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The Gift of Time

A man wearing a suit and tie kneels in front of a uniformed soldier sitting beside a hospital bed. He guides the soldier’s fingers to the dial of an open pocket watch.

Early in 1943, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) started a program to help soldiers blinded in World War II. Often the first item a hospitalized GI requested, braille watches were presented to each blinded serviceman referred to AFB by the military or the Veterans Administration (VA). Once a referral was received, the veteran’s name, rank, and serial number were engraved on the back of a pocket or wristwatch, and it was sent to the veteran as quickly as possible. By December of 1945, 1,048 braille watches had been delivered. Five watches were even sent to American soldiers in German POW camps by the YMCA.

After the war, watches continued to be sent to both veterans of WWII, and to peacetime soldiers whose vision had been lost while serving. By 1959, another 87 watches had been given to veterans blinded in the Korean war –14 of which were sent to American POWs in North Korea.

In addition, a free watch repair service was provided. An AFB repairman said that most of the watches that came back for repairs simply had flakes of tobacco clogging-up the works, since the watches had open faces. One folder in the AFB Archive holds hundreds of repair receipts, each with the veteran’s name and address on it. Among the receipts is correspondence between a Pennsylvania caseworker and Katherine Gruber, director of AFB’s braille watch program. It discusses the fact that several people had not only lost their vision in the War, but also their hands. Since these veterans could not feel braille, they were provided with a chiming “Repeater” pocket watch with a frame around it to be more easily used by bilateral amputees. Originally manufactured by Tiffany and Co., these chiming watches later had to be imported from Switzerland due to cost – approximately $1,000 at the time.

AFB’s braille watch program was discontinued in 1963. Braille watches had finally become more easily available to veterans through the VA because of Public Law 309, and the expenditure could no longer be justified by AFB. But during those war years, it was crucial that those who needed watches get them immediately, and AFB was able to do just that.

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