Growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, Chris Edmonds knew only the broad strokes of his father’s military service.
The Rev. Edmonds, who recently retired as pastor of the Piney Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, Tennessee, knew that Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds had fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II and had then been captured and interned at a POW camp. But his father didn’t really talk much about his wartime experiences.
Sgt. Edmonds died in 1985, six months after Pastor Edmonds’ twin daughters were born. Twenty-some years later, when those twins, Lauren and Kristen, were in college, they worked together on a group history project that required them to interview a family member of one of the students about a notable historical experience he or she had lived through.
After group members talked about their families, they decided that the twins’ grandfather had lived through the most compelling story. Because Roddie Edmonds had died, Lauren and Kristen Edmonds asked their father about their grandfather’s army service — but Pastor Edmonds did not have much information to share. His father had kept journals during the war, but they were vague. He googled his father’s name, hoping to find some details on his army unit. The first hit was a New York Times article, published on July 30, 2008, about former president Richard Nixon’s difficulty buying a home in Manhattan.
Pastor Edmonds was confused; he couldn’t imagine why an article about the former president would mention his father.
It turns out that the Times story did not mention a direct connection between his father and the former president; Sgt. Edmonds’ name turned up there because of his connection to the World War II veteran who sold his Upper East Side town house to the Nixons.
It seems that Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat, had a hard time buying property in New York City; when shareholders in a co-op objected to a proposed purchase by the couple, the co-op board decided not to approve the sale.
Enter attorney and WWII veteran Lester Tanner.
Mr. Tanner, a lifelong Democrat, was appalled when he read about the incident; he felt it was wrong to treat anyone that way. At that point, he and his wife were ready to downsize. Their town house already had garnered interest, but Mr. Tanner wrote to Mr. Nixon and offered to sell it to him and his wife.
The article included information on Mr. Tanner’s background. As a GI in World War II, he had been taken prisoner by the Germans. As Mr. Tanner recalled, the Nazi commandant of the POW camp demanded at gunpoint that Sgt. Roddie Edmonds identify which of the American soldiers were Jews. Sgt. Edmonds defied the camp commander, saying the Geneva Convention forbade the request, likely saving Mr. Tanner’s life and the lives of the other Jewish soldiers in the process.
That was the first Pastor Edmonds heard of his father’s heroic actions.
Eager to hear more, he met with Mr. Tanner; the two since have become good friends. He also tracked down some of the other POWs or their families, who filled in more details; many also became friends.
The film “Footsteps of My Father: The Courage of a Christian Who Saved 200 Jewish American G.I.s in WWII” tells the story of Sgt. Roddie Edmonds. The award-winning documentary will be screened during a program hosted by the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University and the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous on November 7, on Zoom, in commemoration of Kristallnacht and Veterans Day. The program will begin with a brief introduction by Dr. Adara Goldberg, the director of the Holocaust Resource Center. Stanlee Stahl, the executive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, will introduce the film. The screening will be followed by remarks and a Q&A by Pastor Chris Edmonds. (See box.)
Sgt. Edmonds lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, and probably did not have any Jewish friends before he entered the army, Pastor Edmonds said. Yet he risked his life to save the Jewish soldiers in his unit. “Dad had a deep morality about him; he wanted to do what was right for others,” Pastor Edmonds said. As a teen, Sgt. Edmonds would stop bullies who were picking on younger children.
And he was driven by his faith, his son continued. “He would tell me, ‘There is a God. God created us all the same. He loves us and therefore we must love everyone no matter where they are from or what they look like.’”
After he was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, Sgt. Edmonds was held in a POW camp with 1,292 other American soldiers. Sometime in January 1945, the Germans announced that all Jewish POWs were to report the following morning. As the highest-ranking GI in the camp, Sgt. Edmonds was in charge of American POWs. He ordered all of them to report. When the German officer saw the group, , he became angry. He turned to the sergeant and said that they could not all be Jews, but Sgt. Edmonds replied, “We are all Jews here.” When the Nazi threatened to shoot him, Sgt. Edmonds told him that he would have to kill them all because they knew who he was, and he would be tried for war crimes when the Allies won. The Nazi realized he was right and walked away.
