SOUTH PORTLAND — Members of the American Legion post on Peaks Island added to the collection at the Maine Military Museum and Learning Center this month when they contributed an automatic rifle from the Vietnam War and a Civil War-era dress sword.
The donations from Randall-MacVane Post 142 are now part of a collection of war memorabilia that spans from the Revolutionary War through the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, worth more than $1.5 million, according to museum founder and curator Lee Humiston.
Humiston said it would take about a month to clean the items before they join the displays of artifacts ranging from photos and letters to weaponry and medals at 50 Peary Terrace.
Legion Chaplain Chris Hoppin said the carbine and sword were found in the attic of the post’s building at 142 Welch St. on the island.
“We’re happy we’re able to participate in the community of Peaks and the greater community of Maine (by contributing) some military history,” Hoppin said.
According to Hoppin, the carbine is 7.62 mm with a bayonet from Communist China and was retrieved in the Republic of Vietnam by U.S. Army Capt. John Shute of Montgomery, Alabama. Humiston, a historian in his own right, said automatic rifles like this are “fairly common” and were brought back to the U.S. “by the boatload.”
However, the 1860 staff field officers’ dress sword, which was manufactured by the Oak Hill Clothing Co. in Boston, is “pretty rare,” Humiston said.
The name “C. Dolan” is inscribed on one side of the blade and the initials “A.O.H” on the other near the handle. Humiston said he’ll have to do some research to determine the sword’s origination.
Both were donated to the post, but Hoppin said he’s not sure when or by who. At its military height during World War II, Peaks Island was occupied by approximately 800 soldiers protecting Casco Bay and Portland Harbor, Hoppin said.
In 1937, John Ford, an Academy Award-winning film director and Cape Elizabeth native, wrote the Legion its first $500 check to purchase the home on Peaks Island, where Ford often summered, and continued to help fund its renovation before he died in 1973. The post honored Ford by naming him their permanent honorary commander.
“It’s an interesting story,” Hoppin said. “There’s always been a military history here … but there’s some Hollywood history as well.”
According to Humiston, about 90 percent of the relics in his museum were donated by veterans, or their families, from Maine.
A South Portland native, 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.
He moved back to Southern Maine in 2006. His dream of a military museum started with a few public presentations, then he leased a small, city-owned building in Mill Creek Park around 2009. His collection is largely comprised of memorabilia from American POWs from the Civil War to the Vietnam War.
In 2011, Humiston moved his collection to the 12,000-square-foot space on Peary Road, which was previously occupied by the local VFW.
A portrait of Humiston taken after he enlisted just one month after his 17th birthday hangs towards the back of the museum among rows and rows of other veterans’ portraits – most of whom are from Maine. From family members to high school classmates, Humiston knows many of the faces personally. Whether he does or not, he knows the story behind each photograph, from the person’s hometown and family to their rank and years of service.
“Our museum is different because we know the stories,” Humiston said. “It’s a very interactive space.”
One of the most prominent, and unique, aspects of the museum are its mannequins. Positioned throughout the building, each one is dressed in a real uniform, complete with name tags, medals and badges, and once worn by a military veteran and later donated to Humiston. He even does his best to find mannequins that resemble the person behind the outfit.
“They don’t want (the uniforms) sold or thrown away. They want them where somebody can see them,” Humiston said. “This museum is built on one thing: trust. The minute people lose trust in me and what I do or say I do, this place would fall down.”
Humiston said he’s grateful for local organizations such as Post 142 that place their trust in him and donate their findings to the museum. Once refurbished, the 7.62 mm carbine and 1860 dress sword will sit among the museum’s 14 Purple Hearts, two original Civil War Medals of Honor and numerous other historic treasures.
“I love this place … It’s overwhelming the amount of history that’s come through this little building,” Humiston said. “This is Maine’s history like you’ve never seen it.”
Maine Military Museum Director Lee Humiston, left, accepts a Chinese carbine used during the Vietnam War and a Civil War sword from Peaks Island American Legion Post 142 members Fred O’Keefe and Dominick DeAngelo.
Lee Humiston, director of the Maine Military Museum in South Portland, with a row of mannequins dressed in authentic military uniforms. He points to one he calls his “hero,” dressed in the uniform of his younger brother, also named Lee, who served in the Gulf War from 1990-1991 and later served three combat tours during the War in Iraq.