100 year old blind veteran to lead 100 year old military charity at Remembrance Day Parade

6 November 2015 16:19

A blind veteran who turned 100 last week (21/10) is preparing to lead a delegation of more than 100 blind and vision-impaired veterans supported a military charity that is celebrating its centenary this year.

Ron Freer, 100 and from Margate, will be laying a wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday on behalf of Blind Veterans UK, the charity that has supported him for almost 70 years.

Blind veteran Bill Brant at Remembrance

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 Freer

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.

Ron will be the oldest member of the Blind Veterans UK delegation at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. He has been supported by the charity since 1946 and has gone on to live a full, happy, independent life.

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.

"I am hugely honoured to have been asked to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph on behalf of Blind Veterans UK. It is an extraordinary charity, which makes an unbelievable difference to the lives of veterans like me, and our families too."

Blind Veterans UK (formerly St Dunstan's) was founded in 1915 and the charity's initial purpose was to help and support soldiers blinded in the First World War. But the organisation has gone on to support more than 35,000 blind veterans and their families, spanning the Second World War to recent conflicts including Iraq and Afghanistan.

For 100 years, the charity has been providing vital free training, rehabilitation, equipment and emotional support to blind and vision impaired veterans no matter when they served or how they lost their sight.

Chief Executive of Blind Veterans UK, Major General (Rtd) Nick Caplin CB, says: "Our centenary year has been a fantastic opportunity for us, as a charity, to remember the outstanding work of our forebears.

"In 2015, Blind Veterans UK must also look forwards. 100 years after our founding, we currently support more veterans than ever before in the charity's history and are growing all the time as we enter our second century."