Billy Griffiths: How St Dunstan's gave me back my independence

Billy served in the Royal Air Force as an aircraftsman in the Second World War. Having become a Japanese Prisoner of War in Java in 1942 he lost both his hands and his sight as a result of a sudden explosion.

Despite initial feelings of hopelessness, Billy, who was awarded the MBE for service to the community in 1977, tells the story of how, thanks to military support charity St Dunstan’s, as well as his determination and humour, he gradually learned to adapt to his new life.

“It was 16 March 1942 in Java. The Japanese guards ordered us out of the lorries. By the side of the road there was some camouflage netting covering, I don’t know what. There must have been twenty of them, all with bayonets and rifles, shouting and gesticulating. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I knew what they meant – clear away the netting or get a bayonet in your guts. The guards stood back as I gingerly knelt down to move the netting. There was a violent explosion, I was hurled backwards. I remember putting my hand to my face and thinking ‘it’s been blown off’. Then I remember the first time I begged to die. I was twenty-one years old.

The wish to die stayed with me for the months after I finally came round. The physical pain, along with the realisation that I had lost both hands and, eventually, the realisation that I had also lost my sight, left me with the absolute certainty that the only option for me was to end it all, and that the sooner that moment came the better. Sadly, I am sure that there are many young men, recently wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, who can relate only too well to how I felt.



Over the next three and a half years, I remained semi-starved and captive in the prisoner of war camp, cut off from any communication outside. The despair gradually subsided as I took inspiration from my fellow comrades. We encouraged each other to survive by sharing our dreams of returning home.

However, when finally the day arrived, my own dream of getting back to the family business and to my wife and daughter was smashed when I returned to find the family business sold and my wife having left. My mother was unable to care for me, so I went for a few months to St Dunstan’s, the national charity that continues today to provide support to blind ex-Service men and women blinded in action, and now those who have found themselves blinded in later life.

From then on, St Dunstan’s was to play a vital role in my life. The first thing that St Dunstan’s did for me was to give me the chance to meet other blind people, offering camaraderie and belonging. One of them, like me, had lost his sight and two hands, while another had lost one and a half hands, his sense of smell, taste and some of his hearing. Against all the odds, both of these men were upbeat, cheery and without a hint of self-pity. Absolutely inspirational.

St Dunstan’s was established by newspaper proprietor Sir Arthur Pearson who had lost his own sight through natural causes in 1913. All too soon after that, the first men blinded on the Western Front began to arrive in England, and Pearson, who had been working for the National Institute for the Blind, decided to set up St Dunstan’s specifically for the war-blinded, where he put into practice his philosophy that the more active and normal a blind person’s life can be, the happier they will be: ‘if you tell a man often enough that he is afflicted, he will become afflicted’. Now the charity caters for any ex-Service man or women with a visual impairment, whether or not they were blinded in Service, but the philosophy remains the same: the provision of lifelong emotional, practical and financial support for St Dunstaners and their families, enabling them to regain their independence, meet new challenges and achieve a better quality of life.

St Dunstan’s gave me back my independence – starting with a specially adapted trombone. Alongside my handless friends, we were able to play tunes to our own satisfaction, if no one else’s. The important thing was to be doing something, learning something and being in the company of other people like me. More valuable than tootling away on the trombone was learning to type, using a specially-adapted typewriter and a metal striker attached to my stumps. It took many months to master, and some of my earlier efforts must have looked like a drunken chimpanzee, but eventually my speed and accuracy began to improve.

Then, one day, during one of my regular meetings with Air Commodore Dacre, the Commondant of Ovingdean, I mentioned in passing my old family haulage business. ‘Ever thought about starting up on your own?’ he asked. This was the turning point for me. The thought of leaving the comfortable surroundings of St Dunstan’s was appalling, but soon the journey towards setting up my own business gathered an unstoppable momentum. Within a few weeks, St Dunstan’s had put me in touch with a business advisor, enrolled me on an accountancy and book keeping course, and helped me apply for a haulage licence. Within months, I was back on the road to Blackburn with a business to run and a £2,000 loan from St Dunstan’s to make it happen.

For three years I managed to run a fairly successful, if small, business; managing the finances with the skills I had been taught and arranging pick-up and deliveries on the telephone, which I could dial with my tongue – not the easiest, but a surprisingly good back-up if you have no fingers. Unfortunately, the nationalisation of transport was to prove a stumbling block too far, and three years after my business started, it folded. However, it had taught me that, despite my disabilities, I wasn’t a hopeless case and that I could achieve anything if I tried.

It was a few months after my business folded that I met a singer, Alice, who was to become my dearly beloved wife. Alice encouraged me to take up singing and in no time, we became duet partners. Our singing took us around the world, where we filled our lives with friends and laughter. Singing gave me a sense of purpose, and a way of contributing something, no matter how modest and small, to the needs and joys of others. We married in 1962 and soon after, Alice’s son Bobby took my name, and we became a family. Alice has been my bedrock. We have now been married over 45 years and her encouragement, understanding and humour have given me the greatest joy I can imagine.

Today, I know that there are many young men and women facing a similar plight as I was all those years ago. To all of you, I urge you to take courage from other people in a similar situation to you. Try to accept help, however hard it may be and however proud you are – for pride is one of the most difficult things to come to terms with when you suddenly become disabled. I hope that my story can help to inspire you, and can show you that, despite losing my hands and sight at a young age, I have led a bright, fulfilling and wonderful life. Yes, strange as it must sound coming from someone whom most people automatically feel sorry for, I can say honestly that I have been lucky.

You can help St Dunstan’s to help more blind ex-Service men and women like Billy, including veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, by logging on to www.st-dunstans.org.uk or calling 0300 111 2233.

To find out more about Billy’s life please read Blind to Misfortune by Billy Griffiths with Hugh Popham.

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers