I have lived with Type II diabetes for six years, and have had to learn to be careful and watch my diet. I go for check-ups every 6 months with a diabetes nurse. On my first check up my sugar levels were far too high and the nurse asked me about my diet. I confessed my love for evaporated milk and she told me I had to cut that out straight away! Since then my sugar levels have normalised and I have managed my diabetes well. I try not to let it impact my life too much.
I found it much more difficult to cope with my sight loss. I first started having problems with my sight in 2010 when I noticed that my driving skills were worsening and I kept scraping the car, so eventually I booked an appointment with an ophthalmologist. They diagnosed me with macular degeneration, and explained that my eyesight would only get worse. I had previously enjoyed reading, and driving helped me to maintain my independence so I found the news extremely distressing.
Fortunately, a member of staff at Insight, a local sight loss charity in Cheltenham, referred me to Blind Veterans UK and I became a beneficiary in 2012. I visited one of the charity’s rehabilitation and training centres in Brighton for an induction week which improved how I felt about my sight loss. Blind Veterans UK instilled confidence in me. That did more for me than any practical help could.
Blind Veterans UK has also provided me with free equipment such as a CCTV magnifying screen and a hand held magnifier to assist with reading. The equipment, especially the magnifiers, is marvellous and is a great help to me on a day-to-day basis.
I would encourage any other blind or vision impaired people who have previously Served in the Armed Forces to get in touch with Blind Veterans UK. It is a fantastic charity which has made such a difference to my life.
If you, or someone you know, served in the Armed Forces or did National Service and are now battling severe sight loss, find out how Blind Veterans UK could help by calling 0800 389 7979 or visiting noonealone.org.uk.
Last week blind veteran Peter attended an induction week at our Brighton centre where he learnt new skills, revived old hobbies and made friends.
Peter, who will turn 95 on Christmas day, has been supported by our charity since May. Peter suffers from aged related macular degeneration which has taken a significant amount of his sight.
During the induction week Peter was invited to lots of different sessions. These ranged from an archery class to an IT beginners course. There was also a tour of the Brighton centre, a ‘living with sight loss’ talk and a formal dinner to celebrate the week.
Peter also attended an art and craft session where he was introduced to woodturning, soapstone sculpting and clay modelling. He then went on to a ceramic sitting where he made his own ceramic coaster which he was able to take home. Peter has now decided to book on to a carpentry course at our Brighton centre next year which he is looking forward to.
“I couldn’t believe how kind everybody is at the centre. All of the staff have so much patience and I couldn’t find a single thing to fault them on.
“I enjoyed everything about the week, everything about it was absolutely fantastic!”
Peter was joined by seven other blind veterans during the introduction week. Peter struck up a great friendship with fellow blind veteran David. They swapped numbers and plan to keep in touch. They now hope to visit the Brighton centre together in the near future.
Blind veteran Ron joined the Army in 1931 and, on the outbreak of the Second World War, was posted to Hong Kong to defend the then British colony. In late 1941, the Japanese attacked Hong Kong including Fort Stanley, where Ron was based. After 18 days of fighting, his garrison surrendered against overwhelming odds.
He became a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) and remained so until the end of the Second World War. It was this four year ordeal that led to Ron losing his sight because of the malnutrition he suffered in the camp.
Ron says: “The camp was situated on the edge of the harbour with high fences all around. The Japanese brought in a bag of rice for each unit but only enough for one meal a day per man. We cut an oil drum in half and used the bottom as a boiling pot for the rice.
“Each man was given a scoop of rice but many were unable to eat it and looking at the portion of rice, one could see mice droppings and insects. Disease soon broke out resulting in many deaths.”
In 1943 the group of POWs were transported on a ship called The Lisbon to Japan. It was on this journey that Diphtheria broke out amongst the two thousand men aboard. Ron caught the infectious disease and his life was only saved by the actions of two doctors.
He says: “Lying in the hut with all the others suffering, I heard a voice say ‘turn over Sergeant’, I was then injected with something and the voice said, ‘you are very lucky’. I knew then that it was our medical officer. He later told me that a Japanese civilian doctor had managed to smuggle in six phials of anti-diphtheria toxin so the two of them had saved my life.”
A month later, Ron had completely lost his sight and most of his hearing and spent the remainder of the war in the camp medical hut. At the end of the war he returned to the UK via the Philippines and New Zealand. It was then that his journey with Blind Veterans UK, then known as St Dunstan’s, began.
He says: “I returned to the UK after being a POW for nearly four years. Having lost my sight as well as my hearing my future seemed very dismal and I didn’t want to think about what lay ahead. This was until I was taken to Blind Veterans UK.
“I was given my confidence back bit by bit through training such as learning Braille. My main objective, as man in his early thirties, was to find employment. After I married, I had the opportunity of opening a new post office and my wife and I continued to operate it for 25 years. This was all thanks to Blind Veterans UK, who helped me to purchase the property.
Bill was visiting our Llandudno centre for an IT training week where he was getting to grips with his new smartphone.
Although Bill was focusing on his new IT skills he couldn’t resist a go on the pottery wheel which had been installed a couple of days earlier.
Bill was the first veteran to use the wheel and was shown how to use the wheel by our Activity Team Instructor Gail. It took a couple of attempts but Bill was able to create a wonderful cereal bowl which is now being baked.
Bill says: “I have been to the art and craft department before and tried ceramics but it was rather fiddly. When Gail asked if I would like to try the pottery wheel I said yes! I would now like to take on pottery as a new hobby.”
Our Llandudno art and craft team now hope to introduce the pottery wheel to other veterans. They hope to create a system in which several veterans work together to create a final piece of pottery. It will begin with one veteran sculpting the piece on the pottery wheel, then after it has been baked the next veteran will glaze. The final step will involve another veteran painting and decorating the piece.
Gail adds: “It was great to introduce the pottery wheel to one of our veterans. I was really pleased that Bill managed to throw a pot. It made me so happy to see his smile when he was able to achieve this.
“I think the pottery wheel is a very welcome addition to the department, the pottery wheel is a tactile craft and I think it will be a very relaxing pastime for our veterans.”
Shin, a Japanese student currently training as a classical singer, recently attended our Brighton centre to find out more about our charity. Shin, who lives with sight loss, has embarked on a project which compares the facilities and services available to vision-impaired individuals in different countries.
As part of his studies Shin attended the Royal College for the Blind, the RNIB, our Blind Veterans UK archives and finally our Brighton centre. Whilst at the centre Shin attended one of our Art & Craft workshops, here he was able to view our veteran’s paintings, sculptures and was also able to take part. Shin was bowled over by the range of activities and often exclaimed “Sugio!” meaning amazing!
Shin then visited our Sports and Recreation department visiting the gym and swimming pool. He later attended IT training and kitchen training with our Rehabilitation Officers. Shin was amazed by our training facilities and now hopes to take his experiences back to Japan to help other vision-impaired individuals there.
Shin finished his trip to Brighton with a visit to the beach and his first plate of fish and chips.
A blind football match entails two teams of five players. The objective is still to kick the ball into the net and the goalkeeper is usually sighted. Most importantly, ball bearings are placed inside the ball to create a noise which allows players to locate the ball.
It was the first time the majority of our blind veterans had played blind football and at first the new ball proved difficult to navigate. Blind veteran Colin says: “The ball used for blind football is so much heavier than a regular football although this is necessary as it keeps the ball on the ground reducing potential injuries.
“We are so thankful to Brighton & Hove FC and the American Express Organisation who arranged the blind football weekend. They arranged two vision-impaired football coaches to introduce us to the sport, offering warm-up sessions, training, penalty shoot outs and organised a match between our group.
“Overall the weekend was great fun and we all had such a laugh. A couple of us enjoyed the sport so much that we have decided to create a Blind Veterans UK Blind Football Team. We hope to recruit a full team of blind veterans and hopefully enter the Blind Football League!”
‘The Review’ Editor Catherine visited Kenneth at his home to talk about the three years he spent as a Prisoner of War.
Kenneth begins: “On the day we were made PoWs we had to parade and line the main road while the Japanese marched in. We were then moved up to Changi Gaol. Some went into Barracks, and some like me were initially under canvas before they moved us into some old shops that we slept in; the shops were made of sheets of corrugated iron. My first working party at Changi Goal was to level the runway there. I was then sent back to Singapore with a different working party.
“I remember that back in Singapore one canal was full of bodies of Chinese men and women and horses and pigs – all slain and thrown into the canal. The Australians were given the job to clean the canal and remove the bodies. The Japanese showed us a shelf with five severed heads on it – they told us that is what happened to looters. There was a severed head on a pole on every street corner to deter looters.
“One of the first jobs we were given by the Japanese was to collect the cars, which took us up into Malaya. That was before working on the Railway. Everything was easier than working on the Railway. I would drive a lorry and tow five cars at a time. We would take them on to a field and the Japanese would have them done up. We would always search the cars and one day one of our chaps found a Bakelite hand grenade, I don’t think he realised what it was. At the time I was at the back of a lorry and he threw the grenade and it landed beside me and went off. It caught my eye and the Japanese took me to the Japanese doctor who treated my eye and told me it would be OK. We were in a working party of three with one Japanese guard. Our guard had fought in China for 10 years and he suffered from terrible rheumatism and would seize up. When that happened we would have to push his joints back into place. If the Japanese had seen us doing that to him, even though we were helping him, they would have shot us. Some of the Japanese were good to us though.
“My next working party was on the Railway. I was a lucky man really as we had to march from Changi Goal to Kamburi, which was the base camp for the railway. When my friend, Vic Morrell, and I reached Kamburi we were taken sick. We were given a day to recover. We went back the next morning and they gave me a further day to recover, but not my friend. He had to walk for 250 miles to the Burma border. I stayed at Kamburi for another week as I had to wait for a working party. When I did get up to the railway it was to a little place called Nike. I asked about my friend and they told me that he had died after he contracted cholera. That was a terrible blow.
“Our working party was responsible for keeping the road open. As it was the monsoon season the lorries would get stuck in the mud and we would use elephants to pull the lorries up. We would cut trees down and place them in the road for the lorries to drive over. That was when I lost the hearing in one ear as we had to carry the tree trunks and lay them in the road. I was holding one end of a tree trunk when the man holding the other end dropped it. The trunk bounced and whacked me in the ear, perforating my ear drum.
“It’s well documented that there was a lot of cholera in the camps and that we had to burn the bodies of those who had died as the Japanese were scared that if they buried the bodies the infection would seep into the water supply.”
There was one time when Kenneth could have been shot for escaping from the camp, but his life was saved by a Japanese guard.
“I had to drive the ration wagon to pick up supplies for the camp. There was a Japanese guard with me and when the truck wouldn’t start after we had loaded the supplies he told me to go and fetch a mechanic while he guarded the truck. As I walked in search of a mechanic an MP cycled by. He thought I had escaped from the camp and took me to the MP station where I was questioned for almost a day. I told them what had happened but they wouldn’t believe me. I really thought they were going to shoot me. Thankfully the Japanese guard found me and told them what had happened. They released me and I went back to the camp. That guard saved my life.
“The brutality of the Japanese guards is well known and they would use the dreaded speedo, a bamboo stick that they would hit people with as they yelled speedo, speedo to make them work faster. I was lucky as I was young and fit and although I was quite skeletal at the end, I remained healthy and that kept me safe from the speedo.
“I experienced Japanese brutality when we were wrongly accused of stealing sugar. A Japanese guard slapped my face a number of times with his wet hand. Later they took us out into a field at night and we were told we would have to stay there until we confessed. We didn’t as we hadn’t taken anything. The Malayan PoWs were also there and one of them said he’d seen one of the Chinese prisoners go into the caravan where the sugar was kept. They found him and they tied him to the back of a lorry and drove him around the field. Of course they got faster and faster and he was dragged around the field until long after his death.
“Much has been said about the diet of those of us who worked on the Railway. We got up in the dark and came back in the dark. On Sunday morning when we didn’t go out we couldn’t eat our breakfast as we could see that it was full of maggots. We ate them in the dark as we couldn’t see what we were eating. They only gave rations for people who went to work, the sick were denied rations. We had to try to get everyone on parade in the morning and then get the sick back to bed before we went out on our working party. Occasionally on a working party in Singapore we had been given shark, it was usually given to us to impress a Japanese General when they came to inspect the camp.”
Kenneth and his fellow PoWs found out an Atom bomb had been dropped on Japan when they were told one night by an Officer.
“An officer came to our hut and told us the bomb had been dropped. We were told not to let on that we knew. He came back again to say that the Japanese had surrendered. That bomb saved our lives. We were saluting the Japanese one day and the next morning they were saluting us and the next day they had gone. We didn’t see them go, they just left. Although they did leave a few people behind on the aerodrome. On the day freedom was declared I was transferred to a headquarter company who had a hut outside the Gaol. At that time two Australian Officers landed by parachute on the runway, which is now Changi airport and they took over command of the camp. We received a message to put a white cross on the runway for planes to drop supplies for us. We searched to see what we could find to put down and were told by an Australian Officer to make the Japanese do it. It felt good to watch them work as they put a white cross on the runway.
“As I’d somehow managed to keep myself fit, I put it down to the fact I was so young, I was given duties to carry out after our release from Changi Goal. It meant I was one of the last to leave, as I was driving a lorry to ferry people to Singapore to get on board their planes. I was at the airport at the same time as General Slim’s plane and his pilot came and asked if I’d sent word home. I hadn’t and he took me into General Slim’s plane, gave me a postcard, which I filled in, and he made sure that my mother got the notice that I was well.
“At last it was time to return home and we boarded a boat for Southampton. Our first meal on board was rice, the doctors said as we’d eaten rice for three and a half years our stomachs wouldn’t initially be able to take rich foods. They gradually built us up to eat properly. On the journey home I sent a telegram at each stop. I sent one from Colombo in Sri Lanka. When we arrived at the bottom of the Suez Canal we were given new uniforms and our stripes and medals were put on them. My cousin was waiting for me when I got off the boat there as he was a Batman to an Officer and he showed me around. We stopped there for two or three days. The next stop was at Gibraltar and then on to Southampton and home and family. We thought once we got to Southampton we could go straight home, but they wouldn’t let us and we had to stop overnight. I was feeling a lot healthier by then, as they had really looked after us on the journey back to England, which took three weeks.
“Leaving Southampton I took a train with a chap from Wolverhampton. I was undecided whether to get off at Birmingham or go on to Dudley Port. In the end I decided to get off at Birmingham and he went on to Wolverhampton. There was a ‘get you home service’ for Servicemen and I thought I would use that, but as I was going up the steps at New Street station who should come down the steps but my dad and my sister Dorothy who was in the WAAF. They didn’t know I would be there, they thought I might get off the train there. They had a car to take me home. It was great to see them. We got home and it was great to see my mum after three and a half long years.
“When I’d settled back at home my mum arranged a birthday party for me in a Church Hall, as we didn’t get to celebrate my 21st birthday together. By then I was 25. I’d spent my 21st birthday as a PoW. We were captured in February and my birthday was on 6th March. One of my mates, a Staff Sergeant from Liverpool, had given me a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate for my 21st. We kept in touch after we were released and he came to our wedding when Brenda and I married on 7th June 1947.”
In a green corner of England Syd Tavender was photographed standing beside a 30 foot section of railway line, its bumpers and iron tracks laced with messages, crosses and wreathes. They are the physical remnants that have been placed in memory of the thousands of Far East Prisoners of War who were forced to work on the Burma to Thailand Railway during World War Two. The notorious Railway of Death.
Syd, who worked on the railway from 1942, knows that the 30 foot piece of track is also laced with the unseen sorrow, sweat, fear and blood of the thousands of men who were forced to endure such horrific labour at the hands of their cruel captors.
Syd was one of the lucky ones, he survived, and today he is Chairman of our Ex-PoW group.
Syd Tavender President of Blind Veterans UK Ex-PoW Group
As a teenager he moved to India with his father, who worked as a British diplomat. After ‘miserably failing’ exams for the diplomatic core, he joined the Colonial Police in India before joining Gurkha Training School. In 1942 he was captured in Malaya by the Japanese while fighting with the Gurkhas at the Battle of Slim River. He spent three and a half years working on the Burma to Thailand railway along with 30,000 other British PoWs. Syd was also used as labour to build Changi airport for the Japanese.
He was released in 1945, weighing just 5st 3lb. He says the experience was something that few survivors wish to remember. Syd said: “If there was a party of Japanese PoWs, no one would speak of their experience. If people knew what we went through, they would understand. As prisoners there was no end in sight for us. The beating with bamboo sticks was continual. The worst experience was when typhoid hit the camp.
“The only way to get rid of it was to burn the dead. The boys were dying in their hundreds. The Japanese would light a huge bonfire. Two of us would grab the shoulders and feet of a dead man and swing him on to the flames. The heat would make the bodies rise up and I swear it was like they were staring at us.”
After his return he was haunted by his memories. “The fires were the one thing I couldn’t get out of my mind. I used to have violent nightmares for years after I came home,” he said.
After the war he moved to Palestine with the police as a Colonial Officer, moving on to Burma and then Kuala Lumpur, still as a policeman. He was there for 30 years before returning to England.
In 2001, he finally received £10,000 compensation for his ordeal. But he vowed to fight on for an apology from the Japanese government.
Syd began receiving our support ten years ago when he lost much of his sight as a result of age-related macular degeneration. Syd said: “It is an honour to be Chairman of the Ex-Prisoner of War group and to attend the annual Prisoner of War Reunion. Nothing can compare to the support Blind Veterans UK has given me.”
Last week we hosted a tour at our Brighton centre for senior eye health professionals.
Staff at our Brighton centre hosted a tour for Ramesh Sewoodhary, Senior Lecturer in Ophthalmic and Adult Nursing and Lavona Dampies, Lead Nurse from the Ophthalmology Theatres at Royal Berkshire Hospital on Friday 5 August 2016.
We provide rehabilitation and training for veterans at two centres, in Brighton and Llandudno. At the centres, our staff provide specialist support, care and training to help blind veterans enjoy life beyond sight loss, starting by helping people to come to terms with their sight loss. The centre in Brighton offers holidays, respite, training, residential and nursing care, social activities and recreational activities.
We also support blind veterans at home by running local community events and by arranging home visits from dedicated Welfare Officers who provide support and advice on a range of issues. We are keen to reach out to eye health professionals who can signpost veterans to us and ensure they receive our free support and care as early as possible. 61% of our veterans said they wished their eye health professional had told them about the life-changing support we offer.
Ramesh and Lavona saw the full extent of the facilities available to vision impaired veterans of all ages who visit the centre. They visited the arts and crafts centre, went on a tour of the sports hall, and saw a demonstration of the IT equipment we provide. They were also briefed on the history of the charity, and met with a Senior ROVI to learn about the rehabilitation and training assessments undertaken at the centre as part of the induction weeks with veterans.
Ramesh and Lavona were extremely impressed with the wide range of services the charity provides, saying, “All Blind Veterans UK staff were very professional and helpful. We were inspired by their kindness and dedication. The veterans who lived in for 24 hour care were cared for to a very high standard. The nurse manager has very creative ideas and has the wellbeing of the veterans at heart.” Ramesh and Lavona also remarked that the Brighton centre has a learning environment that would be useful to student nurses and nurses doing a post-registration ophthalmic nursing degree.
If you, or someone you know, served in the Armed Forces or did National Service and are now battling severe sight loss, find out how Blind Veterans UK could help by calling 0800 389 7979 or visiting noonealone.org.uk
Yesterday we received a very special gift; a leather handbag that was handmade by blind veteran Jerry Lynch who had lost his sight whilst fighting in the Second World War.
Jerry Lynch came to Blind Veterans UK (formerly St Dunstan’s) after being shot in Belgium, causing him to lose his sight. As our Brighton centre had been taken over by the Navy, Jerry was referred to our Church Stretton centre. It was here that Jerry began his training and rehabilitation and learned how to adapt to his sight loss.
During one of the training sessions in our workshop Jerry handmade a leather handbag which he gave to his sister May. May later moved to America after World War Two and so the handbag resided in Texas for over fifty years.
It was not until 2016 that the handbag would return to the UK. In July the Lynch family organised a large family reunion in Brighton, although sadly Jerry passed away beforehand. During the reunion May brought the handbag back for the family to have, who in turn decided to donate the bag to our charity’s archives.
Jerry’s son John says: “It felt right to donate the handbag to Blind Veterans UK Archives as for 100 years members of the Lynch family have received help from the charity. Before my father was supported by the charity his Uncle Danny Lynch, who was shot during World War One, also received support.
“My father was very happy during his final years residing at the Brighton centre on the nursing wing. He adored all the activities he would access when well, particularly the music sessions where he’d sing along whether he was meant to or not!
“Dad benefited throughout his life from the support of Blind Veterans UK, the opportunities, training & socialising enabled him to lead a full life as if no disability existed. He was once asked if he had any negative feelings about losing his sight and his response was “no I’m a very happy and lucky man”.
“My family and I believe the support offered initially was way ahead of its time, clearly focusing on the ability of the individual rather than the disability. Throughout his life we were all aware of the help and support given that benefited not only dad but all of us as a family.
“In the latter years when he became a full time resident at Blind Veterans UK, the care and support given to him was truly exceptional, so much better than any generic elderly care facility in the UK.
“We will be forever grateful for the support the charity provided for our lovely father, a mere thank you would never adequately express our gratitude.”