Roddie Edmonds (1919–1985) risked his life to save the lives of as many as 200 Jewish soldiers under his command in World War II. The ranking Allied officer in a German Nazi prisoner of war (POW) camp, he was ordered at gunpoint to identify any Jewish soldiers in the ranks and refused, risking his life in the process.
Roderick “Roddie” Edmonds was born in South Knoxville, Tennessee, on August 20, 1919, one of four sons born to Thomas Edmonds, a wallpaper hanger, and Mary Jane Sexton Edmonds; his mother would die when Roddie was three. Raised in a Methodist family, he graduated from high school in 1938, a year before war was declared in Europe. Newly married, he enlisted in the U.S. Army on March 17, 1941, in Chattanooga, and trained at Fort Oglethorp. Assigned to the U.S. Army's 422nd Regiment, he shipped out with the 106th Infantry Division and arrived at the Western Front in December of 1944.
A master sergeant, Edmonds commanded a platoon of younger recruits, and their first taste of war was at the Battle of the Bulge, the final German offensive of the war and a campaign that lasted from December 15, 1944, to January 25, 1945. In the midst of this ill-fated effort, his platoon was quickly overwhelmed by German forces, the Allies having been completely taken by surprise. The fighting was desperate, and both sides sustained massive casualties, the most of any battle in World War II. Edmonds and his men were captured by the Germans on December 19th, 1944.
As POWs, the 106th Infantry platoon was forcibly marched for several days. Reaching a railway line, they were loaded into boxcars, without food. On Christmas Day, 1944, Edmonds and his men arrived at Stalag IX-B, a massive military prison camp housing up to 25,000 prisoners. Several men had already died in the process, and Jewish foot soldiers were now separated and sent to forced labor camps. Thirty days later, Edmonds and the other noncommissioned officers (NCOs) at the camp were shipped to Stalag IX-A, a prison camp located near Ziegenhain in the western part of Germany. Conditions in this new camp were equally harsh, food was equally scarce, and brutal treatment by guards was equally common. Because Edmonds held the highest rank among the NCOs at Stalag IX-A, he became the POWs’ commanding officer.
On the first night at Stalag IX-A, Edmonds shouldered responsibility for the men under his command. After the new POWs were assigned their new barracks, orders came over the camp's loudspeaker explaining that only Jewish POWs would be required to appear for roll call the following morning.
Like many Americans, Edmonds, a Christian, knew about Hitler's plan to eliminate Jews from Europe, and he knew that this so-called “Final Solution” involved exterminating vast numbers of Jews. Thousands of Jews from throughout Europe had already been rounded up in ghettos, then transported by train to specialized camps such as Auschwitz, where they were either worked to death or quickly exterminated. All the POWs knew that such an order was a direct threat to the lives of their Jewish comrades. Sgt. Edmonds informed his men that they would not cooperate, and all 1,275 prisoners would fall out for roll call together.
Early the next morning, the camp loudspeakers blared out the order that Jewish prisoners assemble in the prison yard and line up for roll call. When all the POWs appeared in the yard and assembled, the German commanding officer became visibly angered. Although he threatened Edmonds and his men with his pistol, the U.S. sergeant held fast, arguing that, while the Geneva Convention required that name, rank, and serial number be provided, it did not require that the religion of POWs be disclosed. As witnesses to the incident would later report, Edmonds bluntly told the officer, “We are all Jews here.”
As Paul Stern, a young soldier in Edmonds’ platoon, later recalled to CNN's Oren Liebermann, Edmonds told the visibly frustrated German officer: “If you shoot me, you’ll have to kill all of us.” Even when threatened with a gun pointed at his head, Edmonds was resolute, stating that those POWs who survived the war would identify the German commander and see that he was tried for war crimes. According to Stern, the German commander holstered his weapon and walked away.
As Allied Forces drew closer to Stalag IX-A during the weeks following the incident, German officials planned to move the camp further from the front lines, using the prisoners of war as slave labor. When the prisoners refused, the Germans abandoned the camp, ending the 100 days of captivity endured by Edmonds and his men.
Although he returned stateside following the war, Edmonds again served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, returning to civilian life in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, in the early 1950s. Married several times, but divorced due to the stress of his military service, he bore three children. He was an unassuming man who spoke little of his wartime experiences, even to his wife and his son, Chris Edmonds. He held jobs as a newspaper manager and as a salesman of mobile homes and cable television. A lifelong Knoxville resident, he died at age 66 in 1985, of congestive heart failure.
Although Edmonds never spoke of his wartime imprisonment, he was recognized for his act of bravery many decades later. His son Chris Edmonds, a pastor, began researching his father's wartime record in 2009, having heard about his experiences at Stalag IX-A. Speaking with the few surviving witnesses, he learned that Edmonds's fellow prisoners viewed him as humble, quiet, and generous and expressed awe for his courage in the face of their brutal Nazi captors, particularly because anti-Semitism (racism directed against Jews) was common among Americans of the 1940s.
Edmonds's actions also came to the notice of Yad Vashem, the world center for study and documentation of the Holocaust, which posthumously recognized him in 2015. He became the first American to be honored as Righteous among the Nations, as a non-Jew who risked his life to save Jewish people during the Holocaust. After newspapers picked up the story and shared it with the world, Edmonds was also recommended for the Medal of Honor, the highest honor of the U.S. military.
Knoxville News Sentinel, January 1, 2016, John Shearer, “Son Shares Details of Dad Roddie Edmonds’ Life following the Revelation of His WWII Actions.”
Piney Wood Baptist Church Online (video clip), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lf2-AQdwqIQ (March 20, 2016), “PC 2016 - Pastor Chris Edmonds.”
U.S. Army website, https://www.army.mil/botb/ (August 18, 2016), “The Battle of the Bulge.”
Yad Vashem website, http://db.yadvashem.org/righteous/ (August 18, 2016), “Edmonds Family: The Rescue Story.”❑