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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent