As the Second World War raged Blind Veterans UK, then called St Dunstan’s, Review carried the following article in its Review magazine with regard to Japanese Prisoners of War:
St Dunstan’s has taken immediate septs to endeavour to obtain an early repatriation of blinded prisoners of war who have been in Japanese camps.
Through the good offices of the British Red Cross, we have information of four such cases, one of whom has, in addition, lost both hands.
We now know that one man is safe at Singapore and two others are safe in New South Wales en route for home. They are being looked after by the New South Wales War-blinded Welfare Committee, and our St Dunstaner, Captain Gilbert Nobbs, tells us that they are in good health and spirits.
Unfortunately there is as yet no further news of the handless man who, when we last heard, was at a camp in Java.
That man who had been blinded and in addition lost both hands was Bill Griffiths, a Leading Aircraftsman in the Royal Air Force who had been taken prisoner in Java in 1942. He was forced by the guards to remove some camoflage netting that they believed was booby trapped. In the resulting explosion Bill was blinded and lost both hands. Sir Edward Dunlop, better known to the Far East Prisoners of War as ‘Weary’ was then Commander of the improvised Allied General Hospital in Bandoeng. He recalled Bill’s arrival there:
‘His eyes were shattered in the wreck of his face, his hands blown away, one leg with a severe compound fracture; he was peppered everywhere with embedded fragments, and was exsanguinated and shocked.’
Sir Edward decided to treat Bill, despite the opinion of a nurse that it would be kinder to let him die. Not long after this he had to save Bill from the Japanese, as he describes in his War Diaries published in 1987:
‘On 17th April 1942 the increasing harshness of the Japanese flared to extreme brutality. Capt. Nakazawa demanded the immediate break-up of the hospital with most of the patients to go to prison along with those medical staff no longer needed for the few remaining. All were required to move at once. In order to dissuade, I conducted him with his guard to demonstrate the serious illness of many patients. First amongst these was LAC Bill Griffiths. Capt Nakazowa motioned to the bayonets of his guard. There was a tense moment as I interposed by body before Griffiths and glared at Nakazawa.’
Weary Dunlop’s account is typically modest and to the point. Another prisoner who witnessed the incident describes it more dramatically. ‘The Japanese guard raised his rifle with its stubby fixed bayonet, and putting ‘one up the spout’ for luck, prepared to lunge. Weary Dunlop placed himself in the way saying, “If you are going to do that, you must go through me first.”
Having survived that, Bill Griffiths lived through three more years of cruelty and neglect, despite his double handicap. In his autobiography Blind to Misfortune (Pen & Sword) he recalled his feelings in August 1945 after the surrender of the Japanese:
‘We didn’t feel much different and there weren’t many signs of excitement or hilarity amongst any of us. I suppose our resistance was low, and we simply didn’t have the emotional energy to respond to the change in our fortunes. I know I wanted to be alone to take it in. I went back to my bed and lay there while my mind tried to focus on the future. Somewhere within me I knew that, during these years as a prisoner, I had been in a sense sheltered from reality. In our fenced in world I had round me friends who were basically all in the same boat with me, and were only too willing to help when help was needed. The truth of it was I was scared stiff and the closer the unknown future loomed, the worse it looked.’
However, Bill received some small encouragement through a telegram from St Dunstan’s (now Blind Veterans UK). It was sent at the suggestion of our then Chairman Ian Fraser and it read:
‘I lost my sight and hands while serving with the 8th Army in North Africa. Having a wonderful time at St Dunstan’s, learning to type and play the trombone, listening to radio etc. Lots of friends here. Look forward to meeting (signed) David Bell.
And Bill Griffiths did come to St Dunstan’s, and like David Bell he too had a wonderful time and went on to lead a wonderful life.
In 2005 Bill wrote the following article for the BBC People’s War website. The article was transcribed by his wife Alice.
I was stationed with the RAF at Kalong Airport, Singapore in February 1942. The Japanese Air Force bombed the airport rendering it unserviceable. Singapore fell to the Japanese on February 14th, 1942. We left Singapore on February 13th, on the troop ship Empire Star. We were bombed, many were killed and the ship caught fire. We landed in Surabaya, Java three days later, hoping to establish a base, but roads and rails were bombed and we became stranded in the village of Tasic Malay. Two hundred RAF men were stranded in the mountains of Garoet, I and three others drove to Garoet in an effort to save them, but we were soon surrounded by Japanese soldiers and became Prisoners of War.
