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Almost 150 high school students from Ontario's Durham Region buried a memorial capsule yesterday at Sai Wan War Memorial and Cemetery on Hong Kong Island, in tribute to the 1,975 men sent there in 1941 to defend the island from the invading Japanese.
The capsule contains commemorative pieces — stories, poems, biographies, songs — prepared by students on the trip and students from across Canada who responded to a call to include their tributes.
When Scott Russell, 15, a Grade 10 student at Courtice Secondary School and an army cadet, was able to stand in the middle of the gravestones, the project took on new meaning.
"It's kind of amazing when you think about it," said Scott. "People who didn't even know you, and probably wouldn't have known you, died for me because they wanted me to be able to be free."
Scott's tribute was to Léo Bérard, a sergeant with the Winnipeg Grenadiers. He researched Bérard's experience as a prisoner of war, found it "was basically slavery," and unforgettable.
"Every veteran out there deserves one heck of a thanks.
"It was all worth it to see the love and gratitude in the eyes of the men who fought here," said David Robinson of the veterans attending the event. Robinson is head of history at Port Perry High School and the driving force behind the project.
He put together a similar trip last year to Juno Beach and is now working on attending the 90th anniversary of Vimy Ridge in France next year, where organizers plan to bring more than 3,000 high school students from across Canada.
Speaking after the ceremony, teacher Nancy Hamer-Strahl fought back tears as she described a project finally realized.
"Mission accomplished," said Hamer-Strahl, a history teacher at Port Perry and organizer of the memorial capsule. "I could tell by the look on these veterans' faces, just by looking at them, that they felt elated that their story is safe with the youth of Canada.
"You've got a capsule buried up there that's never coming home. So long as these guys never come home," she pointed to graves of Canadians, "that doesn't come home.
"They're the forgotten warriors. But now they're not. There's a group of students that know what they are and what they've done and have learned a life lesson from them."
Seeing the sealed capsule lowered into the ground and then throwing a handful of dirt on top seemed, for many of the students, to be the clincher.
"It was moving, knowing my work is in the time capsule now," said Victoria Potiers, 15, "and can be read by other people who will know about the things the vets died for."
"It makes you wonder if you can do something as great as that," the Grade 10 Port Perry student said.
When the project began just over a year ago, the organizers asked Senator Vivienne Poy for help. As a Canadian citizen born in Hong Kong — and an infant here during the Japanese invasion — Poy viewed it as a chance to help teach a new generation the meaning of past sacrifices.
"Youth have to know the suffering in wars and hopefully in the future we can solve problems with better ways than fighting and killing each other," she said. "That's just a hope; human nature is human nature, unfortunately, but this is always what I hope for."
Thomas Morrison, 15, of Port Perry, praised the vets' bravery and resolve in a speech before the capsule burial.
"My family says that almost every modern hero goes unrecognized because people are too busy to thank them," he said. "The heroes in front of me, those at home and those who have passed away deserve more."
This year, Canadians marked the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, but some do not know the significance of the battle waged in Hong Kong.
Yesterday's ceremony, attended by more than 500 people, delighted Canadians who fought here in 1941.
"We'll never forget this as long as we live," said Robert "Flash" Clayton, of Brechin, Ont., a wartime sergeant from the Royal Rifles, speaking to the crowd.
"To see everybody here from the schools — that's what got us here this year. When we heard the students were all coming, it was just unbelievable."
To the students, who each stood at the grave of a Canadian soldier, Clayton added, "I'd like you to know, they know you are here."
In autumn 1941, Canada sent two battalions, the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada, plus a brigade headquarters and specialist details — 1,975 troops in all — at Britain's request to defend what was its colony, then under threat from Japan. The garrison was about 12,000 strong, including British, Indian and Hong Kong troops, when the Canadians arrived.
The invasion came Dec. 8, a day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Allied forces, vastly outnumbered, outgunned and under-experienced, put up a courageous fight before surrendering on Christmas Day. By that date, some 290 Canadians had died in combat. About 264 would die as PoWs between that day and the end of the war in 1945.
It was at the Battle of Hong Kong that Canada logged many firsts of World War II: The first Victoria's Cross awarded, the first combat casualty, the first combat death, the first death of a senior officer and the first Canadian soldier taken prisoner.
"When we first came back, nobody seemed to be very interested," said Gerry Gerrard, a signalman with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals. "We didn't tell our story for quite some time. We could see people didn't believe it, and so we just stopped talking about it."
The ceremony was held on Hong Kong Island at the Sai Wan Memorial and War Cemetery, where gravestones cascade down Sai Wan Hill overlooking the water between the island and the mainland. It was on this same hill that the "C" Company of the Royal Rifles of Canada was stationed when one of the first waves of Japanese forces pushed across the Lye Mun Passage below from the mainland.
"When you volunteer to fight for your country, you have to be prepared to lose your life in the best judgment of those in command," said George MacDonell, a PoW and Royal Rifles sergeant. "If you could speak to the young men who are buried here, they would tell you they have no regrets."