In a remarkable World War II story that was nearly buried together with Edmonds, this devoutly Christian US army sergeant from Tennessee refused to turn over hundreds of his Jewish soldiers even as a gun was placed to head. He was finally recognized for his bravery more than three decades after his passing in 1985, when the story of those few fateful life-and-death minutes was discovered and publicized by his son, Pastor Chris Edmonds — and has fueled a worldwide chain reaction toward acts of kindness and morally elevated choices. This Veterans’ Day, Pastor Edmonds has a lot to be proud of.
Roderick W. (“Roddie”) Edmonds was a master sergeant with the 422nd Infantry Regiment, which was shipped out to Europe in the fall of 1944. In December the troops were sent to the Ardennes forest on the Belgian-German border, where the German army launched a surprise, ruthless offensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Though outmanned, the Americans managed to hold off the Germans long enough to allow General George Patton’s troops to finally come to the rescue, but that rescue came too late for the 422nd and 423rd regiments. Those who weren’t killed in the onslaught were taken to the POW camp Stalag IX-B, where they were practically starved to death: Once a day they were fed some rancid broth with a tiny piece of black bread made with sawdust.
As bad as it was for the POWs across the board, the Jewish American captives had it the worst. The Wehrmacht treated captured Jewish soldiers the same way they treated all Jews — they either murdered them or dispatched them to brutal slave labor camps, such as Berga, where the odds of survival were slim. Because of this policy, the US military warned its Jewish soldiers that, if captured, they should destroy any evidence of their religion, such as dog tags that were stamped with an “H” (for “Hebrew”), identifying documents, siddurim, or other ritual objects some soldiers carried.
After a month in Stalag IX-B, Roddie — the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer among close to 1,300 fellow American POWs — was transferred with the rest of the Americans to the larger Stalag IX-A camp near Ziegenhain, Germany, which held thousands of Allied soldiers of various nationalities. The POWs, having been starved for weeks, were marched through the deep snow with cracked, blistered feet, wearing the same lice-infested clothes in which they had been captured a month before.
Inside the gate, the soldiers were met by a pack of growling German attack dogs. The camp commandant then brought a young Russian POW forward. “You are free to go,” the commandant told him encouragingly. The Russian didn’t believe him — he knew it had to be a trick, but the Germans had actually opened the camp gates for him. After standing there puzzled for several minutes, the prisoner ran toward what he thought was his freedom. Suddenly the Germans let the dogs loose. The young Russian was ripped to shreds, as the newcomer American POWs were forced to watch. Anyone who closed his eyes or looked away was rifle-butted in the head.
“Remember this!” the commandant shouted. “This will be your fate if you don’t do exactly as we say!”
The next night, with the grisly vision of the murdered Russian fresh in the minds of the Americans, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker — only the Jewish POWs were to fall out the following morning to be counted, and any Jewish soldier who did not appear would be shot on the spot. There were about 200 Jewish soldiers in the group and each one of them knew what that “selection” meant. So did Master Sergeant Edmonds — he’d seen the Jewish soldiers separated back in Stalag IX-B when they were first captured. That night, he told the entire group of Americans under his charge, “We are not doing that. Tomorrow we all fall out.’ ”
The morning of January 27, the Americans stood together outside their barracks — all 1,292 of them. Commandant Siegmann saw that all the Americans had fallen out and was furious with Edmonds. “I am ordering you to tell only the Jewish men to line up! These men cannot all be Jews!”
Edmonds looked Commandant Siegmann straight in the eye and said, “We are all Jews here.”
Enraged, Commandant Siegmann took out his Luger and pressed the barrel to Edmonds’ forehead, right between the eyes and fingered the trigger. “You are under orders to separate all the Jews right now!” he shouted. “You will order the Jews to step out or I’ll shoot you on the spot!”
Edmonds, a staunch Methodist who had little or no contact with Jews growing up in Knoxville, calmly responded, “Sir, according to the Geneva Convention, we are only required to give our name, rank, and serial number. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us because we’re all witnesses, and when we win this war, you will be tried for war crimes.”
The commander was livid, but Edmonds stood his ground. Finally, Siegmann put the gun back in its holster and stormed away. And 200 Jewish lives were saved.
