JERUSALEM — The first U.S. soldier to be recognized by Israel’s Holocaust memorial authority as a “Righteous Gentile” was guided by his strong Christian faith, according to his son, a pastor.
Earlier this year, Yad Vashem recognized Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, who served in the 422nd Infantry Regiment in the U.S. Armed Forces, as “Righteous Among the Nations” for rescuing Jewish servicemen imprisoned in a German POW camp. It is the highest honor awarded by Yad Vashem.
“I believe the foundation of my father’s values and moral code was his faith in Christ,” Roddie Edmond’s son, Pastor Chris Edmonds, told the Register during a December visit to Israel. “In his diary, he speaks of wanting to serve God and how bad war really was. From the testimony of his men and the POWs, it’s clear they were aware of his Christian faith. He treated men with respect.”
Chris Edmonds, a Southern Baptist pastor, said his fathers “roots” were in the United Brethren of Christ church, which later became the Methodist church.
Taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge, Master Sgt. Edwmonds, from Knoxville, Tenn., was interned at Stalag IXA, a prisoner-of-war camp near Ziegenhain, Germany. According to eyewitness testimonies Yad Vashem obtained from former POWs, in January 1945, German officials, who were already sending Jewish POWs on the Eastern Front to concentration camps, ordered all Jewish POWs at Stalag IXA to gather the next morning in front of the barracks.
Hearing this, Edmonds, the highest-ranking solider in the U.S. section of the camp, instructed his men, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to join the Jewish prisoners.
The next morning, when the camp commander, a Major Siegmann, saw so many soldiers, he turned to Edmonds and said, “They can’t all be Jews!” Edmonds responded: “We are all Jews.”
When Siegmann pointed his gun at Edmonds, the American soldier replied, “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.”
Siegmann turned on his heels and walked away.
In his Yad Vashem testimony of Edmonds’ bravery, noncommissioned officer Paul Stern, a Jewish soldier taken prisoner in 1944, said he stood very close to Edmonds during this conversation with Siegmann.
“Although 70 years have passed, I can still hear the words he said to the German camp commander,” which, Stern said, were in English.
Lester Tanner, another Jewish POW at the camp, said in his testimony that “more than 1,000 Americans [were] standing in wide formation in front of the barracks, with Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds standing in front, with several senior non coms beside him, of which I was one.”
Tanner said there was “no question in my mind, or that of Master Sgt. Edmonds, that the Germans were removing the Jewish prisoners from the general prisoner population at great risk to their survival. The U.S. 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 Sgt. Edmonds, at the risk of his immediate death, defied the Germans with the unexpected consequences that the Jewish prisoners were saved.”
Chris Edmonds said his father never spoke of his courageous act.
“He wouldn’t talk to me or any family members of his time as a POW because some things were too bad to talk about. But according to the testimony of a Jewish POW, after they were captured, they were forced to march for several days and put into [train] box cars on route to Germany.”
The POW recalled that “there was no room to bend down or use the facilities. Then the British started bombing the train, and several cars were hit. Our car was in chaos; we were in chaos and terrorized. Then I heard a voice with a Southern drawl call to the men. The voice said, ‘If you’ve ever prayed to God, do it now.’ We all started praying. We grew silent and had a feeling of peace come over us. God delivered us.”
That voice belonged to Master Sgt. Edmonds.
Edmonds’ family first learned details of his wartime leadership in 2011, two years after his son launched an online search for any record of his father’s military service. An article quoting Tanner on a seemingly unrelated subject alluded to Ronnie Edmonds’ bravery, and his son dug deeper.
“I read the article and asked, ‘What did he do? Why did Mr. Tanner mention him? I began the journey to find Mr. Tanner. We were putting together a package to send to the Army to request my father receive the Medal of Honor; and then I learned that Mr. Larry Goldstein, a friend of Tanner’s had, unbeknownst to me, quietly submitted a request to Yad Vashem.”
Over the course of those two years, Pastor Edmonds says he learned about the rampant anti-Semitism in the U.S. before, during and right after World War II.
“I was born in the late ’50s and had never had any reason to look back, but as this story developed, I saw that anti-Semitism was very real but that my father was different,” he told the Register. “He was a principled man, very active in the church and worship services.”
Edmonds says he wishes his father, who died in 1985, were here when Yad Vashem recognized him as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
Then, pausing to recall his father’s modesty and decision to keep his bravery a secret, the son reconsidered. “If he were here, he’d think this was too much of a big deal.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.