Within a few days we were ordered to remove camouflaged booby traps. We had to do this or be bayoneted by the Japanese soldiers, who stood well out of the way. In the process of this task, I was blown up, lost my eyes, both my hands and shattered my leg. Fortunately a convoy of POWs being moved by the Japanese risked their lives and stopped to pick me up and take me to an emergency hospital on March 16th 1942. Then I found myself in Bandoeng at a school that had been hastily made into a hospital by the Australian Surgeon Colonel Dunlop, later Sir Edward Dunlop. He saved my life on the operating table, and shortly afterwards a Japanese soldier tried to push his bayonet through me, but this famous Australian Surgeon Sir Edward Dunlop stood between me and the bayonet, saying the bayonet would have to go through him before it went through me. I believe this soldier just stamped off. Sir Edward is affectionately known as ‘Weary’, and he remained a lifelong friend until his death in 1995. I was his guest in Melbourne on numerous occasions, and he was ours in Blackpool. For many weeks I had pain in my arms, in the early days I was given a little morphine, which only lasted a week or so, so I had to stick it out. At the same time the POW doctors worked on my leg, thankfully they saved it, but it took a long time before I could walk. Everyone, including the doctors as POWs, had their own health problems, including dysentery, malaria, beri beri, fever and ulcers. I also endured some of these, but my fellow prisoners and POW doctors did all they could to keep me occupied. One doctor set me up with a pestle and mortar crushing herbs and leaves in an effort to make medicines. Another had me take secret messages to other parts of camp. I always did my exercises and tried to keep fit. I talked to many professional people, and if I had been in a better physical and mental condition, I would have been well educated.
My fellow prisoners helped me to survive; they looked after my daily requirements. The Japanese did not help at all. They just carried on with brutality. One colleague made me a gadget that held a spoon enabling me to scoop up the rice. That was all we got to eat, sometimes mixed with a mysterious substance. Another made me a tin gauntlet that held a stick for me to walk about when safe from Japanese guards. Like my POW friends I was underweight. At the end of the war I weighed five and a half stone.
On August 15th 1945 the Japanese surrendered. We could not leave the camp because the Indonesians began to fight to regain their territory from the Dutch. Anyone white was assumed to be Dutch and was shot. Consequently we didn’t arrive home until November at the Liverpool docks, where the dock workers were on strike! Taken to Gosford hospital, home to Blackburn, then to St Dunstan’s.
The FEPOW Prayerby Cpl. Arthur E. Ogden and Victor Merrett (Fepows).
And we that are left grow old with the years
Remembering the heartache, the pain and the tears
Hoping and praying that never again
Man will sink to such sorrow and shame.
The price that was paid we will always remember
Every day, every month, not just in November.
Of course Bill had to learn much more when he came to St Dunstan’s in 1946. He learned to typewrite using probes on his gauntlets on an adapted typewriter. Other adaptations designed by Norman French, our Research Engineer, helped Bill in daily life. After training Bill went back to Blackburn to start his own road haulage business in the family tradition. His typewriter and specially adapted telephone enabled him to run his business until the nationalisation of road transport brought in regulations that put him out of business
Bill kept up his interest in sport competing regularly in St Dunstan’s events, putting the shot, sling ball, swimming, walking racing and sprinting among others. Despite his modesty in saying he would never win prizes, in 1969 Bill was named Disabled Sportsman of the Year by the Sports Writer Association of Great Britain. This was one of the honours Bill earned.
In 1972 to his great surprise he was the subject of TV’s ‘This is Your Life’ with reunions with Sir Edward Dunlop and Mickey de Jonge, the doctor and nurse who had saved his life in those terrible days as a FEPOW. Sir Edward’s part has already been described in Bill’s article, Nurse de Jonge treated and comforted him in the first days after he reached hospital and before the Japanese captured staff and patients.
In 1977 he was made M.B.E. ‘for services to the community’. An honour so thoroughly earned by the steadfast man so many were privileged to know and call their friend.
If you know a veteran who is eligible to join Blind Veterans UK please call our Membership department on 0800 389 7979. Or visit. www.noonealone.org.uk