HONG KONG - On Nov. 16, 1941, Ken Pifher arrived in Hong Kong, a member of the Royal Rifles of Quebec, one of two battalions volunteered by the government of prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to help protect what was then the British colony of Hong Kong from an expected Japanese attack.
Within eight weeks, he was in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, where he would be held for the duration of the Second World War.
On Sunday, Pifher, now 91, was in Hong Kong again, to mark Remembrance Day with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the cemetery here that holds the 283 Canadians who also arrived with Pifher that November day in 1941, but perished in the 17 days of fierce fighting that was the Battle of Hong Kong.
“It was hell,” Pifher, of Grimsby, Ont., said of the fighting and his long ordeal as a Japanese PoW.
Pifher was one of more than 1,500 Canadians subjected to brutal treatment by the Japanese, so brutal that 267 Canadians did not survive their imprisonment.
“The basic situation was starvation. They would not feed us properly,” Pifher recalled as he stood among the white gravestones of the Sai Wan War Cemetery.
“There’s a lot of history here and there's a lot of my boys, my friends are here.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper marked Remembrance Day here and it was Pifher who accompanied him down the long slope of the cemetery to the memorial marking the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers.
Among the veterans and other dignitaries who attended the ceremony was the family of Lt. Cmdr. William Lore.
Lore, born in Victoria, B.C., in 1909, was the first Canadian of Chinese heritage to serve in the Royal Canadian Navy and also the first Chinese officer any any Commonwealth navy.
As a sub-lieutenant, he led the liberation of Japanese prisoner-of-war camp here in 1945.
Lore recently passed away in Hong Kong at the age of 103.
“It is especially appropriate that we should remember his service to Canada today,” Harper said.
Harper, for the first time since becoming prime minister, had a speaking part at a Remembrance Day ceremony.
“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,” Harper said. “It lies within each one of us to remember the dead as once they were, Canadians from across our great land, born of it or brought to it, young and bold, drawn together by their willingness to serve their fellow citizens.”
The story of Canadian service here during the Second World War is among the most tragic in Canada’s military history.
With the then-British colony of Hong Kong threatened by the Japanese in the fall of 1941, the Royal Rifles were one of two battalions and a brigade headquarters dispatched from Canada. The other was the Winnipeg Grenadiers.
But the soldiers, though brave and willing, were green. Pifher was a woodworker in Paris, Ont., weeks before he ended up on the other side of the world fighting the Japanese.
The Canadians and Commonwealth troops did their best to garrison the colony but with no air support and little naval support, the 14,000 Allied soldiers were eventually overwhelmed by 52,000 Japanese soldiers. The Allies surrendered on Christmas Day, 1941.
Pifher has returned to Sai Wan many times. He’s not sure when he’ll return again.
It was Harper’s second visit to the cemetery – he was here in December 2009 – and it was the second time the prime minister has been outside the country on a Remembrance Day. In 2010 he joined Canadian veterans of the Korean War at the National War Museum in Seoul, South Korea.