In a remarkable World War II story that almost went untold, a devoutly Christian US Army sergeant refused to turn over his Jewish soldiers to the Nazis, even after a gun was placed to his head. Now, 30 years after his death, the Jewish people are showing their appreciation for his bravery.
Roddie Edmonds was a humble man and didn’t speak about his experiences in World War II, even when his children inquired. When he passed away over 30 years ago, his widow gave his wartime diaries to their son, Baptist Pastor Chris Edmonds, in Maryville, Tennessee.
A few years ago, one of the pastor’s daughters read through the diaries for a college project and was amazed at what she found. Despite being taken prisoner of war shortly after arriving in Europe, her grandfather was a hero. He had saved hundreds of Jewish soldiers, motivated only by his Christian belief.
Edmonds was a Master Sergeant with the 422nd Infantry Regiment in the US Army. On December 16, 1944, just a few months after arriving in Europe, Edmonds found himself fighting in the disastrous Battle of the Bulge. The last major German offensive campaign of World War II, it caught the Allied Forces by surprise, resulting in 89,000 casualties. On December 19, Edmonds and an estimated 23,000 other American soldiers were taken prisoner by the Germans.
“We surrendered to avoid slaughter. We were marched without food and water, except for the few sugar beets we found along the road and puddles,” Edmonds wrote in his diary.
Taken to the Stalag IXA POW camp near Ziegenhain, Germany, Edmonds was the highest-ranking officer and responsible for the American prisoners of war (POWs) in the camp. One evening in January, Major Siegmann, the camp’s commandant, told Edmonds that he wanted the Jewish POWs to line up outside the barracks the following morning. The commandant said that any Jewish soldier who didn’t report would be shot on sight.
“They weren’t killing the Jewish soldiers outright, but they were taking them to Berga,” explained Pastor Edmonds to Breaking Israel News. “It was a labor camp, but they really just worked them to death. The Nazi commandants had orders in all the POW camps to eliminate all Jewish soldiers, up until the very end of the war.”
When they were first captured, many of the Jewish prisoners were segregated and sent to Berga. Of the 350 Jewish soldiers taken to Berga, over 70 died from brutal labor and horrible conditions.The fatality rate in Berga was nearly 20 percent, the highest of any POW camp where Americans were held.
When he was given the order, Sergeant Edmonds made a decision. He told all of the soldiers, Christian and Jew alike, to report outside the next morning.
“What my dad did was amazing, but the real amazing thing was that all 1,292 soldiers, went,” said Pastor Edmonds. “None of them refused.”
The commandant was furious and held Edmonds at gunpoint, ordering him to identify the Jews. Edmonds wouldn’t.
“Once the major pulled the gun and pressed it to my dad’s head, any one of those men could have stopped him and told him who the Jews were,” said Edmonds. “But not one of them did.”
Standing next to Edmonds, their lives on the line, were two Jewish soldiers, Lester Tanner and Paul Stern. They told Pastor Edmonds his father’s response.
“‘All I am required is name rank and serial number, and that is all you’ll get,’” Edmonds told the commandant. “‘You’ll have to shoot all of us, and after the war, you will be tried for war crimes.’”
The major shouted back, “They cannot all be Jews.”
“We are all Jews,” Edmonds calmly replied.
His father’s faith was what inspired his heroic action, Pastor Edmonds explained. “He was a strong Christian, even in the camp. He did this because his faith required him to be his brother’s keeper, and to honor humanity.”
Pastor Edmonds has spoken with some of these soldiers. “They all said it was a miracle they survived that camp,” he said. “They credited it to my dad’s leadership and what he did.”
Roddie Edmonds’ act went unrecognized when he was alive and Pastor Edmonds has been unsuccessful at having his father posthumously awarded the US Medal of Honor for Bravery.
But the Jewish people have recognized his courage. The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR), an organization that pays tribute to non-Jewish rescuers of Holocaust survivors, awarded Edmond the Yehi Ohr Award last month in New York City.