WINTHROP — Where most see a table of old-timers cracking jokes over cream-and-sugared coffee, Roger Oliveira sees heroes.
Oliveira bought the Winthrop Center Cafe five years ago, and with it came a crew of World War II veterans who gather there every morning, staking their claim to a large round table by the window.
Oliveira, who had come from Brazil, took to them quickly.
“Those guys were already here — every day when I came to work I heard their stories,” he said Sunday afternoon, seated in front of the counter after the noon rush. “I thought I had to do something for those guys because everyone should know what they did for this country.”
So he made their stories a permanent fixture in the cafe.
“I had the idea to make up this wall, to show their history for everybody — for the town, for everyone who comes in,” he said.
He asked them to give him photos of themselves and write about their service. In the fall of 2009, he took what they offered and framed a dozen stories into placards that now hang on his “Wall of Heroes.”
“After that, people started looking at them seriously and shaking their hands and saying thank you,” Oliveira said, nodding to customers ducking into the warmth of the small storefront cafe from the wet November afternoon. “Now everybody knows they did a lot for everyone. I’m so proud of that.”
The wall has since grown into a dynamic documentation of servicemen and women from Winthrop, including nearly 40 faces and stories from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Panama, and Iraq and Afghanistan.
The assemblage of vets has grown, too.
An early-morning crew gathers before 7, and another gang rolls in around 10 each day.
“This is a meeting place,” said Bud Dasey, who has lived in Winthrop for all of his 88 years.
Dasey travels to schools and community gatherings with his “D-Day in a Box” presentation, which displays photos and a 3-D replication of the events.
“I want kids to know what we did because a lot of us never talked before,” Dasey said.
“What Roger did here — he didn’t have to do this, but he did it to honor all of us and we think quite a bit of it and we think quite a bit of him for doing it.”
The wall serves as a reminder for those who might not give a second thought to the service members in the community.
“It’s important to have it where people can see it and not forget,” Dasey said.
Robert Oliver, also 88, is part of the 10 o’clock crew. He is quick to say he spent three years, seven months, four days, and three hours in the Navy, all on one ship. He is even quicker to rattle off important dates in his World War II tours that saw action in North Africa, Sicily (“That was July 11, forty-three), Salerno (“That was Sept. 9”), Normandy, and off the coast of Japan.
He returned home to Winthrop and spent 32 years in the police force. In retirement, his mornings are spent at the round table.
“We meet, we talk, it’s comfortable. And a lot of us fellas, we grew up here so it’s a regular hangout,” said Oliver, who said he has been coming to the cafe for “about four owners.”
Sunday he wore his navy blue veterans baseball cap, like the others seated around him. He said they will wear them on Veterans Day, but then the caps get put away again.
He pointed across the table to Bob Sloane, who was sporting a USS Wasatch cap.
“He got sunk twice, he spent time on a life raft. He’s lucky he’s here — we all are,” Oliver said.
Sloane proudly introduces himself as “the oldest one here.”
Of his hat, the 90-year-old said, “That’s the flagship — that’s where they put me for being good.”
To earn his spot on that ship, he toured on two others that were torpedoed. A photo Sloane took from the wreck of the first ship now hangs on the wall at the cafe, Sloane’s account below it.
When the SS Alcoa Rambler was torpedoed by a German submarine off the northeast coast of Brazil, Sloane and eight other Navy gunners took to a small balsa life raft, according to his account.
A second torpedo struck and broke up the raft, leaving the men swimming in the dark until the last lifeboat picked them up.
From the stern of that lifeboat, he snapped a photo that became “the only image that survived the sea-soaked journey back to land.”
“Rigging a makeshift sail, we covered over 250 miles without drinking water under the unrelenting tropical sun. After six days we beached the life boat near a native village where large trucks from the Navy Air Base at Natal Brazil plowed through the jungle to reach us,” his text reads.
“People today don’t know what happened back then. I go over to the VA for treatment and they ask ‘What the hell war were you in?’ ’’ Sloane said.
“When I was a kid growing up we used to look at the Spanish-American War veterans. Now they look at us and we’re like the ancient mariner around here,” he quipped.
He comes to cafe every morning at 6:30.
“It’s a therapy,” he said.
Lorraine Farmer, 85, a Marine Corps veteran from the Korean War, comes in with her 86-year-old husband, who served in the Navy during World War II, “at least once every day.”
“One day we see a couple of nails and then all of a sudden there’s this Wall of Heroes,” she said, seated with her husband at a table beneath the placards. “But we’re not heroes so it took a long time for us to put our pictures up.”
Last week, Oliveira held a dinner for more than 50 veterans in the community. Farmer cherished the evening, but can’t help think of those who are only a memory on the storied wall.
“I’m kind of sad because as I look up at the wall, there are a lot of veterans who aren’t here anymore,” she said.
About five of the placards hold the faces and stories of deceased. Oliveira has chosen not to designate which are alive and which have died.
“If I keep it like that, I keep everyone alive forever and their history up forever,” he said. “I just want to say thank you.”