Like most members of the Greatest Generation, my father, Roddie Edmonds, a humble American soldier from East Tennessee, rarely spoke about his experiences during World War II. Not even I knew the full details of Roddie’s capture at the Battle of the Bulge or his captivity at Stalag IX-A, a Nazi POW camp. But when my daughter was assigned a family history project, I got curious and started to reread Roddie’s wartime diaries, which set in motion a series of life-changing events, for me and pretty much everyone else involved. Suddenly, I felt called to learn Dad’s story, as if I were on my own mission, and I approached this mission with an almost overwhelming sense of passion and purpose. To learn Dad’s story, I embarked on a years-long journey, interviewing surviving POWs under his command, and retracing Dad’s footsteps across the military camps and the war-torn European fields, from Fort Jackson, Georgia—where my father was transformed from a baby-faced young man into a seasoned leader of men—to the patch of grass near Ziegenhain, Germany, where he stared evil in the eye and dared a Nazi to shoot.
By traveling the globe, meeting the American heroes Dad served with and whose lives he saved, by learning their own intimate experiences of the war, and hearing their firsthand account of Dad, I started to recognize my father in their stories and see him and his boys, as he often called them, with new eyes. And I started to reconsider what it means to be a hero.
The father I had known growing up had been so ordinary. To be sure, he had been full of life, and a sincere person of faith. But like most dads I knew, he had been common—even flawed. Yet my transformative journey had revealed something greater. While Dad’s life had been marked by tragedy and hardships, it had been well lived and deeply felt. I know that now. My father wasn’t perfect; none of ours are. But what I’ve learned is that you don’t have to be perfect to do something extraordinary. Ordinary people are heroic, and an ordinary life lived well is, indeed, extraordinary.
My father’s story is a testament to that. And so are the stories of the men who served alongside him, the men my father saved in Stalag IX-A. Lester Tanner, Hank Freedman, Skip Friedman, Paul Stern, and Sonny Fox, to name just a few. I’ve come to love these men and their families. Along with Dad, they are my heroes and remain great examples for us today. Dad and his boys served our country well during World War II and overcame hellish POW camps. Their victory over the horrors of war didn’t defeat them but rather inspired them to return to the United States, finish college, marry their sweethearts, raise families, and lead ordinary lives of extraordinary influence. Like ripples in a pond, their actions all those years ago continue to resonate today, in unexpected ways. Learning about them not only changed my conception of the world, and the power of God’s grace; it also transformed me and my family.
My dad’s legacy lies in these men and their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and the generations to come. A famous passage in the Talmud teaches us: “Anyone who saves a single life, it is as if he saved an entire world.” As a Christian, I believe that with all my heart. And I rejoice in the nearly1,300 American GIs who dad helped save. Because of his righteous actions, more than 12,000 people are alive and well today.
I’m often asked why I think Dad did what he did, why he stood resolute even when faced with the threat of point-blank execution. Lester feels it was my father’s desire—well, his need—as a soldier to resist the humiliation of captivity, to fight back against the Germans in any way he could. It was my father’s way of remaining a proud US infantryman even without his beloved M1 rifle. I think Lester is partially right, but it was also his faith. His belief in God and God’s goodness demanded that he be good to others and do what’s right for humanity, regardless of the risk or circumstances. As a result, Dad became the first American serviceman honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem and the nation of Israel.
True heroes, I’ve learned, are rarely the larger-than-life characters of comic books or Hollywood blockbusters. They walk among us—like my dad did—virtually unnoticed, every day. They make the world a better place, quietly, anonymously—one person, one action, at a time. And this Veteran’s Day, as we rightfully shine a light on the Greatest Generation and honor their countless acts of heroism, my hope is that we also take a moment to celebrate the anonymous men and women who demonstrate, through their everyday acts of heroism, the characteristics of compassion and righteousness that still define and unite us today and remind us that it is always in our power to live up to the very values we all aspire to and refuse to give up, no matter the cost.
To hear the rest of Chris and Roddie’s story, buy No Surrender here.