Whenever Chris Edmonds asked his father Roddie about his experiences as a POW following World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, Roddie responded, “We were humiliated, son. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Chris didn’t press his father on the topic. And since Roddie died in 1985, it seemed like his story was lost forever. But two decades later, when Chris’s daughter Lauren was given a college assignment to do a history project on a family member, she chose her grandfather and reignited Chris’s passion to learn more about Roddie’s past.
Chris became a self-proclaimed “history detective” and discovered that his father was a hero whose actions had saved the lives of 1,300 soldiers, including 200 Jewish American infantrymen who would likely have been killed by the Nazis.
Chris has now written a biography about Roddie called “No Surrender: A Father, a Son, and an Extraordinary Act of Heroism That Continues to Live on Today,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
Chris recalled, “Dad had always been a hero in my mind. He was a great father, involved in a lot of our activities growing up. He was a man of faith, and he was one you’d want to follow. He was full of life and energy, and never had a bad word to say about anybody. He was what I’d call an ‘up’ guy.”
When Chris began his search, he did have a few immediate leads. Roddie had kept wartime journals that remained in the family’s possession, and they gave a few insights into what happened. But they were also vague in various spots, with incomplete sentences, such as, “I enjoyed my last meal on the evening of the 17th, because the morning of”
One day, Chris decided to Google the words “Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds,” thinking it would lead him to a website with Army records about his unit, the 422nd Regiment of the 106th Infantry Division. Instead, the first link was a New York Times article titled “Richard Nixon’s Search for a New York Home.” Perplexed by this result, Chris read this account of New York City attorney Lester Tanner’s sale of his home to the disgraced former president.
Nixon, it turned out, wanted a home in New York, but no one would sell to him because they didn’t want him in their neighborhood. Lester, despite being a lifelong Democrat, found this blackballing went against his sense of decency, so he sold his own home to Nixon.
The article also mentioned Lester’s background as a World War II veteran and quoted him as crediting “Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds” with saving his life. Now, Chris really wanted to learn more. Lester was thankfully still alive and able to meet with Chris to share his memories of Roddie and the war. Eventually, Chris found other surviving POWs or their family members to fill in even more details.
Roddie, Chris learned, was a Master Sergeant who led by example and never showed any arrogance or disrespect to the men serving under him. He was also a man of faith, from the Methodist tradition, who didn’t harbor any prejudice against those who believed differently than him or worshiped in different ways. Two of Roddie’s closest friends in the Army were Lester, who was Jewish, and Frankie Cerenzia, a devout Catholic.
Chris told me, “These men were men of character. They also were men of faith. They all had their own specific, unique faith, but ultimately, they believed in God, and they also believed that God had created everyone equal in His sight. And, since God was a good God, they needed to be good to each other…I think their diversity in unity was a fabric that could not be cut. That’s one reason they never surrendered. They were captured by the Germans, but they never surrendered their will, or their convictions, or their hope.”
The importance of Roddie’s faith can’t be overstated because it served as the foundation of everything he thought and did. Chris explained, “Whenever I would meet with [a] POW, one of the first things they would talk about was Dad’s faith and how much they respect his faith. We’re talking about people from different religious backgrounds: Jewish, Protestant, atheist even. They still highly respected Dad’s faith because [it] intersected his walk, his talk, his choices. And he chose to stand up for what’s right. He also chose to speak the truth in love, and he chose to serve others. That was his philosophy of life.”
Former POW Hank Freedman shared a particularly noteworthy story with Chris. After Roddie’s division was captured in the Ardennes in December 1944, the Nazis put the U.S. soldiers in train boxcars to transport them to a prison camp. Sometimes the boxcars pulled off of the main tracks to allow other trains heading to the front to pass.
During one of these stops, British bombers started flying over the railyard and dropping bombs, unaware the boxcars were filled with Americans. The soldiers in Roddie’s boxcar could hear their fellow GIs in other cars dying and felt terrified. Through the fear and panic came a strong, calm voice with a Southern drawl. It was Roddie. “Boys,” he called out – and everyone quieted down.
Roddie continued, “Boys, if you’ve ever prayed to God, you need to pray. Pray, boys, pray. Our God will save us. Pray, boys, pray.”
