MAASTRICHT, The Netherlands – As a chilly rain soaked thousands of white crosses marking American war dead, President Bush (search) paid homage Sunday to the "terrible price" paid by World War II (search) soldiers who never came home from their fight against tyranny.
"On this peaceful May morning, we commemorate a great victory for liberty," Bush said at Europe's third-largest cemetery for American veterans near here in Margraten. "We come to this ground to remember the cause for which these soldiers fought and triumphed"
Bush marked the 60th anniversary of the May 1945 signing of the Berlin armistice that ended the war in Europe in a solemn remembrance at the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial (search), where 8,301 U.S. veterans are buried.
Before his brief, 13-minute remarks, members of the White House delegation donned orange plastic raincoats against the cold and drizzle as Bush and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands laid wreaths of tribute, a bugler played taps and military aircraft streaked above the graveyard's sweeping arcs of headstones. First lady Laura Bush laid flowers at the grave of a Medal of Honor winner who was in the 104th Division, in which her late father served during the war.
"Our debt of gratitude is too great to express in words," Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said of the American liberation of the Netherlands from the Nazis. "They gave us the most precious gift — freedom. Today, I salute them."
From the ceremony, Bush flew to Moscow where he and dozens of other world leaders are continuing the V-E Day celebrations at a Red Square military parade that Russian President Vladimir Putin is staging on Monday, the day regarded there as the anniversary.
Sunday night, Bush and Putin meet privately amid an escalating fight over U.S. pressure on Russia to own up to its wartime past. In Russia, victory in the "Great Patriot War" is treasured as an unvarnished triumph, while many of its Eastern European neighbors regard the Red Army's success also as the start of 50 years of brutal Soviet oppression.
Anger over that unacknowledged history remains particularly potent in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and won independence just 14 years ago. Bush's meeting in Latvia with the leaders of the three countries on the way to Russia was meant to help temper his attendance at the Moscow ceremony that offers only a one-sided version of the Soviet Union's war legacy.
Bush has promised that such matters, part of Washington's broader concerns about Putin's commitment to democracy, will come up when the two meet — first formally, then over dinner with their wives — at the Russian leader's dacha.
Putin said the United States has little business criticizing Russia's internal affairs because the U.S. system of electing presidents, including the Electoral College, has its own flaws. "But," Putin said in an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes" to be aired Sunday, "we're not going to poke our noses into your democratic system, because that's up to the American people."
There are a host of other items on the agenda for the leaders whose cooperation is crucial: stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons materials, ending the nuclear pursuits of nations such as Iran and North Korea and securing a Mideast peace. The relationship also has soured of late amid U.S. unhappiness with Russian missile sales to Syria and crackdowns on business and Moscow's complaints of American meddling in its traditional sphere of influence.
In socially liberal Holland, Bush is widely unpopular. But in the region around the cemetery graveyard, within walking distance of the German and Belgian borders, Americans are fondly remembered for their wartime rescue. In honor of the deaths incurred by U.S. forces as they set off from near here for the deadly but successful blitz toward Berlin, many local Dutch still bring flowers.
Bush thanked them for that gesture that comforts their loved ones.
"Each man or woman buried here is more than a headstone and a serial number," he said before thousands of locals and about 100 aging Dutch and American WWII veterans. As Bush wrapped up his remarks, the drizzle stopped and the sun began to emerge from behind the clouds.
The losses incurred during World War II, the president said, should be honored by a constant pursuit of freedom in places where it still doesn't exist.
"On this day, we celebrate the victory they won and we recommit ourselves to the great truth that they defended: that freedom is the birthright of all of mankind," Bush said.
Beforehand, veterans reflected amid the gravestones adorned with U.S. and Dutch flags.
"This will probably be the last hurrah for most of us," said Dee Eberhart of Ellensburg, Wash., who was among the liberators of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
The event was one in a series of ceremonies worldwide on milestones in the conflict that drew in 61 countries and claimed 55 million lives, including 405,000 Americans. Last year, Bush went to France for the 60th anniversary of the pivotal D-Day landing by American soldiers at Normandy. In January, Vice President Dick Cheney traveled to Poland to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz and Birkenau Nazi concentration camps.