The following is a true story of raw and complete heroic unity by 1,292 malnourished and frostbitten American non-commissioned officers (NCOs) who were prisoners of war (POWs) in the Nazi prison camp, Stalag IX A on the morning of January 27, 1945.*
These men had been captured during the opening days of the last great Nazi offensive in the Ardennes Forest in Mid-December 1944, commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge. These soldiers had been transported to Stalag IX A, a massive prison that housed thousands of British, French, Dutch and Belgian soldiers, many captured in 1940.
Every one of these American soldiers was a NCO separated from their officers to whom they reported and everyday GIs who reported to them. The Nazis deliberately separated POWs to break their morale. Concentrating the NCOs was advantageous for these sergeants and corporals who were used to to taking command when necessary. They were well-disciplined and they knew how to organize. The senior NCO in the group in Stalag IX A, Master Sargent Roddie Edmonds, had joined the Tennessee National Guard in 1941. He had spent most of the war training raw recruits for combat. Well suited for command, Sargent Edmonds rapidly, yet methodically created a chain of command that began with the senior sergeant from each of the barracks.
Edmonds’ command arrived at Stalag IX A on January 25th, and it didn’t take long for the Nazis to demonstrate their cruelty and ethnic hatred. Late in the afternoon of the next ay the following order was broadcast from the camp’s public address system:
Achtung! 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.
“Roddie (Edmonds) listened closely along with Frankie, Lester and the others in the barracks.
“Without hesitation Roddie turned to his men and said, ‘We’re not doing that. Tomorrow, we fall out just as we do every morning.”
Sergeant Edmonds called for an urgent meeting of his senior barracks commanders to gather by his bunk. Edmonds made it clear from the outset, “We’re not doing it.”
“Every infantryman,’ he told them, ‘would assemble in strict military formation at the Appleplatz at the next morning’s roll call. Every soldier…would tell the Germans that they were Jewish.’ Roddie made it clear that everyone must follow his order. He stressed that even the men too sick and weak to walk could not be left behind in the barracks. He ordered all the barracks leaders to make sure that every man in the camp understood his plan.”
At precisely 0600 the following morning, the PA system came alive with shouts of “Raus! Raus!”
“The men assembled as planned. Even those too sick to walk were doing their best to
stand up straight in formation. A few were having trouble, leaning heavily on other POWs’ shoulders – but they were forming up in ranks.
“Nazi Major Siegmann approached the Appleplatz. On seeing the formation, he shouted: ‘Vas es los? Ist das ein Witz?’
“ Siegmann stormed directly toward Roddie and shouted in English, ‘What is this?’
“Roddie held his strict posture, jaw fixed, looking straight ahead. ‘Under Article Seventeen of the Geneva Convention,’ he told Siegmann, ‘Prisoners of war are only required to provide name, rank and serial number.’
“Only the Jews!’ Siegmann shouted. ‘They cannot all be Jews.’
“Roddie turned to stare the major directly in the eyes, ‘We are all Jews here.’
“Not a single soldier broke ranks, faltered or flinched.”’
“ Siegmann drew his Luger from his holster and pressed the barrel hard against Roddie’s forehead, ‘One last chance!’
“Roddie replied calmly, ‘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.’
“The major’s face blanched, his arm trembled.
“The Luger was still pressed against Roddie’s head – his finger still on the trigger.
“Then quickly – enraged – Siegmann snapped the pistol back to his side, holstered it, turned on his boot heel, and fled the compound.”
A day or two after I first read these passages, a thought hit me like a slap to my face, “Why on earth hasn’t Roddie Edmonds ben awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor?”
I sincerely hope that this slight will be corrected one day.
*The complete story of these POWs is the central theme of “No Surrender,” by Chris Edmonds that tells the story of his father, Roddie, and his fellow captives from capture to liberation and repatriation back home in America.