78th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge
My father, Roddie Edmonds, was outgoing yet humble, not the type to go on about himself. The only one he ever bragged on was God (I think that’s a big part of why I became a pastor—Dad’s love of God and all he could do in your life). Dad and I were close. Because I knew what mattered to him—his family, his fellow man, his country and his faith—I knew everything that was important about him. Or so I thought, until eight years ago.
One fall day in 2006 my daughter Lauren came home from college and said she had to do a project on a family story for history class. “I told everyone that Papaw was a POW in World War II, and they said, ‘That’s the story!’ What do you think?”
I thought it was a great idea. Dad had served as a master sergeant in the Army. He passed away in 1985, but my mom still had the diaries he’d kept as a POW in Germany. Lauren borrowed them and got to work, combing through the pages for details to use in her presentation.
Like many in his generation, Dad didn’t talk much about his wartime experiences. All I knew was that he’d been taken prisoner after the Battle of the Bulge, and I was curious to learn more. So I read his diaries with Lauren. He listed the names and addresses of the men in his barracks. He wrote about how they were captured and the conditions at the POW camps. His descriptions were brief and to the point.
His infantry regiment, the 422nd, shipped out to Europe with their division in late fall, 1944. In December they were sent to the Ardennes forest, on the Belgian-German border. The terrain was rugged, believed to be lightly defended by the Germans and thus ideal for training the untested American troops. On December 16, the German Army launched a surprise attack, a major offensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The 422nd and 423rd did everything they could to stop the onslaught, but the Germans surrounded them. The men who weren’t killed were captured and taken to Bad Orb, Germany, on Christmas day, to the POW camp Stalag IX-B.
Dad wrote that they were fed just once a day—broth with a piece of black bread made with sawdust no bigger than a pat of butter. His notes about Bad Orb were as meager as the rations. “What else happened there?” Lauren wondered aloud. “I asked Dad the same question when I was a child,” I told her. “All he said was, ‘Chris, we were humiliated. Things happened that are too bad to share.’ I never asked again.”
Tears filled Lauren’s eyes. “I can’t imagine what Papaw had to go through,” she said.
On January 25 1945, my dad was transferred to Stalag IX-A in Ziegenhain. The POWs were marched through the gate in the deep snow. By then, they had been starved for a month. They wore the same clothes they’d been captured in. They were infested with lice. While the men stood there shivering, the Germans’ attack dogs growled. The camp commandant brought a young Russian POW forward. “You are free to go,” the commandant said.
The Russian didn’t believe him. It had to be a trick. The Germans opened the camp gates. After standing there puzzled for several minutes, the prisoner ran toward freedom.
All at once the Germans let the dogs loose. The young Russian was ripped to shreds. The other POWs were forced to watch. Anyone who closed his eyes or looked away was rifle-butted in the head.
“Remember this,” the commandant said. “If you do not do as we say, this is what we will do to you.”
Lauren shook her head, crying openly. She pointed to a line Dad had written in his diary: “In war, you learn who men really are.” I got emotional myself.
Lauren wrapped up her project but I kept digging. I wanted to know more about Dad’s time in the war. I Googled his name and rank. The first result that popped up was a New York Times article. It was about Richard Nixon trying to buy an apartment in New York City after he’d resigned and left the White House. No one wanted the disgraced president to live in their building. A man named Lester Tanner heard about Nixon’s predicament. Though he was a lifelong Democrat and didn’t share Nixon’s political views, he was appalled by the blackballing and sold Nixon his Manhattan townhouse.
Mr. Tanner told the reporter that he’d served in the Army in World War II. He was captured by the Germans and kept prisoner at Ziegenhain. He said the German commandant would have had him and all the other Jewish G.I.’s killed in January 1945 if it hadn’t been for their “brave officer, Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds.”
Dad must have done something big! But what?
I went back to January 1945 in his diaries. All he’d written was the phrase, “before the commander.” I did find Lester Tanner’s name in the list of his men. I searched online for a more current address. He was a prominent attorney in New York, so I was able to find his contact information.
I emailed him and asked if I could visit him. Bold, I know, but I needed to meet this man who knew my dad in a way I never had. Lester replied that same afternoon. “Come see me anytime,” “I would love to meet with you” he wrote. “I owe everything to your father.”
I met Lester at the Harvard Club in New York. He was in his eighties, handsome and dapper. He had a vitality about him that made him seem younger than his years. When we shook hands, I felt a powerful connection to my father. Here was a man who had served with Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, who had fought the same battles, seen the same horrors.
“I know it must be hard to talk about,” I said. “But what happened at Ziegenhain?”
Lester told me the whole story. More than 1000 American POWs were held at Stalag IX-A. The U.S. Army trained soldiers to resist the enemy and to adhere to their military order and structure, even in a POW camp. “All of us were non-coms, your father, as the highest ranking NCO in our barracks, was in command,” Lester said.
Their first day at Ziegenhain, they saw the young Russian get killed. The next evening, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker that only the Jewish POWs were to fall out the following morning to be counted.
“As a Jewish man, I panicked,” Lester said. “I knew whatever the Germans were planning it was bad. Your father turned to us and said, ‘We are not doing that. Tomorrow we all fall out.’”
The morning of January 27, the Americans stood together in formation outside their barracks—all 1292 of them. “Your father was in front with several senior non-coms beside him. I was one of them,” Lester recalled. “The Nazi Commander, a Major Siegmann, was furious. He stormed over to your father, his face blood-red, and yelled, ‘You cannot all be Jews!’ He was incredulous that this starving, ragged American sergeant had the audacity to disobey him.”
Lester paused, his gaze holding mine for a long moment. “Your father did not waver. He said calmly, ‘We are all Jews here.’
The Major pulled out his Luger and pressed it to your father’s forehead. ‘Sergeant one last chance! You will order the Jewish men to fall out or I will shoot you right now!’ Your father looked straight into Siegmann’s eyes and said, ‘According to the Geneva Convention, we are only required to give our name, rank and serial number. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and when we win this war, you will be tried for war crimes.’ Your father wasn’t even shaking but the Nazi was. Finally, he put his pistol back in the holster and fled the scene. Back in the barracks, we all cheered your father.”
Little did they know that as Dad was making his stand, Soviet troops were liberating more than 7,000 concentration camp prisoners at Auschwitz. Soon the war would be over, and Dad and the men he had saved would go home.
“From the moment your father told the Major, ‘We are all Jews here,’ I decided that for the rest of my life, I would always do the right thing, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the risk,” Lester said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t thank God for your father.”
A friend of Lester’s, shared the story about Dad with Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. In 2015, Yad Vashem named my father as “Righteous Among the Nations,” an honor reserved for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. He is only the fifth American and is the first American soldier to be recognized as such. And the first of the righteous to rescue American Jews.
If Dad were here, he wouldn’t make a big deal of it. “I was just doing my job.” I can hear him saying. But I can’t help feeling an even deeper love and admiration for him than I did before.
Lauren got an A on her history project. As for me, I learned that Dad was right—in war, you find out who men really are.
And my father? He’s a hero!