Born in 1924, Ernie Lee, from Fleetwood, started his military career during the Second World War.
When war was declared, a lot of his friends joined the Armed Forces and in 1943 he volunteered to join the Royal Navy. Once he completed his training, he was attached to the 2nd escort group which sailed out of Liverpool. Their main job was to hunt and attack U-Boats in the North Atlantic and around the Bay of Biscay – an immensely dangerous task.
On one occasion the ship Ernie was aboard was struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat. The camaraderie of the Navy service men aboard kept spirits up, although the rum on the ship was destroyed – this caused much upset amongst the sailors.
After leaving the Royal Navy, Ernie remained committed to sea life and went straight in to the Merchant Navy. He was an engineer officer, working on maintaining the steam turbines on the ships and following that he undertook engineering roles in shipyards.
It was back in 1970 that Ernie woke up one morning and couldn’t see – something that caused him to panic. He saw a specialist at Manchester Hospital and was told it was the result of a common and irreversible eye condition called macular degeneration.
Ernie’s world had quickly changed: “I felt lost, uncomfortable and afraid. I could no longer do the things I wanted to do, especially driving and caravanning and I worried about losing my independence. Losing my sight was a terrifying experience.”
Thankfully, in 2000, Ernie met another veteran who was destined to change his life. “I went into a cafe in Fleetwood near where I live with my white cane and bumped into another man who also had a cane. He said ‘snap!’ I got talking to him and discovered that he was a Marine; he recommended that I get in touch with Blind Veterans UK.
“I got the phone number, went home and got in touch with the charity straight away. It was a life-changing chance encounter as the charity transformed my life, giving me the vital skills and training to lead a rewarding life following my sight loss.”
Blind Veterans UK helped Ernie in practical ways. “I have been able to write my book, learnt how to use a computer and been taught how to type, all of this has been really beneficial. The charity has also helped with the installation of a wet room in my flat. Other vital equipment has been given to me by the charity including a talking book and my white cane. My life has also been improved as a result of mobility training I have done with the charity which has meant that I have been able to get around.”
Ernie has been to all the centres the charity has in the UK. He’s been to Brighton for holidays and training, to Sheffield six or seven times for training and he has recently been to Llandudno for a holiday.
Ernie said: “I would encourage anyone who may be eligible for support to get in touch with Blind Veterans UK. Nothing’s too much trouble for them at all. Even when you’re on holiday at the centre, you feel like you’re part of a family. I was scared after losing my sight but with the charity’s help I have achieved so much, from writing a book to holding down a job. I couldn’t have done it without their support.”