HONG KONG - Canadians should live their lives worthy of the freedom, democracy and justice they enjoy as a tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice defending those values, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Sunday.

Harper is marking Remembrance Day at the Sai Wan Bay military cemetery where 283 Canadian soldiers are buried on a grassy, tree-fringed hill overlooking busy Hong Kong.

"It lies within us to do this: We can walk worthy of the lives that they laid down for us," Harper said in prepared remarks.

"They have given their lives to make possible the freedom that we enjoy, the democracy by which we govern ourselves, and the justice under which we live."

The battle of Hong Kong was one of the most catastrophic episodes in Canadian military history. The 1,975 Canadian troops from the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada were vastly outnumbered by the tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers that descended on the city in the hours after the attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii in December 1941.

They managed to hold off the Japanese for three weeks, with the vast majority of the brigade surrendering on Christmas Day. Nearly 300 were killed, and the rest sent to prisoner of war camps where they were subjected to sadistic torture and starvation at the hands of their captors. Another 267 died before liberation in 1945, and those who returned home bore the physical and psychological scars for a lifetime.

"It was the single greatest disaster we ever faced," says Nathan Greenfield, author of the 2010 book about the tragedy, "The Damned."

"By a military definition, it was a 100 per cent casualty rate because every single soldier was either killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Dieppe was a 40 per cent casualty rate...it's the definition of disaster."

But Greenfield says there was an important legacy to that battle. He argues the Canadian and other allied troops bloodied the Japanese enough that one of its reserve armies was unable to participate in a planned land attack on Australia.

At the POW camps, the Japanese threw the Canadians and other allied soldiers into slave labour, providing minimal food and water and torturing the prisoners. Some Canadians were beaten to death, and some went blind from malnutrition.

Harper paid tribute to Chinese-Canadian Lt.-Commander William Lore, who recently passed away at the age of 103. Lore's family was at Sai Wan cemetery with the Canadian delegation Sunday.

Lore had been part of the platoon of marines that arrived in Hong Kong in August 1945 and liberated POWs at the Sham Shui Po Camp.

"And so concluded the story I recited here on my last visit (in 2010) of the courageous, desperate and bloody defence of Hong Kong, in which outnumbered Canadians gave their lives," said Harper.

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  • Prime Minister Stephen Harper walks with Hong Kong Veteran Arthur Kenneth Pifher, 91, of Grimsby, Ont., as they take part in a Remembrance Day ceremony at Sai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong on Sunday, November 11, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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  • BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - NOVEMBER 11: King Albert II of Belgium meets with war veterans during a tribute to the unknown soldier on November 11, 2012 in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Mark Renders/Getty Images)