BRUNSWICK – John Briley believes it would be tragic if the Brunswick Naval Air Station’s history were to be forgotten.

That’s why he and his partners are trying to raise $1 million to convert the former base chapel into a museum devoted to telling the stories of the men and women who served there.

“We want to preserve as much of the history of the base as we can,” said Briley, a Topsham resident who serves as president of the board of directors for the Brunswick Naval Museum and Memorial Gardens. “It was such an integral part of the town of Brunswick from its inception. We want to make sure that its story gets told. We don’t want people to forget what happened in the past.”

The group’s efforts are expected to gain momentum this summer once it has been awarded nonprofit status by the Internal Revenue Service. That designation will allow the group to solicit donations from major corporations and businesses.

Briley said the museum group will sign a lease with the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority for use of the 13,600-square-foot chapel and its memorial gardens, which will continue to be maintained in honor of the sailors who died in the service of their country.

The authority is overseeing the redevelopment of the base. Executive director Steve Levesque said the chapel lease, which will initially be for five years, won’t take effect until the Navy conveys the facility to the authority in 2011.

“I hope they succeed. It will be a good thing for this area,” Levesque said.

Briley, who is retired, once managed two museums for the Ohio Historical Society.

“I don’t see a problem with raising funds, especially when you think about the large numbers of naval personnel who have gone through Brunswick. Most of them view Brunswick as home,” he said.

The chapel is due to close in September, but the space cannot be used for museum exhibits until after Brunswick Naval Air Station officially closes on May 31, 2011.

Brunswick Naval Air Station opened in 1943. During World War II, it served as a training base for pilots. After the war it shut down for a few years, before reopening in the early 1950s as a fully operational military base.

The federal government, in its 2005 round of base closings, decided to close Brunswick Naval Air Station.

“Hopefully, it will come to fruition. There is a lot of history here,” John Ripley, the base spokesman, said of the museum fundraising effort.

Ripley said the Navy is not permitted to actively participate in the campaign but will try to save as many artifacts as possible for a base museum.

Briley said the museum will feature exhibits with items ranging from old clippings from the base newspaper, photographs and plaques, to uniforms, charts and maps, and squadron memorabilia.

The existing static displays of a P-2 and P-3 airplane may become part of the museum campus.

“As soon as people find out what we are doing, the attics will unload,” Briley predicted.

Ripley, the base spokesman, has been looking through copies of old base newspapers. He found an article written in the mid-1950s that reported townspeople were unhappy at having so many sailors milling about the town.

Base commanders took their complaints to heart and started paying sailors with $2 bills. When the town noticed how many $2 bills were showing up at stores and restaurants, their opinions about having a strong military presence changed.

Since then, BNAS evolved into an integral part of the Brunswick community.

Children of military families attended local schools, sailors and their spouses did community volunteer work, and the people who worked there pumped millions of dollars into the local economy.

Ripley said he knows there is widespread interest in preserving the base’s history.

A Facebook page he created this year includes comments from sailors and Navy retirees who live all over the country.

Their posts often lament the base’s closure and talk about their memories of the base.

Retired Rear Adm. Harry Rich served five years at Brunswick Naval Air Station.

“I came here as a young lieutenant. Brunswick Naval Air Station has been my life. This is home for me,” said Rich, who settled in Harpswell after he retired in 1978.

Rich also serves on the museum’s board of directors, and hopes that the museum campaign will succeed.

“There are tons and tons of memories. The impact of this base on the community and surrounding area is indelible. A museum would perpetuate the legacy of the people who served here,” Rich said.

Contributions in support of the museum can be made to: Brunswick Naval Museum and Memorial Gardens, P.O. Box 943, Brunswick 04011.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]