Crowd honors veterans at military museum's new South Portland annex
SOUTH PORTLAND — More than 100 people turned out Tuesday night to honor war veterans at the Maine Military Museum and Learning Center's new annex at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 832 at 50 Peary Terrace.
Veterans from World War II, Vietnam and Korea attended the ceremony, which also included those who fought – and continue to fight – in Iraq and Afghanistan. Donations were also taken to support Operation Tribute, which provides Christmas presents to children whose parents are in the military.
The ceremony began with Maj. Todd Mitchell, a Falmouth resident who is the U.S. Army station commander for New England's Military Entrance Processing Station in Portland, leading the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, which was delivered forcefully by everyone in the room. The 37-year-old also served in multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It's a vast, spread-out place," Mills said of Afghanistan. "The troops that are over there are doing a phenomenal job with the resources they have."
Then, Ginger Lee Smith, a self-proclaimed "Navy brat," led the room in a full-throated version of the National Anthem. Prior to singing, Smith told the crowd about her anxious moments waiting for her father to come home from the war zone.
"I know some of you are waiting for your loved ones to come home," she said. "You are not alone in your vigil."
Among those in attendance was South Portland resident and WWII veteran Arthur Mills, a T-Ledge resident who spent eight months as a prisoner of war in Germany after his plane was shot down over Austria. Recalling his experience, the 87-year-old said he didn't undergo the abuses of Vietnam-era POWs and was able to simply walk away from captivity after the Germans surrendered.
"We were never abused. They just never gave us anything to eat, that's all," Mills said, noting he and other POWs were marched "a couple thousand" kilometers across Germany in the winter.
Museum founder Lee Humiston of Cape Elizabeth introduced his guests before unveiling what will become an additional museum space to compliment the smaller museum in Mill Creek Park. In addition to Mills, he introduced World War II veteran Ernie Smith; Jay resident Charles Crafts, a Vietnam POW who was recently awarded a Silver Star, Bronze Star and a Bronze Star with a "V" for valor; James Hughes, a Marine who fought during the Korean War, and William Mann, a Portland resident who has been a U.S. Army medic for the last eight years.
"We are not short on some real American heroes," Humiston said.
Mann said the event, and the support of Mainers in general, helped reaffirm that he and other military personnel have the support of people back home, regardless of their political leanings.
"The media reports really put a damper on how you feel as a soldier and you wonder what you're fighting for," Mann said. "(This event) gives you the feeling that you are still fighting for something."
Humiston said the VFW at 50 Peary Terrace was bought and donated by Gary Crosby, a South Portland resident who recently lost his third bid for the City Council. Half of the 6,000-square-foot hall will be turned into a ballroom that will be available for rent. The other half will become more museum space to supplement the existing building in Mill Creek park, which opened last summer and is already bursting at the seams.
More importantly, Humiston said, the VFW post will be house a learning center, which will be available for students.
"This will be a ballroom like no other," Humiston said. "I'm also going to bring entire classes over here and teach them real history. Real Maine history. Real military history."
Proceeds from the ballroom rentals will support the museum. Also, bronze plaques, donated at cost by Quality Crafts in Scarborough, will be sold for $50 to anyone who would like to honor a family member in the museum. The plaques will be engraved and placed on walls through the museum.
Maj. Gen. John W. Libby, the adjunct general of the Maine National Guard, said he decided to attend the event not only to show support for veterans, but also for Operation Tribute and the ever-expanding Maine Military Museum and Learning Center.
"(Operation Tribute) is the recognition that these kids deserve and need," Libby said. "And we have to educate the next generation about the need to serve."
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org