The soldiers all followed Roddie’s lead and prayed through this hellish situation. They all survived. Hank Freedman called it the most amazing thing he’d ever seen.
One of the biggest tests of Roddie’s moral courage and leadership ability occurred one month later in the Nazi prison camp. There were approximately 1,300 American infantrymen there when an order came over the loudspeaker, saying, “Tomorrow morning at roll call, all Jewish Americans must assemble in the Appelplatz [the place where roll call is performed] – only the Jews – no one else. All who disobey this order will be shot.”
Fully in command, Roddie turned to Lester, Frankie, and his other men and said, “We’re not doing that. Tomorrow we all fall out just as we do every morning.” Then, Roddie sat by himself and prayed, knowing full well that this approach could get him and many others killed. At the same time, he knew that following the order meant certain death for the Jewish soldiers in his command. All night long, Roddie prayed, reflecting on Proverbs 28:1, “The wicked flee when no man pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.”
The next morning at 0600, all 1,300 American soldiers reported for roll call. Roddie knew that all it would take to ruin the plan was for one soldier to point out the Jews in their midst to save his own skin.
The Nazi major in charge saw all the Americans and stormed angrily toward Roddie, asking what was going on! He had ordered only the Jews to report for roll call.
Roddie calmly looked the Nazi major in the eye and responded, “We are all Jews here.”
Chris noted that Roddie’s defiance emboldened all the men under him. Though weakened from starvation or torture, they became resolute at their sergeant’s courage.
The Nazi pressed his pistol to Roddie’s forehead and again demanded, “You will order the Jews to step forward or I will shoot you right now!”
Seconds passed in complete silence, no one knowing how this stand off would end. Finally, Roddie responded, “Major, you can shoot me, but you’ll have to kill all of us – because we know who you are – and you will be tried for war crimes when we win this war. And you will pay.”
Those words changed everything. The Nazi major knew Roddie was right. He holstered his pistol and fled the compound. Roddie had saved the day.
Roddie Edmonds went on to save his soldiers again soon afterwards, always relying on God to give him the strength and wisdom to make the right decision. As a result, Chris has come to a new understanding of heroism. He said, “[Dad] was short, he was stocky, kind of like a fireplug. And he was an unassuming person…But he lived heroically every day. I think an ordinary life lived well is extraordinary, even heroic. All of us have that potential, that hidden ability inside of us to make choices for the good of others. And [these heroes] leave a legacy of greatness that inspires people and is passed on to others, that I think God loves and reveres…There’s a scripture that says ‘the godly people in the land are my true heroes.’ So God says that about us if we live right. Dad lived right. He made right choices for the sake of others, and it didn’t matter what the risk was. He was going to make those choices for God.”
Chris and others are on a quest to get Roddie posthumously recognized with the Medal of Honor, the country’s “highest award for valor in action against an enemy force.” Roddie was, however, already honored by Israel as being Righteous Among the Nations. It recognizes non-Jews who helped save Jews during the Holocaust and includes names like Oskar Schindler of the famed Schindler’s list. In Roddie’s case, it was the first time an American was honored for saving American Jews.
Interfaith respect and relations are vital to Chris, who serves as senior pastor of Piney Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, Tennessee. In addition to sharing Roddie’s story at churches, he also speaks at many synagogues. Chris noted, “Anti-Semitism is growing, and it’s wrong. It’s evil. Being ugly and harmful and brutal to Jewish people is the same as harming your brother or sister that lives in the house with you. It’s harming humanity. We’ve got to be good to one another, regardless of what we believe. We’re all human, so we’ ve got to be kind, take care of one another. That doesn’t mean we agree with everything. You know, you get three Baptists in a room, you get 10 opinions. I discovered it’s the same in the Jewish world. Grandmas tell me it’s the same. But, we can work through our differences and love each other on the big stuff.”
Having learned so much about his father and his walk with God, Chris now finds his own faith has grown richer. He concluded, “God has us all on this planet for a purpose…and that’s to do good for others and to honor Him. And He knows exactly what’s going on: ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you, not to harm you, plans to bring you hope in the future.’ And He knew that about Dad. He knew that about me, and He knows that about you and everybody that’s listening. So I encourage everybody to live like Dad, and these men that I’ve met.”
(To listen to my full interview with Chris Edmonds, click on the podcast link):