Oakland Remembers World War I: SGM James Garfield Eichberg
James Garfield Eichberg was born in Atlanta on September 19, 1881. James was the ninth child born to his German immigrant parents. His father, Joseph, built one of the first plumbing houses in Atlanta and was involved in the ice manufacturing business. His mother, Caroline, was the sister of Daniel Bandmann, an internationally-acclaimed German-American Shakespearean actor. The newest Eichberg was named for President James Garfield, who died September 19 from injuries sustained in an assassination attempt two months prior. James was born with tunnel vision and the doctors told him that he would go blind at a very young age. With a passion for acting, James dropped out of school to pursue a career on Broadway. He also dropped his surname and became known as James Garfield.
After war was declared in 1917, Garfield was drafted and joined thousands of young American men in the United States Army Air Service. He enlisted at Fort Slocum in New York on August 25, 1917. He was a part of the 137th Aero Squadron, which was a service support squadron in England. Achieving the rank of sergeant-major, Garfield served overseas from March 1918 through March 1919. He was honorably discharged on March 31, 1919 due to his defective vision and dental sepsis.
After Garfield’s discharge, he became involved in radio and started a family. In 1926, his wife, Edith (Weil) Eichberg, gave birth to their daughter Carolyn. The family relocated to Los Angeles in 1930, where Garfield could better pursue his passions for radio and acting. Garfield did become successful in Hollywood. He worked as a freelance radio host, wrote scripts, and acted in over 2,000 radio soap operas. But his poor health continued to plague him. In 1933, Garfield was admitted to the National Home for Disabled Soldiers due to his deteriorating vision and other health problems. His wife Edith passed away on January 26, 1937 and Carolyn was sent to live in Atlanta with Garfield’s sister, Ruby. Garfield never remarried.
In 1940, Garfield went completely blind. He soon received his first guide dog and went to work at an aircraft plant during World War II. Guide dogs were first used in Germany to help wounded World War I veterans who experienced vision problems. In 1927, the first guide dog arrived in America from Germany to assist U.S. Senator Thomas D. Schall. Garfield was laid off when the war ended and the aircraft plant closed. He became the President of the Los Angeles County Club of the Adult Blind, a position which he remained in for twelve years. As president, he played a key role in the creation of the State Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind and fought for the welfare of the blind.
Garfield acquired a teaching position at a radio dramatics school, where he aided World War II veterans in their return to broadcasting. In 1947, Garfield created a new radio program, “A Blind Man Looks at You,” on KGFJ in Los Angeles. The weekly fifteen-minute show raised awareness about the needs and goals of the blind, as well as emphasized understanding and compassion. The successful radio show ran for twenty years and raised Garfield’s profile as an advocate for the blind. In 1957, Garfield wrote his first book, Follow My Leader, about a blind boy and his guide dog, Leader. The critically-acclaimed book led many to begin to understand and humanize the blind. It allowed others to walk in the shoes of the blind.
After celebrating his 100th birthday, Garfield moved to Valdosta, Georgia to be under his daughter’s care. He lived on his own with his guide dog, Coral, until he was 102-years-old and then moved into the Fellowship Home Retirement Community. James Garfield Eichberg died from complication of pneumonia on May 23, 1984. He is buried on Jewish Hill near the Eichberg family monument.