/donations.htm.
Make sure to specify your donation is for the 'C' Force memorial wall.