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Remembering the "Hell on Wheels"

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. FRELINGHUYSEN. Mr. Speaker, three and a half months after the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 and nearly 1,000 miles away from the beaches of Normandy, France, the United States 2nd Armored Division-an outfit known as "Hell on Wheels" for its nucleus of tank units, the leadership of Major General George Patton, and its elite corps of servicemen-found its way to the Netherlands city of Sittard on September 19, 1944. Here, in the southernmost province of The Netherlands, close to the Belgian and German border, the "Hell on Wheels" battalion waged war against the Nazi's that for four years had forced their fascist values upon the people of that city.

When the battle was over, America lost at least sixty-two of the bravest men ever to wear our uniform. One account of the battle's outcome went like this: "Here they (the "Hell on Wheels") received an overwhelming welcome by crowds of Dutch, euphoric citizens liberated free again after four long years of German fascist occupation, saving them from the hardships like the citizens of Amsterdam had still to endure because of shortages of food and fuel during the entire coming, unusual severe winter."

Accounts of what exactly occurred and how many servicemen died in Sittard are not entirely known. The National Personnel Records Center, which houses personal files for veterans of World War II was unable to provide more information about soldiers potentially lost during the battle in Sittard due to a fire at their St. Louis Records Center in 1973.

Still, we know that the men who died that day did not yearn to be heroes or to have a memorial dedicated in their honor. They came from all walks of life and all regions of America, including from my home state of New Jersey, to serve in the Armed Forces and defend freedom. They yearned for reaching Berlin, winning the war and enjoying their homecomings. And they dreamed of seeing their parents, wives and newborn babies.

This weekend, American families, friends and descendants of the sixty-two "Hell on Wheels" servicemen who lost their lives, as well as residents of Sittard (now known as Sittard-Geleen), past and present, will come together in Sittard-Geleen to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the city's freedom due in large part to the bravery of these sixty-two American souls who will never be forgotten.

Together, they are unveiling a fitting memorial in this Dutch city to honor the service, bravery and sacrifice of these servicemen. One account about the new memorial said: "It will be made famous, hard stone excavated in the very heart of the Ardennes, a notorious battlefield, where such great courage and perseverance were shown that we shall never forget."

This memorial service has been a long time coming. In a joint effort, that spanned nearly a year, the U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, Clifford Sobel, Arno Bemelmans, a local Dutchman and the Foundation Chairman for the new memorial, two Army Genealogists-Charles Gailey and Arvan Staats-we discovered in a recent Washington Post article, and myself put forth an all out effort to track down and notify as many family members related to the "Hell on Wheels" soldiers as possible about the memorial dedication. Through our efforts, we successfully reached family members for 25 of the 62 deceased servicemen.

For all, including myself, dedicating this memorial means an opportunity to pay respects to those who gave everything to defend freedom. For some, it also means the chance to possibly recognize the name of another soldier's relative they once may have heard about in a letter or telegraph home or in a journal entry recovered years later, or to remember a face, voice or even a memory from a lifetime ago.

Today, let us honor each of sixty-two servicemen from the "Hell on Wheels" battalion who lost their lives in Sittard by pledging this: Only through preserving our past can we guarantee a future where the lessons and legacy of these servicemen will be rightfully remembered.

For this to be true, I'm reminded of what the patriot Thomas Paine observed more than 220 years ago as our forefathers fought to gain their own freedom for the first time.

Paine said: "Those who expect to reap the blessing of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it."

As we honor our hero soldiers this weekend in the Netherlands, we must not forget that "freedom is not free." It is worth fighting for, and those who fought must be remembered and honored forever.

In the end, the remaining servicemen from "Hell on Wheels" battalion did cross the German border to meet the enemy on their own soil. They played a crucial role in the Battle of the Bulge and finally crossed the Rhine River in 1945 to free thousands of prisoners of war and slave laborers.

History books may never report what the "Hell on Wheels" battalion accomplished in Sittard. Future generations may never know what happened in this city or at dozens, maybe even hundreds, of other battlefields like it across Europe. But for this moment, this weekend, let us all remember with a heavy heart the "Hell on Wheels 62."


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