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Roscoe Edmundson « North Carolina's WWII ExperienceNorth Carolina's WWII Experience

Roscoe Edmundson

Hometown: Pikeville, NC
Branch of Service: Army, Patton’s Third Army
Location of Service: Europe

The following excerpt was written by Georgia Dees for Prime of Life magazine recounting Roscoe Edmundson’s experiences in General Patton’s Third Army:

Worn and withered, tied up with string, wartime letters are often a younger generation’s only glimpse into their family’s involvement in the historical record known as war. But World War II veteran Roscoe Edmundson has no such letters for his heirs to read. Just days into his tour of duty on European soil, his friends and family back home in Wayne County got word that he’d been declared Missing in Action.

And while letters would have been nice, Edmundson already had what he needed to help him survive the ugliness of war. He had his faith in God, and he trusted the Lord to help him make the right decisions that would bring him home again.

“I went through quick, and got back quick, with the Lord’s help,” he says confidently. “I was from a Christian family, lived a Christian life.”

One of ten children born to Burrell and Bessie Edmundson of the Antioch Community in northern Wayne County, 76-year-old Roscoe Edmundson still lives on the land his family farmed while he was off fighting a war in Europe. Look through his kitchen window and you can see the home place where he grew up and where the family still gathers for holidays and reunions. Next door to the old house stands the general store he operated with his Daddy after he returned from war, beginning around 1946, up until it closed in the late 1970s. His older sister lives next door and a sister-in-law, just down the road a ways.

This is the place 20-year-old Roscoe Edmundson left in 1944, and it’s the place to which he returned the following year, just one year older, but many years wiser. Fortunately for family members and history buffs, Edmundson doesn’t mind sharing his experiences as a young soldier overseas. The bulk of those experiences–100 days worth, to be exact–he endured as a prisoner of war.

When he graduated from Eureka High School in 1943, Edmundson had no particular plans. But Uncle Sam changed all that. In no time Edmundson had joined the Army and was headed for basic training at Camp Bland. The blazing Florida heat couldn’t have been more unforetelling of what lay in store for the young Wayne County native.

After training he was put on “the single, fastest ship they had; they were in such a hurry for us!” His final destination: Luxembourg and Patton’s 3rd Army. He’ll never forget the waist-deep now that greeted him and kept him company throughout his stay.

Assigned to the mortar crew, Private First Class Edmundson was put straight through to the front lines.

His first major battle: the infamous Battle of the Bulge. He remembers setting off that January morning with nine or ten other soldiers, stepping around dead, soldiers as they made their way up the mountain in the snow. He remembers the gunfire and how, when they came back down, he and the others were caught in a German machine-gun crossfire.

“They had us pinned in,” he recalls. “I found out later that of the nine or ten that started out originally, only three or four of us were left: a boy from New York named Roger, Jim Faircloth from Goldsboro, Wayne Dexter from Ohio, and myself. And we had all been in basic training together.”

Making his way along the path at the bottom of the mountain as best he could, trying to avoid being shot, Edmundson heard a shot ring out behind him. Dexter had been hit. “That’s when Jim said he was giving up,” Edmundson says. “I told him not to, that they’d kill him, but he did. And they took him.”

Meanwhile, Roger had found “the best hiding place, up under some bushes,” and Edmundson was lying on the ground next to a dead soldier, playing dead himself. Then along came the sparrow that Edmundson says may have actually saved his life.

The bird lit on Edmundson’s helmet and started scratching. Unable to resist, the soldier automatically reached a hand up toward the scratching sound, and that movement is what caught the German’s eye. That is the moment Roscoe Edmundson became a prisoner of war. “Roger came too, even though he hadn’t been spotted, because he didn’t want to be left alone,” Edmundson explains of his friend hiding in the bushes. The Germans took their prisoners back to camp and there they saw their friend Dexter briefly. He was still alive, and they left their first aid kits for the Germans to treat him.

From that point on, “they made pack horses out of us,” and they walked and walked, ending up at a makeshift prison in a big old farmhouse in the country somewhere. There were about twenty American prisoners there, and for about two weeks, they were forced to dig gun placements for their enemies’ guns. And the ground was still white with snow. They could hear American planes in the distance and the ground artillery, coming closer, then being pushed back.

Of course, the Allies didn’t know American soldiers were being held at the farmhouse, so they were firing freely. At one point, a shell came right through the room the captives were in (they were being held upstairs), but it didn’t explode until it reached the cellar where the Germans were. “He was looking after us,” is Edmundson’s only explanation.

After the attack, the Germans moved the POWs to a big federal prison for a week to ten days. Another fifteen to twenty Americans were locked in a room there, and every night the guards would come by and take out two or three, calling them by number, not by name. Those who stayed behind went out during the day to help with various chores. Edmundon’s job was to “help with a hog killing, like we did back home.”

He remembers a man on a bicycle who got permission from the guards to speak to the prisoners when they were stopped at a stream to drink water. “He said, ‘Hang on, it won’t be much longer.’ I still don’t know who he was.”

Later that day, back at the hog killing when nobody was looking, Edmundson reached down and got a handful of hog brains. “I never stole anything in my life, but I knew some of the boys had some eggs back at the room, and we were gonna have brains and eggs for breakfast the next morning!”

But brains and eggs were not in the young soldier’s immediate future after all. “When I got back, nobody could look me in the eye,” Edmundson recalls. “Joe Dan Hood from Grantham [who happened to be among the Americans imprisoned together]…finally told me: ‘Your number’s been called.’”

That was the last time Joe Dan and Roscoe saw each other until both were back on Wayne County soil. The three whose numbers were called were put on a train and transported to a place they would spend their last days of the war. There they joined other Americans, Russians, everybody. “They treated Americans better than they did the others,” Edmundson recalls, but all the prisoners were starving. The Red Cross would send parcels, one to a man, but the prisoners would only see them once a week, and they would be split among three men. Once weighing in at 150 pounds, Edmundson saw his weight drop to 115.

“They had food in a warehouse to feed us, but they were starving us to death,” Edmundson explains. It was at this camp on April 16, 1945–100 days after he’d been taken prisoner–that Edmundson was finally liberated, thanks to the British 8th Army under Montgomery.

Once on a ship, it took eight days to get back to the States. Edmundson remembers it took only three days going over. When he got back to Goldsboro from Fort Bragg, he took a taxi home to the farm. There were no phones or paved roads where he lived. It turned out a friend’s brother was driving the taxi, and he drove him out to the country and wouldn’t take any payment for the trip.

Not long after he got back home, he read in the newspaper how General Patton was killed at a crossroads in Germany and was buried with his men overseas. As he kept reading, who reportedly was buried beside him but his old friend Wayne Dexter!

Later Dexter’s wife–whom Edmundson had met at basic training in Florida–came to see him. She didn’t know where her husband had been buried, so Edmundson was able to tell her. He wonders if she ever brought his friend’s body back to the States or if he’s still buried there next to the famous general.

Today, Roscoe Edmundson has no doubts about how he made it out of the war alive and how he survived so many close calls, and he had no doubts then. “The Good Lord was in charge of all this,” he says clearly. “He looked after me.” For his service to his country, Edmundson was awarded the Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge, and the Good Conduct Medal.