In 1944 when Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds stood face to face with a German commander thrusting a gun into his forehead, he didn’t back down an inch. He was 25 and the men he was protecting were 18 and 19.
Edmonds grew up in Knoxville. He became a member of the U.S. Army’s 422nd Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, joining the service in 1942 during World War II. He was sent to the Ardennes Forest. The Germans launched a surprise attack on Dec. 16, 1944, leading to the Battle of the Bulge.
His regiment was captured and sent to a POW Camp in Germany. They ended up at Stalag IX-A with more than 1,200 other soldiers. Edmonds was the senior noncommissioned officer among them, assuming leadership duties.
They had been ordered to separate out the Jews among them, but Master Sgt. Edmonds knew that was a death sentence. Name, rank and serial number were all they would provide.
“We are all Jews here,” Edmonds told the Nazi commander. The unit stayed together, saving more than 200 lives.
Lending a voice
The remarkable story of heroism could have gone unheard after Edmonds passed away in 1985 at the young age of 65. Instead, his son, Chris Edmonds started a journey of discovery to learn all he could about the day a young, brave soldier stared into the face of evil and won.
Chris Edmonds has written about his father’s heroism in a new book, “No Surrender: A Father, a Son and an Extraordinary Act of Heroism that Continues to Live on Today.”
Edmonds, the senior pastor of Piney Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, has written hundreds of sermons over his tenure, but this truth-telling would take him to Belgium and Germany to tread the landscape his father traveled. It all began when Chris’ daughter started a family history project.
He decided to do a Google search on his dad’s name back in 2009 and up popped a 2008 article from The New York Times about a man named Lester Tanner who lived in Manhattan. He shared a story about how his commander, Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, had saved his life while he was held captive in a POW camp in Germany.
Chris, his wife and a grandson eventually went to New York to visit Tanner and hear more of his wartime accounts. Chris remembers the last thing Tanner told him as he left to go back home.
“The last thing he said that day was ‘your father is deserving of the Medal of Honor. I suggest you go back and talk to your congressman.’”
Tanner is 96 and still resides in Manhattan. Chris still corresponds and met up with him again just recently on his book tour.
That encounter would lead Edmonds to locate half a dozen more of the POWS or their families. Their accounts of what happened collaborate Tanner’s telling of the life-saving heroism of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds.
Another heroic act
Edmonds also learned of another heroic act by his father when the Germans tried to force his dad and the other American prisoners to march out of the camp. They were all near starvation. Master Sgt. Edmonds told them to fake being sick or run back to the barracks; do not leave under any circumstances, he told them. They would not survive.
They obeyed and the Germans gave up, leaving the Americans behind. They were liberated the next day by the Third Army.
A lot has happened since Edmonds started his fact-finding mission about his father. Roddie Edmonds was posthumously honored with Israel’s highest honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during WWII. He is the first American serviceman to receive the Righteous Among Nations designation. He is the only one recognized for saving American Jews.
There is also a 14-minute documentary on Roddie Edmonds which was then lengthened to 39 minutes. The filming of the first one is what led Chris Edmonds on his travels to Belgium and Germany with the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. He said a Hollywood producer has expressed interest in turning the story into a movie.
The documentary was submitted to the Academy Awards where it received honorable mention.
The right connection
A co-author worked on the book with Edmonds. Douglas Century is an author, journalist and screenwriter. He is the co-author of “Hunting El Chapo,” that came out in 2018. Edmonds said he had one other important characteristic besides his excellence in the field of writing.
“I started with prayer to find a Jewish co-author,” he said. “I knew I could bring the Christian perspective but I wanted a Jewish author or could bring a Jewish perspective. I found the perfect guy.”
While writing, “No Surrender,” Edmonds’ publisher, HarperCollins decide it also wanted a Young Readers Edition, so the author penned that as well. It comes out next week and is meant for ages 9-14. There is also a teachers guide.
None of this worldwide recognition was on Edmonds’ mind when he first started looking into his dad’s past. Edmonds said his father was never forthcoming with information on his Army service. He was a humble man who felt like he simply carried out his duties as an American.
“I think what they experienced was pretty brutal and horrible,” this son said. “When you read the book you will see the level of brutality and violence and the inhumanity of the Nazis.”
This generation of soldiers went over their to do a job, Edmonds explained. They felt passionately moved to defend America and a way of living, he added.
“It was truly a good versus evil thing and they went knowing we are on the good side,” the author said. “They did it. They went and did their job and came back home and it was time to live their life.”
Two journals written in by Roddie Edmonds helped his son piece together his story long after the war ended. One of them had 252 names and addresses of the men who were in the POW camp with Roddie Edmonds. There is also a calendar the soldier made with X’s on each day he was held in captivity. It was 100 days.
A recent encounter reminds Edmonds that this story is far from over. He is still researching the names in the journal to try and find the men or their families. While signing books at Books-A-Million in Knoxville, he met a woman interested in his book because of its subject. She has an uncle, now deceased, who fought.
After a few questions, Edmonds discovered her uncle is Bill Temple. When Edmonds was able to provide an old address for Temple, the woman was stunned. Turns out, Bill Temple’s name was in Roddie Edmonds’ war journal. The two had served together and were prisoners of war.
Edmonds said the woman gave him the phone numbers of Temple’s wife and brothers, who still live in Knoxville; he will be connecting soon.
The other journal Roddie Edmonds kept was an elaborate floor plan for a restaurant, including artist renderings. There were four chefs chosen from the POWs. Chris Edmonds surmises his dad did this to boost morale and help pass the time. They were all starving so they probably ate off an imaginary menu from the restaurant, he said. The guys who were cooks before the war were popular because they could talk about food.
Edmonds continues to seek the Medal of Honor and the Congressional Gold Medal for his dad. He also has several cities on his book tour. He said while sharing the extraordinary acts of valor by his father, he also wants people to recognize what this long pursuit has taught him.
Don’t wait until your loved ones are gone before you start asking about their past, he said. Enjoy life because it is a precious gift. Know that everybody matters and express love to all, Edmonds also said. And stay steadfast in your faith.
Edmonds recalls sitting down with one of the POWs he located, Sydney “Skip” Friedman, in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Freeman told Edmonds he never expected to survive imprisonment by the Nazis.
These men, Edmonds said, have gone through what few have and survived. They are grateful for every day.
“When we were liberated from that camp, I was reborn,” Friedman told Edmonds. “From that day forward, I never had a bad day. Ever.”
The book has also given Edmonds several opportunities to speak with media from all over, Including Israel. He said one reporter asked him why he thought his dad wanted to save Jews.
“I think dad saved Jewish men because a Jewish man named Jesus saved him,” was Edmonds’ reply.
The bravery of Roddie Edmonds will not be forgotten because his son had the sense of curiosity to go beyond the surface. The author said we all have our own stores to write.
“I believe that all of us in our ordinary ways have extraordinary purpose,” Edmonds explained. “An ordinary life lived well is extraordinary. Go be the hero.”