It was just five days after a megalomaniac named Hitler killed himself in his bunker in Berlin, just three days before Americans danced in the streets to sweetly toast the Nazi surrender in Europe.
But on May 5, 1945, Clifford Barry was a 30-year-old Army corporal from Marblehead, still on duty at a small town in Austria.
He was a member of the 245th Engineer Combat Battalion with General George Patton’s Army and was told to help secure a bridge the Americans built to liberate the little town called Braunau, Hitler’s birthplace, just across the River Inn from Germany. So that’s what he did.
It had been a tough winter. The snowmelt from the Alps had caused the river to rise considerably, placing stress on the pontoon bridge.
Corporal Barry and another soldier from Massachusetts, Private Richard L. Felt of Waltham, went out on the bridge to repair one of the pontoons, overturned overnight by the fierce current.
And never came back.
“They were required to jump up and down on it to see if they could turn it back over,’’ Corporal Barry’s son, Dave Barry, recalled this week, tears welling. “For years, as a kid, I always thought that it must have been a mistake and that someday he’d come home.’’
The two Massachusetts soldiers drowned in the river that day, both receiving the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
And this week, 70 years after the events of that spring, that little town in Austria will honor the memories of the men who perished in the rising river that day, and thank the only surviving son they could find: Dave Barry, who was not quite 3 when that awful telegram from the War Department reached his mother.
“It’s a fine opportunity to say thank you to a very special man whose father gave his life for the freedom of Austria,’’ Florian Kotanko, a local historian from Braunau, told me on the telephone from Austria. “He will be our guest of honor.’’
That guest of honor was packing on Monday at his home in Marblehead, and the emotional baggage that will accompany him to Europe, 71 years after his father boarded a ship in New York Harbor bound for World War II, is freighted with pride and loss and glimpses of the father he never knew.
“They say he was quite a guy,’’ Dave Barry said. “As a young man, he was one of those guys who literally helped little old ladies across the street.’’ The type of guy who, when passing a child stranded on a tire swing, would wordlessly give a little kid a push to get him going.
Clifford Barry worked at Ward stationers in Boston, assembling a successful career that he tended while lobstering part time off Marblehead.
He joined the reserves and was working as a welder at General Electric before he was drafted in 1943.
“If the draft board had waited another three weeks, his occupation would have been declared a ‘reserved occupation’ so he wouldn’t have been drafted,’’ his son said.
Dave Barry, too young to remember his dad, does recall a visit to the family home by three military buddies.
His grandfather retrieved two rifles Corporal Barry had shipped home from the war. The veterans opened the butt plate from one of the weapons and out came inexpensive jewelry and one ruby Barry’s widow treasured for years before it was lost.
When Dave Barry married his wife, Judy, in 1976, his father’s father stood up for him as best man. Quite a generational gift.
On Friday, Clifford Barry’s son will try to repay that gift. Dignitaries will assemble on the bridge over the River Inn. There will be a moment of silence. Dave Barry will lay a wreath.
“I have no idea what it’s going to be like,’’ he said. “For myself, I consider it a pilgrimage. I’m a pretty emotional guy. I just want to hold it together.’’
A final salute across the decades. To a father from his son.Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.