Doing Hard Things

The Story Of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds
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MSG Roddie Edmonds fearlessly stood up to his Nazi oppressors, saving the lives of more than 200 of his Jewish comrades in the process.

What exactly defines a person’s character? Why are some folks simply horrible, most monotonously average, and others frankly amazing? What is that ethereal secret sauce that drives certain rare personalities to, when faced with a true life-or-death circumstance, rise gloriously to the occasion? I have no idea, but Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds had gobs of it.

In late 1944, Roddie Edmonds was serving in Europe as an infantryman with the 422nd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division — the “Golden Lions.” The war was clearly over, and the Germans were all but beaten. There were rumblings that the troops might even be home in time for Christmas. And then Hitler launched Operation Wacht am Rhein.

Wacht am Rhein literally translates as “Watch on the Rhine.” The name was taken from a popular German military marching song. Watch on the Rhine was going to change everything.

Order of Battle

The Germans were indeed losing the war. The Allies had gained a foothold on D-Day some six months earlier and then had pressed relentlessly forward ever since. The Soviet Operation Bagration on the Eastern Front had ground the German Army Group Center into dog food. Overwhelming air superiority had left the vaunted Luftwaffe a shell of its former self.

In mid-December of 1944, the Allies fielded 96 divisions in the West. There were a further 10 en route from the US. Facing this juggernaut were some 55 understrength German Wehrmacht and Waffen SS division-sized formations. However, the Allies were tired. The Germans had made them bleed for every inch of French soil. Then, on 16 December 1944, the Germans rolled west through the Ardennes with 410,000 men, 1,400 tanks and armored fighting vehicles, 2,600 artillery pieces, and over 1,000 combat aircraft. Surprise, both tactical and strategic, was utter, overwhelming and complete.

I knew two veterans who were there. They said the Battle of the Bulge was horrifying up close. The SS vanguard slammed into the battered American defensive lines like a tidal wave, overrunning advanced positions and enveloping entire combat units. One of those was the American 442d Infantry Regiment.

The Battle of the Bulge was a bloodbath that saw tens of thousands of Allied troops killed or captured.

Dire Fortunes

Tens of thousands of Americans were captured in that initial onslaught. One of those was Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds. At the time of his capture, he had only been on the front for five days.

The Germans placed Master Sgt. Edmonds in Stalag IX-A, a POW camp for enlisted troops outside Bonn. At age 25, Edmonds found himself the senior NCO in the camp. I wouldn’t trust most modern 25-year-olds these days unsupervised with string. By contrast, Edmonds was now responsible for the well-being of some 1,275 American POWs.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know how it all turned out. As December 1944 turned into January 1945, however, there was still an enormous amount of uncertainty on the ground in Europe. In few places were things less certain than in Stalag IX-A. On 27 January 1945, Edmonds’ first day at the camp, German Camp Commandant Siegmann ordered Master Sgt. Edmonds to identify all of the Jewish prisoners so they could be remanded to the death camps. Without hesitation, Edmonds mustered all 1,275 of the men under his charge and had them stand in formation.

A Life-Defining Moment

Siegmann was livid. Drawing his pistol, he placed the muzzle to Edmonds’ forehead and demanded he identify the Jews. Master Sgt. Edmonds, himself a devoted Baptist, responded, “We are all Jews here.”

With a gun literally at his head, Edmonds calmly explained that if the Germans wanted to kill the Jews, they would have to kill them all. He further reminded the German officer that he would eventually be prosecuted for war crimes if he followed through with his plans. The young NCO then explained that captured troops were required to provide nothing more than their name, rank and service number, not their religion. The German camp commander holstered his pistol and walked away. Edmonds’ actions that frigid morning on the POW camp parade ground saved the lives of more than 200 Jewish prisoners.

The Quiet Hero

Master Sgt. Edmonds endured a total of 100 days in captivity before being repatriated. He never told anyone of his exchange with the German camp commandant. Edmonds later saw combat in Korea as well.

Roddie Edmonds eventually came home to raise a family and make his living selling mobile homes and cable television. He passed away in 1985. As his son, a Baptist minister, was going through his things, he came across his father’s diary.

Though his Dad had never mentioned the exchange with the German officer, Edmonds had documented everything. Edmonds’ son made inquiries, eventually tracking down some other POWs who were there. One of those was a Jewish-American veteran named Sonny Fox. After the war, Fox worked as an executive for NBC. Fox and several others came forward and attested that the events occurred exactly as I have described them here today.

It was only long after Edmonds’ death that the
true extent of his bravery was revealed. Photo by Jrryjude

Recognizing Greatness

In 2015, Israel’s Yad Vashem, the official world Holocaust remembrance center, posthumously bestowed upon Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds the honorific Righteous Among Nations. This is the highest honor Israel can confer on a non-Jew for sacrificing to save Jews during the Holocaust. Edmonds is one of only five Americans to be so designated.

During WWII, the Germans systematically murdered some six million Jews. They killed a further 11 million other people they deemed to be inferior. However, on 27 January 1945, one brave American Baptist stood defiantly with a gun to his head and declared himself a Jew. In so doing, he saved the lives of more than 200 of his comrades. Righteous Among Nations indeed …

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