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Remembrance Day 2018: Blind 103-year-old former prisoner of war set to be oldest veteran at Cenotaph

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 08/11/2018 Katy Clifton
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A blind 103-year-old former prisoner of war will be the oldest veteran to march at the Cenotaph as the nation marks the centenary of Armistice.

Former Army sergeant Ron Freer will lead more than 100 comrades who also lost their sight when he attends the memorial in London on Sunday.

Confirmed by the Royal British Legion as the oldest veteran due to attend, he will be representing charity Blind Veterans UK.

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He said this was a "huge honour" and the Remembrance commemorations hold a "special significance" for him as he remembers his own father's death in battle on September 4, 1918.

The former postmaster, who lives in Kent, paid his respects at his father's graveside earlier this year when he travelled to the Dernancourt Communal Cemetery in France with his family to lay a wreath.

Ralph Stanley wearing a suit and tie © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Born in Teignmouth, Devon, on October 21 1915, Mr Freer was captured in the Second World War while serving as a soldier with the Royal Artillery.

He joined up in 1931 aged 15 initially with the Royal Horse Artillery and on the outbreak of war was posted to defend Hong Kong.

In late 1941, the Japanese attacked the then British colony and Fort Stanley, where Mr Freer was based.

After 18 days of fighting, his garrison was forced to surrender and he remained a prisoner of war until the end of the conflict.

The malnutrition he endured at the camp during the four-year ordeal left him blind.

a person posing for the camera: Armistice81118d.jpg © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Armistice81118d.jpg

Mr Freer said: "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."

a man sitting at a table with a birthday cake: Armistice81118b.jpg © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Armistice81118b.jpg

In 1943 he was among 2,000 prisoners taken by a ship called The Lisbon to Japan when infectious disease diphtheria broke out.

His life was saved by the actions of two doctors.

Mr Freer said: "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'.

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"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."

He lost his sight completely a month later as well as most of his hearing and spent the rest of the war in the camp's medical hut.

Once the war was over, he was able to return to the UK via the Philippines and New Zealand.

a man sitting on a bicycle: Armistice81118c.jpg © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Armistice81118c.jpg Blind Veterans UK, which was founded as St Dunstan's after more than 3,000 veterans were blinded in the First World War, has supported Mr Freer since 1946.

Initially lacking optimism for the future, his confidence returned as he set about getting a job and learning braille thanks to the charity.

After marrying, he and his wife Joan opened a post office, buying the property with the help of the organisation.

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Over the years they ran post offices in Ilfracombe, Devon, Grays in Essex and Gravesend in Kent.

He now lives with his daughter Patricia in Cliftonville.

Mr Freer said: "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.

"It is an extraordinary charity which makes an unbelievable difference to the lives of veterans like me, and our families too."

Additional reporting by Press Association.

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