MARGRATEN, NETHERLANDS

Media coverage of Memorial Day ceremonies here is muted. George W. Bush's visit in 2005 marked the only presidential visit here since 1944. Yet this is a land that honors Americans. Our dead have been acknowledged on Memorial Day each year since a U.S. military cemetery was dedicated here in 1960.

Unlike nearly 20 similar cemeteries across Europe, the 8,301 graves at the Netherlands American Military Cemetery and Memorial are not just white crosses. Each grave is adopted by locals, who bring flowers and attend memorial services. The baton passes as residents move or die.

A family from this region of regal churches and exquisite blue skies took over responsibility for Bob Dreier's grave in 2008. He's here because it was the surviving spouse who decided whether or not to bring the dead back to the United States when a repatriation program was launched after World War II. Mom was 28. She chose to leave Bob, her first husband, here.

"Your mother made the right decision to leave Robert with his comrades," the adopters of his grave wrote after my visit there. "It's definitely a wonderful place."

It's impossible to disagree. Open fields lie to the backs of visitors who enter the cemetery to first see a memorial tower rising above the 65 acres. A pool at the tower's base reflects a statue of a mother grieving for her lost son. The tower houses a chapel and carillon, from which anthems for each branch of the U.S. military ring.

Visitors appear daily with flowers, and more flowers are shipped to offices here for attendants to place on graves.

This cemetery is not like Fort Snelling National Military Cemetery in Bloomington, which is acres of motion, with burials daily. No one else is likely to be buried here. But it has never been forgotten, particularly not on Memorial Day.

World War II devastated this little neck of Holland separating Belgium from Germany. The retreating German army scorched a nightmare into the land in September 1944. Villagers turned out in their best clothes to greet advancing American soldiers. Young girls kissed them and children saluted. Adults wept.

Then the United States asked the reeling Dutch for their livelihood -- farmland -- to bury dead Allied soldiers. The answer was startling. Villagers in a region that has served as a warpath for centuries gave the Americans 50 football fields worth of rich farmland for a cemetery. They helped bury the unembalmed and blood-soaked bodies in silk-lined caskets made of wood veneer -- light and easy to handle.

In 1948, villagers helped exhume the bodies, remove clothing and flesh from the bones, cleanse and sterilize the remains and place them in sealed caskets. About half of the 17,738 fallen were repatriated to the United States. Those who were reburied lie in a precise, curving alignment of white marble markers that do not vary more than one centimeter from the curve every 200 feet.

Nearly seven decades have passed since Margraten was a village of 1,500, liberated by 25,000 U.S. troops. Why do locals still adopt and care for the graves, and celebrate Memorial Day here?

Jan, our innkeeper, responded: "You freed us."

---------------

Jim Thielman is a corporate communications manager at General Mills.