Too Sick to March
Returning to civilian life, Roddie Edmonds never mentioned the incident. But then again, nor did he ever talk about how he saved the entire American group of POWs soon afterward, once the Allied forces were closing in. With the Allies on their heels, the Germans ordered the whole camp to evacuate — thousands of soldiers were to be marched out, but Edmonds knew the march through snow-covered terrain would mean the end for his starved, emaciated soldiers. The POWs could hear the fighting in the distance, someone had a radio and heard BBC reports, and they realized the Allies were close by — and Edmonds knew their only chance of survival was to wait it out until the Allies arrived.
“We’re not going,” he told his troops. “I need all you men to get sick tonight — eat dirt, grass, vermin, anything to make you sick. Tomorrow when we fall out, we go back to our barracks and tell the Germans we’re too sick to move.”
The next day, that’s exactly what happened. The German guards screamed, barked, and threatened, but in the end, they let the Americans stay by themselves as everyone else was marched out of the camp. Nearly all the POWs forced out died on the march — yet every one of the Americans who stayed put made it back home alive, after being liberated by General Patton’s troops.
After the war, Roddie Edmonds returned to Knoxville, was again shipped overseas to fight in the Korean War, and then upon his permanent return, married and eventually settled into a career in sales related to mobile homes and cable television. He passed away in 1985 as a humble, church-going man of faith, loving father, and die-hard patriot, yet never having received any official recognition, citation, or medal for his defense of the Jewish POWs. His heroism would have been buried with him, if not for some providential detective work by his son, Pastor Chris Edmonds of Maryville, Tennessee.
“We Were Humiliated” More than 20 years after Roddie Edmonds passed away, Chris Edmonds’ daughter Lauren told her father she had to do a project on a family story for her college history class. She knew her grandfather was a POW in World War II, but not a lot more than that — no one in the family knew much more than that.
“I thought it was a great idea,” Pastor Edmonds tells Mishpacha, describing the events that led to a surprising revelation, new cherished relationships, and finally, Yad Vashem’s “Righteous Among the Nations” award, Israel’s highest honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust — the first such award for an American soldier, and the first such award for rescuing American Jews.
“We knew that Dad had served as a master sergeant in the army, and my mom still had the diaries he’d kept as a POW in Germany,” Pastor Edmonds says. “I was just as excited as Lauren was to go through the diaries, so we read them together. But what we found was that many things seemed to be encrypted. Dad’s descriptions were brief and to the point — just a few sentences about how they were captured and the conditions in the POW camp. He also listed the names and addresses of the men in his barracks. But many of the horrible events seemed to be written in a kind of shorthand. In fact, from the time I was a kid and asked Dad about the war, he’d just say, ‘Chris, we were humiliated. Things that are too bad to share.’ So I stopped asking.”
Lauren wrapped up her project, but for Pastor Edmonds, it was just the beginning. He wanted to know what really happened during the war, and what all the vague, shorthand references in the diary were really about. In time, he would learn the truth.
“I Googled Dad’s name and rank,” Pastor Edmonds says, “and the first result that popped up was a New York Times article about a lawyer named Lester Tanner, who had sold his Manhattan townhouse to former US president Richard Nixon after he’d resigned and left the White House back in 1973. No one wanted the disgraced president to live in their building, but when Tanner heard about Nixon’s predicament, although he was a lifelong Democrat and didn’t share Nixon’s political views, he was appalled by the blackballing and sold Nixon the property.
“In the course of that interview, Tanner told the Times reporter that he’d served in the military in World War II, was a POW in Ziegenhain, and that the German commandant would have had him and all the other Jewish POWs killed if not for their brave officer, Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds. Wow, I thought. Dad must have done something huge — but what?”
Pastor Edmonds flipped back to January 1945 in the diaries, but all he found that might be an explanation was a mysterious entry: “Before the commander.” What was that referring to? The heroism Tanner had mentioned? Edmonds actually found Lester Tanner’s name in his father’s handwritten list of his men, and searched online for a current address.