Mr. Tanner, now 99, told Pastor Edmonds that the sergeant “couldn’t have turned over his men any more than he could have stopped breathing.” And he credits Sgt. Edmonds’ actions that day not only with saving his life but also with imparting the importance of standing up for what’s right. This was a lesson that Mr. Tanner felt shaped his life and impacted many of his decisions, including the decision he made more than 30 years later, when he decided to sell his house to the Nixons.
His father ultimately saved non-Jewish soldiers in the POW camp too, Pastor Edmonds said. A few weeks after they arrived, he realized that many of the soldiers were becoming hopeless and some wanted to die. Those were the “down guys,” as he called them. So he came up with a plan to pair each of these soldiers with an “up guy” — a soldier who was doing relatively well. It was the up guys’ job to keep the down guys alive.
Later, his courage and leadership saved almost all of the American POWs in his charge, Pastor Edmonds continued. In March of 1945, the Allies were advancing and the Nazis began to evacuate the camp. The commandant told Sgt. Edmonds to prepare the men to march out the next day. At that point, the POWs from other countries already had been sent out; only the Americans remained in the camp. But the men were starving and weak and Sgt. Edmonds worried that many would not survive a forced march. So he came up with another plan that, again, would require everyone’s participation.
The Germans had been leaving the sick and dying POWs behind. About a third of the American GIs were sick at the time. Another third took pills that made them vomit, and the remaining third helped the sick soldiers. That way, none of them left the camp. The Germans were angry and frustrated but ultimately left without the American POWs. One of the soldiers overheard one German telling another that the SS would come through and kill the remaining prisoners. The SS did in fact come, but the Americans were prepared and were able to hide.
Soon after, American troupes arrived to liberate the camp.
After the war, Sgt. Edmonds returned to Knoxville and made his living as a salesman. He also volunteered in the community – he was a beloved singer in churches and nursing homes, he coached youth baseball teams, and he led a Cub Scout pack.
He shared his values “more by his actions than by his words,” his son said. “He treated everyone — neighbors, friends, family, business associates, the boys he coached — with respect and love.”
Sgt. Edmonds was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations at a 2016 ceremony at the Israeli embassy in Washington. President Obama spoke there, noting that his “moral compass never wavered” and that “he was true to his faith, and saved some 200 Jewish American soldiers as a consequence.”
Pastor Edmonds traveled to Belgium and Germany in 2016 with leaders of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous on a trip to “follow the footsteps of my father,” he said.
“Dad chose the most right and righteous way to respond to the worst evil on the planet,” Pastor Edmonds continued. “It wasn’t about how they were going to die but how they were going to live. This is a lesson everyone can learn from Dad’s legacy — to take care of those around us. It’s who Dad was; he cared about others.”
“We decided that it would be really impactful to highlight this lesser-known story,” Dr. Goldberg said. “Sgt. Edmonds was put in a situation where he had to make a decision. He declined to identify the Jewish soldiers at great risk to his own life. He had no idea what the fallout of refusing German orders would be, but his decision likely saved hundreds of lives. This is a story about how one person’s actions impacted so many others.”
Ms. Stahl is happy to partner with the Holocaust Resource Center on this important program. “This is a compelling story, and it’s about an American who saved other Americans,” she said. “Master Sgt. Edmonds was the highest-ranking American GI in the camp, but he was only about 24 or 25 years old at the time. Any one of the POWs could have pointed out some of the Jewish soldiers, but they all followed the sergeant’s lead.”
Who: Kean University’s Holocaust Resource Center and the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous
What: Will host a program, “Footsteps of My Father: A story of Courage, Resilience and Honor” in commemoration of Kristallnacht and Veterans Day
When: November 9, at 7 p.m.
Where: On Zoom, link provided with RSVP
More information: Email Dr. Adara Goldberg, the director of the Holocaust Resource Center, at firstname.lastname@example.org