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Blind veteran Gwen celebrates 100th birthday

Published on 28 Nov 2017

Blind veteran Gwen Obern celebrated her 100th birthday with close friends and family on 22 November 2017.

Gwen is a remarkable lady who has been receiving our help for over 74 years since joining the charity in 1943.

Gwen’s life story is a special one.  She starts it by talking about Ernie.

Gwen married Ernie in December 1939, a day she remembers as being “a beautiful day, very cold. There was just a sprinkling of snow and there was a long driveway to go up to the chapel”.

The following year Gwen’s life almost came to an end and was totally changed for ever. As a young woman of only 22, Gwen was liable for call-up and, preferring not to join the women’s services, she began working at the Royal Ordnance Factory in Bridgend on 3 December 1940.

Her job was inspecting detonators and she was in training. Two days after starting work, on 5 December 1940, as she explains, “Sitting at the top end of the factory table was a lady and I sat to her right”.  There were 14 at the table but she didn’t know many of them. Gwen continues:

"This lady had a tray in front of her and there were nine boxes of detonators on the top and she had a machine like a gauge. She took one box of detonators, there were 500 in each box. She put the detonators into the tray….the last thing I remember was a terrific flash."

Gwen Obern
Blind Veteran
Black and white portrait photograph of Gwen Obern smiling
Gwen Obern, blind veteran

Of the 14 women around the table five were killed outright.  Gwen survived to face six months in hospital while they treated her badly burned body.  For four months she was unable to wear any clothing, so bad were her burns.  She was one of the first two women to be blinded in the Second World War. 

Read about Gwen’s fellow female blinded veterans

When Gwen first woke after the accident, she found her family sitting round her bed and quickly realised the awful extent of her injuries – she had lost her right hand and her left was badly maimed.  It took some devious questioning by Gwen to learn the extent of her injuries as everyone was reluctant to tell her. 

Ernie, with some of her uncles, spent every night at the hospital after his day’s work at the colliery and during the day her mother and aunts kept her company.

Gwen lost her right eye immediately in the accident and there had initially been some hope she might retain some sight in her left but that was not to be.

It was three years before Gwen would agree to come to Blind Veterans UK (St. Dunstan’s as it was then known).  She was persuaded by a friend, Vi Delaney who was already with the charity.

Accompanied by Ernie, Gwen arrived at Church Stretton, where the charity had relocated during the war.  When they heard Gwen had a lovely voice she was asked to sing “Bess This House” and Ernie was advised to return home and to leave her there.  That was a very hard time for both of them.

During a fitting for a glass eye, further surgery was needed which she was reluctant to undergo, still holding on to the hope she might at some stage see again.  The eye specialist gently told her she would never see again.

It was a very difficult time for Gwen at the start, far from home, but the magic of Church Stretton soon began to work. 

She remembers:

"When they said we’re going to have a dance I thought I’ve come to a really stupid place – go dancing? So I went to the dance, I love dancing, and somebody came and asked me to dance and I said no I can’t dance I’m blind but up I got and I danced."

Gwen Obern
Blind veteran
Photo of ensemble theatre cast of blind veterans, with Gwen Obern seated front row, fourth from the left
Gwen performing in the theatrical shows at Church Stretton, seated in front row, fourth from the left

Music and singing were Gwen’s keys to success in overcoming her sight loss. She joined a concert party, who travelled all over the country entertaining troops, and arrangements were made by the charity for her to have singing lessons at Hereford Cathedral.

Photo of Gwen performing onstage with a band
Gwen performing with the band at Church Stretton, seated centre

The freedom Gwen enjoyed at Church Stretton was very different to the stricter environment of a Welsh Chapel community and this caused some problems when she had visitors from home.

The first time her husband Ernie realised that Gwen “drank” was when they were caught walking in the rain and went into a pub, him assuring her he would not tell her family.  The landlord properly dropped her in it when Ernie ordered her a lemonade and he asked whether there was something wrong that she did not want her regular drink, a Blue Nile cocktail!

Gwen had a talent for getting into trouble – losing one of her false eyes during a visit to London and later discovering it inside the vest that she was not supposed to be wearing under her nightie.

 Photo of Gwen, far right, taking part in an egg and spoon race at Church Stretton
Gwen, far right, taking part in an egg and spoon race

Leaving Church Stretton was hard. She says:

“Once you had settled down there were no fears.  Everybody was so friendly and very good pals.  Then to think of leaving to come home.  One was frightened, happy to come home but it was a very frightening thought because you were so sheltered.

“When I got home my Mother was there as well.  My Dad had died and I am so sorry he did not live to see how I mastered blindness, to bring me back to the way I was before”.

Gwen was very aware that not every marriage would have survived that disastrous day in 1940.  She says Ernie “never grumbled and he has never ever said to me you’re not to have that or you’re not to go there”.

The charity has supported Gwen for almost 75 years and will continue to be here for her for as long as she needs us.  With our help, and her determination, Gwen has had a wonderful fulfilling life despite her sight loss and other disabilities.

Sadly Ernie has passed away, and Gwen is not enjoying the best of health, but along with her family and close friends she has celebrated her 100th birthday. A remarkable achievement for a very remarkable lady.

A cake with white frosting, 100th birthday candles, floral detail and a picture of blind veteran Gwen placed on top
Gwen's birthday cake to celebrate her 100th birthday

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