June 9, 2011

Maine military history to be shared

A veteran and longtime collector of war memorabilia prepares to open The Maine Military Museum and Learning Center in South Portland.

By Trevor Maxwell tmaxwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

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Lee Humiston will welcome state officials and hundreds of guests, including former prisoners of war, at the grand opening of the Maine Military Museum and Learning Center in South Portland on Saturday. Here he stands outside a replica of a North Vietnamese prisoner of war cell he created from artifacts he had collected.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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The hundreds of items on display at the new Maine Military Museum and Learning Center in South Portland include Navy and Army uniforms from World War I.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

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:

tmaxwell@pressherald.com

 

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Additional Photos

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World War II weapons and insignia are displayed at the new museum.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

  


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