“This was in 2012. I discovered that he was a prominent attorney in New York, still practicing at age 89. I e-mailed him and asked if I could visit him. Lester replied that same afternoon. ‘I would love to meet with you,’ he wrote. ‘I owe everything to your father.’ ”
Pastor Edmonds traveled to New York and met the man his father had saved 67 years before. Lester Tanner, who has subsequently become a dear friend (“he’s 95 today and still incredibly active”), told Pastor Edmonds that he’d originally met his father in 1943, when Lester was a new recruit and Roddie Edmonds was his sergeant. They were both captured in the Battle of the Bulge and met up again in Stalag IX-A. That fateful day in January 1945, Tanner was standing right next to Edmonds when the commandant put the gun to his head.
“From the moment your father told the commandant, ‘We are all Jews here,’ I decided that for the rest of my life, I would always do the right thing, even if it was dangerous,” Lester told Chris Edmonds. “Not a day goes by that I don’t thank G-d for him.”
Never a Bad Day
Pastor Edmonds’s reunion with Lester Tanner was not only the key to revealing his father’s heroism, it also brought him in touch with three other veterans his father had saved who were still living. “Lester lost track of Dad and never saw him again, but he kept in touch with some of the others, and we became like instant family in the last few years,” says Edmonds.
One of those men was Sidney “Skip” Friedman from Cleveland, who passed away in 2015. “Skip told me, ‘Chris, we were as good as dead in that camp. And the day we were liberated, we were reborn. Since then, I’ve never, ever, had a bad day.’
“You know, when Skip told me that, I finally figured out something about the way Dad lived,” Edmonds continues. “When he came into a room, he lit it up, and when he left, you wished he were still around. He was so encouraging, so supportive, never critical. He loved everyone, from little kids to elderly seniors, and now I understand it — back in the war, these men didn’t expect to survive, and the fact that they did gave them a new lease on life. Because of the crucible Dad had been through, every new day for him was a gift.”
Another Jewish veteran who became part of this old-new family was Paul Stern, who passed away last year. When Stern, who served as a combat medic, was captured in the Battle of the Bulge, his group was forced to march for four days straight in subzero temperatures, surviving on snow as there was no food or water. At the POW camp Bad Orb Stalag, he was first segregated together with the other young Jewish prisoners in an inner camp, where they were given lice-infested mattresses made from putrid straw and where six men shared a slice of bread and a small bowl of soup made from rotten potatoes and other scraps. Stern, however, was removed from the Jewish group and had the good fortune to be sent to Ziegenhain with the other noncommissioned officers — avoiding the fate of the other Jewish privates who were shipped off to work in Berga, the underground slave-labor munitions factory in East Germany where many didn’t survive. That’s because just weeks before his capture, he saved the lives of three enlisted men and an officer on the battlefield, earning the promotion to corporal.
“While Lester was on Dad’s left when the commandant put the gun to his head, Paul was on his right, so he was able to corroborate the exact details of what happened,” says Edmonds. Tanner and Stern became good friends in that prison camp, and after the war, even became brothers-in-law. Lester told him back in Ziegenhain, “Paul, if we ever get out of here, you gotta come to my house in the Bronx and have some of my mom’s Jewish cooking.” Paul took him up on the offer, came over for dinner, and met Lester’s sister Corrine — they were married soon after.
The other living veteran saved by Roddy Edmonds is Irwin “Sonny” Fox — the youngest of Chris Edmonds’ four new friends, who’s a sprightly 93 today. In the 1960s, Sonny Fox was a television host of the popular children’s program Wonderama, served as a game-show host during the ’60s and ’70s, and has been a longtime broadcasting consultant. Tanner had lost touch with him after the war, but the two reconnected in 2000 when Fox came back to New York to write his memoirs.
Once Chris Edmonds connected with Tanner, Fox, Friedman, and Stern, this well-heeled group felt Roddy Edmonds was deserving of the national Medal of Honor, and after learning of the story, many congressional leaders have since been behind the move for the prestigious U.S. government honor. The initial U.S. Army position, however, has been that since Roddy Edmonds was a captive and his actions were not in combat, he would not be eligible for the award. And so, congressmen from the elder Edmonds’ home state of Tennessee have introduced a bill to have Edmonds honored with the Congressional Gold Medal instead, and are waiting for it to pass the congressional committees.
