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A handmade 30-foot model of the USS Independence is now at a museum in Lincoln

USS Independence (Our Heroes Military Museum/Facebook)

Since opening in November 2022, the Our Heroes Military Museum in Lincoln has become almost full with cherished artifacts and mementos, donated in droves by veterans from all over Maine — things like scrapbooks, photos, uniforms, field gear, and even military vehicles like an old Jeep and a World War II-era ambulance.

But nothing gifted to the museum thus far has been quite as big, impressive and detailed as the 30-foot-long, 7-foot-high model of the aircraft carrier USS Independence, carefully built by Navy veteran Clyde Wellman Sr. of Belmont. Every detail — from the planes to the tarmac to the radar tower — was hand-created over the course of four years by Wellman, who died in 2021.

“It’s really an amazing addition to the museum,” said Ashley Mitchell, program director for the museum. “It’s definitely a showcase piece, and a conversation starter. It’s truly one of a kind.”

The Our Heroes museum came about after members of the board of directors at House in the Woods, a veteran’s retreat in nearby Lee, spoke with community members in Lincoln about an idea to create a military museum. Not just any military museum, however — a museum that would store and display personal items from military service that were saved and collected by Maine veterans.

With an estimated 122,000 World War II veterans still alive, and millions more Korean and Vietnam War veterans aging, the military treasures they saved over the years are rapidly falling into the hands of their children or grandchildren. Those descendents often can’t bear to part with the items but may not know quite what to do with them either, and end up chucking them in a box to languish in a closet or attic.

With the Our Heroes Military Museum, Maine veterans and their descendents can donate their prized keepsakes to the museum for preservation and for future generations to learn from. In 2021, the newly formed museum nonprofit began renovating a building on West Broadway in Lincoln and opened the facility on Veterans Day 2022. Already, Mitchell says, the museum is running out of room, such has been the interest from vets and their families.

“Almost every day I hear from someone who says something like, ‘You know, I’ve got my dad’s scrapbook from Korea, and I don’t know what to do with it,'” Mitchell said. “We will take it. We want to make sure your memories aren’t forgotten.”

While most of the items held at the museum can fit into a folder, envelope or box, Wellman’s USS Independence model certainly can’t.

The actual aircraft carrier was built in the mid-1950s at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and entered into service in 1959. Over the course of 39 years, the ship served all over the world, throughout the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas, in the South China Sea during the Vietnam War, and in the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War, among other far-flung locales. It was decommissioned in 1998 and scrapped in 2017.

Wellman and his friend, Richard Silley, both joined the Navy after graduating from Crosby High School in Belfast in 1958. Silley served on the Independence, while Wellman had a 20-year Navy career serving on the USS Little Rock before retiring in 1978 to return to Belmont, where he and his wife bought a small farm. Silley’s two sons also served on the Independence, cementing a family legacy on the ship.

In the off-season from farming, Wellman spent his time building large-scale models of airplanes and other ships, like the USS Little Rock. The piece de resistance, however, was the USS Independence. It took Wellman, with help from Silley, four years to complete, finally finishing in 2003. The model has since had a starring role in every Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day parade in Belfast.

“He made it out of stuff he picked up around the farm, piece by piece,” said Verlesta Wellman, Clyde’s widow. “He made the planes out of shingles. Scrap wood, scrap metal. It was definitely his labor of love.”

After Wellman’s death, the family donated the model to Belfast’s Randall Collins VFW Post 3108. Post commander Jim Roberts said he kept the model in his driveway during the warmer months and stored it in a friend’s chicken barn in the winter.

A 30-foot model of an aircraft carrier takes up an awful lot of space, however, and Roberts began looking for a more permanent home for it. Luckily, that home found him when a relative of an Our Heroes museum board member stopped at Roberts’ house to take a photo of the model. Soon, they’d agreed to donate it to the museum.

“They’ve all been so incredibly supportive and helpful. They even said they’d bring it down for our parades in Belfast,” Roberts said. “I think it’s pretty amazing what they are doing up there, to make sure all these artifacts find a home, whether it’s some gigantic like the model or some little thing. They all mean something to someone.”

The Our Heroes Military Museum, located at 55 West Broadway in Lincoln, is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays.


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