World War II veteran Roddie Edmonds was always a hero in his son’s eyes, even though he never volunteered details about what had happened after the Germans captured him during the Battle of the Bulge.
Chris Edmonds, who grew up to become a Baptist minister, says his father’s beliefs were uncomplicated:
“There is a God and God is good. We must be good to one another. Loving others is what Dad did well. I think he was gifted to do that,” Edmonds told the Volunteer Rotary Club. “And here’s another truth. Evil is real. Dad believed that God was good and evil was real, and it was wrong. He knew this from his faith and his Tennessee roots – right was always right and evil was wrong.”
Roddie Edmonds died in 1985, and 20 years passed before Chris’s mother gave him a journal Roddie had kept during his time as a master sergeant in the 106th Infantry, including 100 days in two different German POW camps.
“The story begins with an old diary, weathered and fragile. It belonged to a young man from Tennessee who was fighting for his country on a continent on the edge of collapse,” Chris Edmonds said. “It touched my heart.”
Wanting more information, Chris ran a Google search on Roddie’s name. He found a story about Richard Nixon buying a Manhattan townhouse from a lawyer named Lester Tanner, who mentioned that he and many other Jewish GIs owed their lives to the bravery of a master sergeant named Roddie Edmonds. Chris contacted Tanner, who introduced him to another former POW, and the old soldiers, who have become like family, told him a remarkable story.
The war was going badly for Germany by January 1945, but the Nazi determination to exterminate Jews never flagged, and Jewish soldiers were instructed to destroy their dog tags if they were taken prisoner lest they be assigned to camps that they couldn’t survive.
On Jan. 26, Roddie Edmonds got word that Jewish prisoners were going to be taken away the next morning after roll call. As the highest-ranking soldier there (officers were sent to separate camps), he told his men that they could not allow this to happen.
The next morning, the camp commander ordered Master Sgt. Edmonds to send the Jews forward. Every prisoner there obeyed the order.
“The commander could not believe his eyes – all 1,300 men standing together in sharp formation.”
And that’s when Roddie said, “We are all Jews here.”
The Nazi drew his pistol and pressed it hard into Roddie’s forehead. He repeated the order:
“You will order the Jewish men to step forward.”
“Dad had been shot, beaten with a rifle butt, punched, attacked by dogs, stripped of his dignity… Yet there he stood with a gun to his head, disobeying Nazi orders. Lester Tanner said, ‘Your dad never wavered.’”
“Dad said, ‘Major, if you shoot me, you’ll have to kill all of us because we know who you are. And you’ll stand trial for war crimes when we win this war.’”
The Nazi’s arm began to tremble. He holstered his gun and returned to his office.
Seventy years later, Chris was visiting Israel at the request of officials who wanted to honor his father, and Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial to Holocaust victims, named Roddie “Righteous Among the Nations,” an award given to gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews. He is one of five American soldiers to be so honored.
Last year, Chris was invited to speak about his father at an award ceremony at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. President Obama was there, along with filmmaker Steven Spielberg. Afterward, Obama sought Chris out.
“He was visibly moved,” Chris said. “The last thing he said was, ‘Chris, after you finished talking, I leaned over to Steven and said, ‘I think there’s a movie here.’”
Now, Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and Rep. Jimmy Duncan are working to get Roddie Edmonds a Congressional Gold Medal. Chris says: “I hope the next remarkable event will be at the White House to present Dad with the Medal of Honor.”