On Monday, Nov. 28, 2016, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous posthumously honored Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds with its "Yehi Or" (Let There Be Light) Award.
American Jewish servicemen fighting Nazi troops during World War II faced even greater dangers than their non-Jewish comrades. If they fell into enemy hands, Germany didn’t treat them as ordinary POWs with the attendant rights demanded by the Geneva Conventions. Instead, Jewish prisoners were handled the way Germans handled all Jews: they were dispatched to death or slave labor camps, with little chance of survival. The American Army even advised its Jewish troops to destroy their dog tags and other identifying documents if captured by Nazi forces.
The group of over a thousand American soldiers were captured in late 1944 and early 1945 in the Battle of the Bulge and transported to the Stalag IXA POW camp near Ziegenhain, Germany. One of their first orders was to separate out the Jewish troops and present them to their German captors.
The German camp commander, Major Siegmann, delivered the order in English to the ranking American serviceman in the camp. This was Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, a stocky 24-year-old from Knoxville Tennessee. Remembered by his fellow troops from basic training as a gentle, unassuming soldier, Sgt. Edmonds might have seemed an unlikely candidate for the heroism he was about to display.
According to his son, Rev. Chris Edmonds, who has spent years speaking with witnesses and piecing together what happened that day on January 27, 1945, instead of ordering Jewish troops front and center, Sgt. Edmonds turned to his men and said, “We are not doing that, we are all falling out.”
“They cannot all be Jews!” Sgt. Edmonds replied, “We are all Jews.”
Commanding all the Americans in the POW camp to stand at attention in front of their barracks, Sgt. Edmonds placed himself front and center. Lester Tanner, a Jewish soldier who served with Sgt. Edmonds, later recalled the scene: “I would estimate that there were more than 1,000 Americans standing in wide formation in front of the barracks, with Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds standing in front, with several senior non-coms beside him, of which I was one.”
Major Siegmann strode up to Sgt. Edmonds. “They cannot all be Jews!”
Sgt. Edmonds replied to the commander, “We are all Jews.”
Enraged, Siegmann took out his pistol and threatened to shoot Sgt. Edmonds. Facing immediate death, Edmonds refused to back down and betray the Jews under his command.
“According to the Geneva Convention, we only have to give our name, rank and serial number,” Sgt. Edmonds replied, and recited them. “If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.”
Paul Stern, a Jewish POW who was standing nearby, recalled those stirring words that saved his life. “Although 70 years have passed, I can still hear the words (Sgt. Edmonds) said to the German camp commander.”
After a moment, the Commandant turned and walked away.
Sgt. Roddie Edmond’s son estimates that his father’s actions saved the lives of over 200 American soldiers in the POW camp.
Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds of the US 422nd Infantry Regiment.
After the war, Roddie Edmonds never mentioned his heroism that day, nor later in the war, when, according to his son, he again told American POWs to resist German orders and not embark on a death march as Allied troops closed in. It was only after he died in 1985 at the age of 64 that his children began to slowly uncover their father’s remarkable wartime deeds.
When Roddie Edmonds’ daughter decided to make a video about her late father’s life for a college project, her mother showed her diaries he had kept in Stalag IXA. These contained some musings about daily life in the POW camp, but mostly contained the names and addresses of the troops in his care, which Edmonds had laboriously recorded.
Edmonds’ son, Chris, says he was blown away by what he read and stayed up that night searching these names on the Internet. The very first article he read gave him his first inkling that his father was a war hero. Searching for Lester Tanner, the soldier who’d stood side by side in formation with Roddie Edmonds, yielded an old article about Tanner, now a prominent New York attorney, selling his New York townhouse to Richard Nixon. The article contained a fascinating aside: Tanner mentioned that an American Sergeant, Roddie Edmonds, had saved his life and the life of other American Jewish servicemen during World War II.
Chris contacted Tanner, as well as several other witnesses, and slowly pieced together the story of his father’s wartime heroism. Thanks to his work, on December 2, 2015, Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds was honored by the State of Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations,” the first American serviceman so honored.
Chris Edmonds jokes that his father “must have had a superhero cape in his closet” but Roddie Edmonds’ dedication to his fellow men seems to have been a deep, fundamental value.
Avner Shalev, Chairman of Yad Vashem, points out that Sgt. Edmonds “seemed like an ordinary American soldier, but he had an extraordinary sense of responsibility and dedication to his fellow human beings.” His son concurs: “My father always had a strong sense of duty, of responsibility to his fellow human being, whoever they were…He was a man of great religious faith and an unwavering moral code and set of values to which he was completely dedicated.”
That moral code gave Sgt. Edmonds the strength to face death and risk his life to save others. It gave him the courage one cold morning to stand up to a POW Commandant who held the power of life and death in his hands and declare: “We are all Jews.”