Meanwhile, Yad Vashem recognized Edmonds as a “Righteous Among the Nations” exactly 71 years after his heroic action — in a ceremony held on January 27, 2016, at the Israeli embassy in Washington — in the company of Tanner, Stern, Fox, and then-president Barack Obama.
They Were All Heroes
Pastor Edmonds believes that life circumstances as well as faith-based instruction helped carve out his father’s strong moral core.
“Thomas Edmonds, my grandpa, was a strong man of faith,” he says. “Grandma died when Dad was just three — she had a goiter and there was nothing they could do for the massive swelling in her neck. Grandpa never remarried, but moved in with his sister instead, and she was the one who raised Dad. Dad, remember, was born in 1919, and was part of the generation that grew up in the hardships of the Depression. They knew how to appreciate everything in life without talking about it.”
The irony that no one knew of his dad’s heroism until he’d been gone 30 years isn’t lost on Chris Edmonds. Today, though, he’s making sure the world knows about it, although the one niggling question people always ask is: How come Roddy never told anyone?
“Well, there was certainly the factor of Dad’s characteristic humility,” the younger Edmonds explains, “but I think it was also about the nature of that generation. Today you digitally report to everyone what you ate for breakfast, but back then, those who served in the war tended not to talk about it until many years later — not until their grandchildren started peppering them with questions.
“People ask me, were they reticent because of the trauma, because they felt they were just doing their duty, or because of an innate sense of honor and humility? What I can tell you,” Pastor Edmonds continues, “is that what they experienced was traumatic and life-altering. I believe Dad specifically didn’t elaborate in his writing and left things encrypted because many of the events were too painful to talk about, although he left in enough details to realize they went through horrible times. For example, one page is just dash marks with the words ‘Jewish friends moved out’ — that happened in the first camp. He was referring to how they separated the Jews and sent them to an inner prison behind more barbed wire before they were transferred to Berga where many of them were killed or worked to death.”
Another example was the one-word entry: “Dogs.” That was a reference to the horrifying scene of the Russian being torn apart by the attack dogs.
“And it was quite amazing,” says Edmonds, “that right after watching that gruesome scene, all the Americans agreed to defy orders and fall out together with their Jewish comrades. True, Dad led the way, but he wasn’t the only hero. They were all heroes.”
But there was another piece in the diary that could shed light on the reticence of these men. “In the back of his diary,” says Edmonds, “Dad talks about his attending some kind of security briefing after their release, where the men were to make a commitment not to talk about what happened while they were overseas. At the time, the army felt any information could compromise US security and it was important to maintain a policy of secrecy. Remember, the war wasn’t over yet and the army was planning on sending those soldiers back overseas.
“Lester told me, ‘All us POWs were scared to death we’d have to go back and fight the Japanese. We were thrilled when Truman dropped the bomb, because being captured by the Japs meant you were as good as dead. When it came to warfare techniques and torture, they were the worst.’ ”
Pastor Edmonds has spent the last three years promoting what he calls “Roddie’s Code,” a sort of contagious movement to create awareness that it’s possible to make moral choices in everyday life, that people can choose to live differently.
“Even in those moments of danger between life and death, Dad made the lightning-quick decision to stand up for his men and confront evil,” says Edmonds. “But when people hear Dad’s story, they’re thinking he must have been a cross between John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, but Dad was an ordinary man who made extraordinary choices in extraordinary times.”
Pastor Edmonds believes that the “Roddie’s Code” initiative has succeeded in taking that inborn moral energy and pushing it forward into this weak, self-centered generation. “It crosses over all religions and faith models,” he says. “Everyone gets it. There’s a hunger out there for heroic living and real heroes — real people who do the right thing. Young people say to me, ‘Your dad really did that?’ It’s so foreign to them! So I tell them, you can be the same way, you can do it for others — it just means standing on your convictions and doing what’s right.
“Look, I know I’m just one person and can’t change the world on my own, but I believe people are receptive to this message: that whenever you’re confronted with the need to step up and do the right thing, think about Dad, and choose to defend life and decency. Tell yourself, ‘I can treat people better. I can make good choices.’ Choose to esteem others over yourself — and not just when a gun is pointed at your head. It means letting someone go ahead of you in line, opening the door for someone to go in first, taking responsibility for others. I’m praying for a movement, for people across the planet to decide to live heroic in all their choices.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 734)