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Ordinary Man, Extraordinary Courage

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Joy Lucius The Stand Writer MORE

(Editor's Note: This article was first published in the April 2022 print edition of The Stand. This edition is also found online HERE.)

By mid-December 1944, the war in Europe seemed to be waning, until the Germans launched a counteroffensive in the snow-covered hills of Belgium’s Ardennes Forest. During the “Battle of the Bulge,” the Germans captured over 20,000 American servicemen, including several regiments of the 106th Infantry Division.

Army Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds and members of the 422nd Regiment finally surrendered on December 21. They were eventually transported with other American prisoners of war (POWs) via rail cattle cars deeper into German territory, near Ziegenhain.    

As the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer, Edmonds assumed leadership of 1,292 Americans imprisoned at Stalag IX-A, a German prisoner of war camp for captured enlisted personnel.

A 25-year-old devout Christian from Knoxville, Tennessee, Edmonds was one of the oldest soldiers there. Playfully called “Old Man,” he was calm, levelheaded, and well respected by his men, especially those he had trained at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

Making a stand

But nothing prepared the American POWs for what took place in late January 1945, when Stalag IX-A’s commandant announced that only Jewish servicemen should report for roll call the following morning.

The lives of more than 200 Jewish servicemen from across America hung in the balance. Edmonds quickly issued a direct command to his men.

As a result, the German leader, Maj. Siegmann, found all 1,292 American prisoners, Jews and non-Jews alike, standing in formation for roll call on that icy winter morning.

Siegmann furiously commanded Edmonds to identify his Jewish soldiers.

Standing in unwavering solidarity with his men, Edmonds replied, “We are all Jews here.”

Siegmann pointed a Luger at Edmonds’ head, informing him he would be shot if he did not immediately identify the Jewish soldiers.

“According to the Geneva Convention,” answered Edmonds, “we only have to give our name, rank, and serial number. You can shoot me, but you will have to shoot us all. This war is almost over, Major, and when we win, you will be tried as a war criminal.”

Siegmann lowered his weapon and walked away.

Edmonds’ courageous stand literally saved the lives of those Jewish servicemen whom Siegmann had intended to gun down. Stalag IX-A was liberated by American troops two months later.

Leaving a legacy

After the war ended in September 1945, Edmonds went on to serve in the Korean War before settling down back home in Knoxville. But he never told anyone about his brave stand that January morning in Stalag IX-A.

Before Edmonds’ death in 1985, his youngest son Chris, a college student at the time, borrowed the two small, battered journals the sergeant had kept during his POW days.

“I couldn’t wait to read them,” Chris, a Baptist minister, explained to The Stand. “I knew Dad had been a POW. But whenever I asked about the war, he always said he didn’t want to talk about it.

“Unfortunately, the journals were filled with short, code-like entries. I actually learned very little from Dad’s journals back then.”

Reluctantly, the confusing journals were tucked away again as precious family heirlooms until 2009. At that point, Lauren, one of Chris’ daughters, was assigned a group history project in a college course.

Out came the journals again. Inspired by Lauren, her classmates, and their project, Chris combed the internet and slowly began to piece together more facts about his father.

Discovering the whole truth

“In a New York Times article,” Chris explained, “a lawyer named Lester Tanner (previously Tannenbaum) mentioned that he owed his life to the bravery of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds.”

A while later, Chris tracked down Tanner and first learned details of that fateful day at Stalag IX-A when Edmonds refused to surrender his Jewish soldiers.

“Lester said that was the defining moment of his life,” said Chris. “As he stood beside my father and watched him face that German officer, Lester decided then and there to always do the right thing, no matter the cost.”

It was not the only time Sgt. Edmonds did the right thing for his men.

Chris learned from another POW, Hank Freidman, that his father’s firm call to prayer once stilled the hysteria when their crowded, unmarked cattle car was being bombed by Allied aircraft. 

“Many of his fellow POWs,” Chris shared, “believed those unified prayers saved them from being blown away that day.”

Edmonds again saved his men during their final days at Stalag IX-A. They were near starvation after 100 days of imprisonment. Subsequently, on May 29, 1945, when all prisoners were ordered to evacuate from advancing Allied troops, Edmonds refused.

“He knew his men would not survive that march,” Chris said. “Dad ordered them to do whatever it took to fall back into the barracks when the Nazis gave orders to march.

“After a full day of roll calls and refusals, the camp commander told Dad, ‘You win, Edmonds. The camp is yours.’ Finally, the Germans marched the other Allied prisoners out of Stalag IX-A, leaving it to the Americans.”

The next day – March 30, 1945 – U.S. troops liberated the camp. All of its 1,292 American POWs survived, largely because of Edmonds. 

Honoring the righteous

That story and others led Tanner to seek a way to formally remember and honor the courage of Edmonds. Eventually, a friend of Tanner’s turned to Yad Vashem’s Commission for the Designation of the Righteous.

Israel’s parliament established Yad Vashem in 1953 as their national institution charged with documenting and preserving Holocaust history. Over the years, Yad Vashem has grown from one museum to a complex of museums and exhibits including the Garden of the Righteous.

Since 1962, more than 27,000 heroic non-Jews who have been deemed Righteous Among the Nations are memorialized on trees, walls, and plaques scattered throughout the garden’s avenues and walkways.

The term righteous is a deeply rooted traditional term for non-Jews who stand by Jews during hardships. To receive this distinction and win Israel’s highest honor, a person must be nominated by a Jew and then meet four additional requirements.

The prospective recipient must have been actively involved in saving Jews from imminent death or deportation to concentration camps. Their actions must have been at risk of personal safety, and they must have been totally altruistic, without any personal gain. Last, firsthand testimony or irrefutable documentation must accompany and substantiate the nomination.

Merely five Americans have ever met these requirements, only one of which was an American soldier – Master Sgt. Roderick W. (Roddie) Edmonds. 

“In 2019, I was honored to travel to Jerusalem for the dedication of Dad’s plaque in the Garden of the Righteous,” said Chris. “If Dad were alive, I doubt he would think his actions deserved any recognition. To him, they were simply the right thing to do.

“I believe Dad was willing to die to save the Jewish men under his command because he believed a Jewish man – Jesus Christ – had died to save him.” 

More of the backstory

View Footsteps of My Father, a short film about Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, at jfr.org. Select the Documentaries tab.

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