WINTHROP — It started when Winthrop’s public works department dropped off a very old truck, a huge Army troop transport, at Richie Duval’s commercial garage in Magee’s Corner. It was the municipal equivalent of: “Here, you do something with this.”
It was a smart move, for Duval isn’t just a mechanic — he’s a proud Vietnam veteran, and his garage is a clubhouse for the town’s veterans, who gather in the small office for coffee in the morning, for other beverages in the afternoon, and for confabs to “solve all the world’s problems” somewhere in between.
So Duval and the fellas — they call themselves the Magee’s Corner Militia, and range from 20-somethings to Bud Dasey, who stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day — restored the truck, painted it Army green, and parked it in the lot outside.
And that started something else. People would see the truck, all bright and fresh, and approach Duval with other historic Army vehicles and say, “Here, you do something with this.”
Today the militia has completed five major restorations. They acquired a Duck boat from Boston Duck Tours and returned it to its original WWII configuration, which included removing the awning that was covered on the underside with the autographs of famous people who had ridden in it when it was “Molly Molasses.”
And then there’s the pride of the fleet, a WWII M3 half-track — an armored vehicle that looks like a cross between a truck and a tank.
“We have to be careful with this one, because there aren’t too many left,” Duval said.
The vehicle came with its original 50-caliber machine gun and four swastika stickers on its roof, a record of the enemy it once fought and killed.
The trucks have become Winthrop landmarks, the sort people use to give directions — “Take a left at the Army trucks” — but for Duval and the veterans, they are something more, a bit of military history they are helping to preserve and share.
They drive them in parades. They get the occasional old-timer who will stop in and say, “I rode one of these halfway across Europe.”
There’s a huge part of the Magee’s Corner Militia that is simply boys with toys, looking for any excuse to take the trucks out onto the beach, maybe use the 5-ton wrecker they restored to drop an engine onto a boat, hope they don’t get pulled over for driving down the street with a 50-caliber machine gun — the one time they did, it was because the cop wanted a picture — and put the workhorse vehicles through their paces.
“The only difference between boys and men is the price of their toys,” said Bob Dion, a retired Marine who was awarded the Silver Star for his service in Vietnam.
But the Magee’s Corner Militia doesn’t just play with their toys and tell war stories. For more than two decades, Duval has been caring for the American flags at veterans’ headstones and the 31 memorials in town, such as intersections named in someone’s honor. Just to maintain them, Duval said, requires 2,200 flags a year.
On Tuesday, Veterans Day, they will bring the trucks to a Veterans Day ceremony in town that will conclude with naming an intersection for a family that had five sons and a son-in-law serving simultaneously during WWII.
And they will be thanked for their service, but Dasey, 89, who fought in Africa and Italy before storming the beaches of France, has an answer for that.
“When someone says, ‘Thank you for your service,’ I show them this,” he said, as he reached in his pocket and pulled out a laminated photograph that he always carries. It shows the white crosses atop the graves at Omaha Beach.
“I say, ‘No, thank these guys. They made it all possible.’ ”