"My father must have had a cape hanging in his closet. He was not a superhero, but when he needed to, he put that cape on."
Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, of the 422nd Infantry Regiment in the US Armed Forces, passed away in 1985. Pastor Chris Edmonds, his younger son, recalls that his father didn't speak much about his wartime experiences. As a young adult, Chris found out that his father had spent time as a POW, but little else was revealed. It was only when one of Chris' daughters undertook a project at college to create a video about a family member that his mother, Roddie's wife, handed her granddaughter a diary Roddie had kept during his imprisonment at Stalag IXA. She also revealed a brief account of parts of his life that Roddie had written before he died.
Chris was "blown away. How could I not have been aware of my father's wartime activities? I stayed up that night conducting searches on the Internet to see what else I could find out about him." The first item to pop up was a journalistic piece concerning a property deal between ex-President Richard Nixon and Lester Tanner, in which Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds was mentioned. When Chris and Lester finally made contact, Chris heard the story of how Roddie had saved the lives of his fellow Jewish POWs, and how this one act of incredible bravery had become a lifelong inspiration for Tanner and many other of his fellow soldiers.
As a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in the US army, Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds of Knoxville, TN participated in the landing of the American forces in Europe. Taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, Edmonds was interned at Stalag IXA, a POW camp near Ziegenhain, Germany.
The Wehrmacht had a strict anti-Jewish policy, singling out Jewish POWs from the rest of the POW population and then murdering them or sending them to extermination camps. In January 1945, the Germans announced that all Jewish POWs in Stalag IXA were to report the following morning. Edmonds, who was the highest NCO at the camp, and therefore in charge of the prisoners, ordered all the POWs – Jews and non-Jews alike – to follow the order. When the German officer, Major Siegmann, saw all the camp’s inmates standing in front of their barracks, he turned to Edmonds and exclaimed: “They cannot all be Jews!” To this Edmonds replied: “We are all Jews.” Siegmann took out his pistol and threatened Edmonds, but the Master Sergeant did not waver and retorted: “According to the Geneva Convention, we only have to give our name, rank and serial number. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.” The officer turned around and left the scene.
One witness to the exchange was Lester Tanner, who was also captured during the Battle of the Bulge and interned at Stalag IXA. Tanner had been inducted into military service in March 1943, and trained in Fort Jackson, where Master Sergeant Edmonds was stationed. Tanner remembered Edmonds well from his training period: “He did not throw his rank around. You knew he knew his stuff and he got across to you without being arrogant or inconsiderate. I admired him for his command… We were in combat on the front lines for only a short period, but it was clear that Roddie Edmonds was a man of great courage who led his men with the same capacity we had come to know him in the States.” Tanner told Yad Vashem that they were well aware that the Germans were murdering the Jews, and that therefore they understood that the order to separate the Jews from the other POWs meant that the Jews were in great danger. “Over one thousand Americans stood in wide formation in front of the barracks behind Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds… The US Army’s standing command to its ranking officers in POW camps is that you resist the enemy and care for the safety of your men to the greatest extent possible. Master Sergeant Edmonds, at the risk of his immediate death, defied the Germans with the unexpected consequences that the Jewish prisoners were saved.”
A Lifelong Inspiration
In early 2015 the late Roddie Edmonds was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. Of more than 26,000 "Righteous" recognized to date, Edmonds is only the fifth United States citizen, and first American soldier, to be bestowed with this highest of honors bestowed by Yad Vashem on behalf of the State of Israel.
Pastor Chris is currently participating in a seminar for Christian leaders at the International School for Holocaust Studies. This is his first trip to Israel, and one that comes at a time when his personal family story is likely to become a national, if not international, sensation. The account of his father's heroic actions that Pastor Chris has painstakingly discovered over recent years reads like a fictionalized Hollywood movie. But it is all true, and has been a source of inspiration for both Pastor Chris and the survivors his father saved for the past 70 years.
"My father always had a strong sense of duty, of responsibility to his fellow human being, whoever they were," says Pastor Chris. "He was a man of great religious faith and an unwavering moral code and set of values to which he was completely dedicated. From my conversations with his comrades, it is clear he was also a strong commander, leading by example and taking personal risks in order to safeguard others."
Since discovering the story, Pastor Chris has made relentless efforts to contact all the names of his father's fellow POWs painstakingly recorded in his wartime diary. "Many of these have led to meetings and lifelong friendships with people I could never have imagined: senators and congressmen, survivors and their families – and even the rabbi of a local synagogue. Who could have imagined a Baptist preacher and a rabbi becoming such fast friends?"
Pastor Chris is currently working on having his father be awarded a Medal of Honor – the USA's highest military honor, awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. And when he speaks to young students, Pastor Chris tells them that his father "must have had a cape hanging in his closet. My father was not a superhero, but when he needed to, he put that cape on. You too have a cape: if you are witness to an injustice, you can choose to ignore it, or to intercede. We all have the power to influence others, and if we invest in this way of life, in making the right decisions, we too can make a tremendous difference in this world."
More information about the Righteous Among the Nations, including background, stories and the Database of Righteous, can be found online here.