'We are all Jews': World War II soldier honored for saving lives in POW camp

American POW remembered for saving Jewish comrades
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Story highlights

  • The Germans captured Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds and his men in the Battle of the Bulge
  • Edmonds stood up to POW camp commander at gunpoint, saved lives of Jewish comrades
  • Edmonds, who died in 1985, first U.S. soldier honored by Israeli Holocaust museum

Jerusalem (CNN)There were few, if any, victorious moments to share from Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds' combat time in World War II. So he kept quiet.

He told his son little of how his platoon, part of the 422nd Regiment, landed in Nazi Germany in 1944, a group of untested soldiers entering the final stages of the war.
    He kept quiet about December 19, the day Edmonds and his men were captured in the Battle of the Bulge, the last major Nazi offensive of the war, which caught Allied forces off guard. And he never told anyone what happened a month later in a prisoner-of-war camp in the heart of Germany.
    He took that secret to his grave when he died in 1985, two weeks shy of his 66th birthday: the story about the day he challenged the commander of the POW camp and saved all the Jews under his command.

    'They were just overwhelmed'

    He shipped out in December 1944 with the 106th Infantry Division, arriving in Germany just in time to become a prisoner. Days earlier, Germany had launched the Battle of the Bulge. Edmonds and his men stood little chance.
    Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, first row, second from left,  became a POW.
    "They were green," says his son, Chris Edmonds, remembering the few stories his father told. "They were just overwhelmed."
    On Christmas Day, Edmonds and the other soldiers arrived in Stalag IX-B, a POW camp known as "Bad Orb" that housed more than 25,000 soldiers at a time. Thirty days later, Edmonds and the other noncommissioned officers were moved to Stalag IX-A with 1,275 other soldiers. As a master sergeant, he was the senior noncommissioned officer among the men.
    On the prisoners' first day at the POW camp, the German intercom system in the American barracks crackled to life. Only the Jewish POWs were to fall out after morning roll call.
    At this point in the war, the Nazis were already implementing the Final Solution -- their plan to wipe out the Jews of Europe that led to the killings of 6 million Jews at camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau. That plan now extended to Jewish POWs from the Allied armies.
    "We're not going to do that," Edmonds told his men, some of them still remember 70 years later. "Geneva Convention affords only name, rank and serial number, and so that's what we're going to do. All of us are falling out."

    'He was so brave to say that'

    Edmonds, a Christian, was true to his word. The next morning, all 1,275 soldiers stood at attention in front of their barracks. The commander of the camp was furious, storming up to Edmonds and shouting, "All of you can't be Jewish?!"
    "We are all Jews here," Edmonds responded. Standing next to Edmonds was Paul Stern, a 19-year-old Jewish soldier who heard Edmonds' words and the exchange with the base commander.
    "I was so proud of him," Stern tells me by phone from his home near Washington.
    He is 90 years old now but remembers every moment of that conversation. His words come between staccato breaths. Speaking seems difficult for him, but he is too excited to stop: "He was so brave to say that."
    I don't need to see Stern's face to know he is smiling.
    "We are all Jews here," Stern repeats in a whisper.

    Defiance at gunpoint

    It is impossible to know how many of Edmonds' soldiers were Jewish. His son, Chris, estimates that no more than 200 were Jews, based on conversations he has had with Stern and with Lester Tanner, another soldier who imprisoned with his father.
    Chris Edmonds used his late father's war diary to reconstruct his story.
    "I'm commanding you to have your Jewish men step forward," the camp commander barked at Edmonds. Edmonds reminded the commander of the Geneva Conventions, telling him that he was entitled only to his prisoners' names, ranks and serial numbers.
    The commander pulled out his gun and pressed it into Edmonds' forehead, Stern recalls: "You will have your Jewish men step forward or I will shoot you on the spot."
    Stern remembers Edmonds' reply: "If you shoot, you'll have to kill all of us, and you will have to stand for war crimes after we win this war."
    The major turned red, furious that a POW was challenging him, but he put his gun in his holster and walked away.
    The men went back to their barracks and cheered Edmonds.
    "Although 70 years have passed, I can still hear the words he said to the German camp commander," Stern says.

    Story never told

    The memory is just as vivid for Tanner, who is still working as a high-powered New York attorney at age 92.
    Tanner leans in as he speaks, and you can feel the admiration he still has for his former commanding officer.
    Tanner pauses and smiles, remembering the man and the moment. He is unsure who said the words, "We are all Jews here," but has no doubt that Edmonds never backed down when the German commander pointed a gun at his forehead.
    Edmonds would never have called himself a hero, his son says, and he never shared the story with his family.
    But in 2009, Chris Edmonds Googled his father to see what would he could find. One of the results stunned him: In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon purchased a home from Tanner.
    It took Edmonds another two years and a trip to New York to meet Tanner, but Edmonds finally learned about his father's actions in that Nazi POW camp in January 1945.
    He used his father's war diary to find other men who corroborated the story, interviewed some of his father's fellow soldiers and collected records about the regiment.
    He submitted the file to his congressman to see if his father's actions were worthy of consideration for a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor.
    What Edmonds didn't know is that one of his friends submitted part of the file to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel.
    The museum considered Edmonds' actions to be unique.
    It named him a Righteous Among the Nations, a venerated list of non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
    He was the first American soldier to be added to the list.
    To this day, Chris Edmonds said he isn't sure why his father never shared the story.
    "I just think, well, he's a humble man. He didn't go around bragging about things, and I just think he thought it was part of his responsibility, his duty, not only as a soldier of the U.S. Army to protect his men but also as a Christian, a man of faith, to do the right thing for his fellow man."