His heroism saved 200 Jewish lives

His heroism saved 200 Jewish lives

With a pistol at his head, non-Jewish GI sergeant defied Nazi orders

Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds and his men during field training in Tennessee before shipping out for Europe.
Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds and his men during field training in Tennessee before shipping out for Europe.

Growing up in Knoxville, Tenn., in the 1920s and 1930s, Roderick “Roddie” Edmonds hardly, if ever, met any Jews. However, in late 1944 he was personally responsible for saving the lives of approximately 200 Jewish GIs, all of whom were being held in Germany as war prisoners. For his heroism, Edmonds has posthumously received recognition from Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, and his son Chris, senior pastor at the Piney Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, Tenn., is campaigning for his father to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

On Sept. 10, Pastor Chris Edmonds will tell his father’s dramatic story at the Monroe Township Senior Center. The event is being cosponsored by Hadassah Associates, the men’s division of Hadassah, and the Alisa and Monroe Township chapters of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

The elder Edmonds’ tale began at the barbarous Battle of the Bulge, when he was a 25-year-old master sergeant who, along with hundreds of other American soldiers, was captured by Nazi forces on Dec. 19, 1944. As the senior noncommissioned officer, he was responsible for 1,275 POWs at the Ziegenhain Stalag prisoner of war camp.

A crisis arose when the camp commandant ordered Edmonds to call only Jewish-American soldiers for one morning assembly. Realizing that the Jewish GIs were likely to be pinpointed for execution, Edmonds brought out the entire complement — more than 1,200 men — instead.

Furious that his order had been ignored, the German commander put the barrel of a gun against Edmonds’ head, and again insisted that the Jewish prisoners be separated from the rest. The GI sergeant refused, stating simply, “We are all Jews here. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us.” 

He added that the order violated the Geneva Convention and that, if any of the men were harmed, the officer would be prosecuted for war crimes. The strategy worked, the German officer backed down, and Jewish lives were spared.

Freed after 100 days in captivity and following VE Day, Edmonds returned to Tennessee, where he worked in sales. He also married and had two sons; Chris is the younger of the two.

Roddie Edmonds had never spoken of the incident, and it was only after his death in 1985 that his family — and now the world — has learned of it. 

“My mom was going through some of his belongings, and discovered old diaries in which he recorded his wartime experiences, including the time in the prison camp,” said Chris.

The diaries were shared with authorities at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, which led, eventually — 30 years after his death — to a Jan. 27, 2016, ceremony attended by President Barack Obama celebrating Edmonds as Righteous Among the Nations. Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and Yad Vashem Council Chairman Rabbi Israel Meir Lau presented Chris with his father’s medal and certificate. Roddie Edmonds was the first American service member to receive this recognition.

Sergeant Edmonds also earned the Medal of Valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Yehi-Or Award from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. 

Chris Edmonds, now 59 and married with three daughters and seven grandchildren, is awaiting word on whether his father will receive the United States Congressional Gold Medal, for which he was nominated by both Tennessee senators, Republicans Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, and Democrats Tim Kaine of Virginia and Ben Cardin of Maryland. He is also seeking the Congressional Medal of Honor for his dad. U.S. Rep. John Duncan (R-Knoxville, Tenn.) filed a bill nominating him in March, but there is an obstacle: As a prisoner of war, Roddie was not technically “engaged in action with the enemy,” a requirement for eligibility.

Chris Edmonds said he believes this regulation disregards his father’s “willful defiance of the enemy with zero weapons. We believe his act of bravery was at the highest level of valor because he intentionally defied the Nazis and acted to save his men without regard to his life.”

According to his son, Roddie Edmonds was “a sincere Christian who had an infectious love for everyone regardless of their background, religion, or color of their skin.” Thus, even though the sergeant had little or no contact with Jewish people before the war, he understood “God’s clear command…to be our brothers’ keeper and to love one another.”

Chris told NJJN that his mother, Mary Ann, and brother both support his efforts to tell Roddie Edmonds’ story, but they cannot take an active role because of health issues.

Monroe Township’s Manny Strumpf, cochairing the Hadassah Associates activity along with town resident Al Pressler, said the sponsors are expecting a strong turnout for the annual event. “Pastor Edmonds’ message is important not merely because it involves an exciting, inspiring story, but because it is being delivered by a non-Jewish religious leader and shines a revealing spotlight on the evils of anti-Semitism,” Strumpf said.

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