SOUTH PORTLAND — Some might look at the faded green jumpsuit and see a plain old Air Force uniform.
Lee Humiston sees the pilot who once wore it.
“This belonged to Dick Manning. He lives here in South Portland now,” Humiston said Wednesday, stopping at a row of uniformed mannequins in the Maine Military Museum and Learning Center.
“He landed at a Green Beret outpost in Vietnam. They came under heavy fire,” Humiston said. “There were 11 men and they all ran into a bunker, but a rocket came in behind them. Eight of them died, and the blast destroyed one of Dick’s arms.”
It’s one story among thousands at the museum, and Humiston, its founder and curator, can tell you almost all of them with a single look at a flight helmet, a patch, a news clipping or a silver POW bracelet.
Just four years ago, Humiston’s assortment of artifacts, writings and memorabilia was kept mostly in his house.
Since then, the 72-year-old Air Force veteran has been on a collecting spree, taking in relics of Maine’s military history. Thanks to several donors and his key financial benefactor, Gary Crosby of South Portland, Humiston now has a completely renovated, 12,000-square-foot space to share that history with the public.
On Saturday, Humiston will welcome hundreds of guests from around the state and the country as the Maine Military Museum and Learning Center celebrates its grand opening.
Gov. Paul LePage and Secretary of State Charlie Summers are expected to attend, as are nine former prisoners of war from Vietnam and World War II. The ribbon-cutting at 1 p.m. will be preceded by a procession of more than 100 motorcycle riders from Rolling Thunder, the Patriot Guard, Combat Veterans and the American Legion Riders.
“What’s amazing to me is the friends I’ve made in the last four years. People are so kind, and they keep bringing me things. They want to know that those memories will be honored,” Humiston said Wednesday as he made final preparations for Saturday’s ceremony. Over the past few months he has been working 16 to 17 hours a day, six or seven days a week.
“I just wish my parents were alive to see it,” he said. “Maine has got a very important military history that needs to be shared.”
Crosby, a real estate investor, bought the VFW building and property on Peary Terrace for about $700,000 in 2009. He gave the building to Humiston for the museum, with Humiston’s pledge that half of the building would remain a VFW hall. The other half, most of which was an old bingo hall and ballroom, has been renovated for the museum and offices.
“It’s beautiful,” said Richard Skillin of South Portland, who visited Humiston at the museum Wednesday.
Skillin served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, flying 24 missions over Germany and what was then Czechoslovakia. On display at the museum is a photograph of Skillin and his crew.
“It’s terrific to have a place like this,” Skillin said. “Lee has done a marvelous job with it.”
Humiston has hundreds of other items, including more than 300 service uniforms, that he plans to rotate into the displays.
One of Humiston’s main goals is to bring in middle school and high school students from around the state. Last week, Scarborough High’s junior class was the first to visit.
Humiston runs the museum as a nonprofit organization. He accepts donations but said he will not charge for admission. He covers some operating costs through sales of $50 brass plates that line some of the museum’s walls. The plates are inscribed with the names of veterans and their service history.
There are plates on the wall for six of Humiston’s family members, from his great-grandfather who fought at Gettysburg to his brother who fought in Desert Storm.
Humiston’s father worked in the South Portland shipyards and fought in World War II. When he was 17, Humiston dropped out of school and left Maine to join the Air Force, serving from 1957 to 1963. He then moved to California and began a career in banking.
His life changed in 1969 when he read a cover story in Life Magazine called “One Week’s Dead.” One by one, he looked at the photographs of more than 200 American troops who had been killed during a week in Vietnam. One of them was 21-year-old Philip William Strout of South Portland.
“It had a profound impact on me,” Humiston said.
Humiston, who had a good friend who was imprisoned in North Vietnam, paid close attention as a group of college women started mass-producing bracelets with the names of POWs. He began collecting them, amassing more than 1,000. After the peace accords were signed in 1973, one of the POWs heard about Humiston’s collection.
After a phone conversation, a black duffel bag arrived at Humiston’s doorstep. It contained a striped uniform, sandals, a tin cup and other items. From then on, Humiston became known as the unofficial archivist of POW belongings.
His collection is considered the largest in the world. Pieces collected by Humiston are on display at the Richard Nixon Library, the Air Force Academy, the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, N.J., and two of the museums operated by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
In 2006, Humiston moved back to Maine after almost 50 years away. His dream of a military museum started with a few public presentations, then he leased a small, city-owned building in Mill Creek Park.
“One day this guy showed up and struck up a conversation. It was Gary Crosby,” Humiston recalled. “He said, ‘You’re going to outgrow this (building) pretty quick.’ “
Crosby said he read about Humiston a few years ago, and he offered to help as a volunteer at the museum at Mill Creek.
“I’ve never served, myself, and I wanted to do something for the people who have served,” he said.
After spending time with Humiston for a few months, Crosby knew he had the skills and the drive to develop a much larger museum.
“He has an unbelievable passion for what he’s doing, and for all the right reasons. Never once has this been about him,” Crosby said.
Crosby continues to fund most of the museum’s operations. He hopes it will become self-sufficient at some point.
“It’s everything I hoped it would be,” Crosby said. “I hope it lasts for generations to come.”
Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: