They were about his age when they went to war in the hedgerows of France, the beaches at Tarawa, and the skies over the Ruhr Valley and Tokyo Bay.
Now Rishi Sharma, a recent high school graduate, has made it his mission to collect their stories before it is too late. “Five hundred war veterans die every day, and with them go the stories of bloodshed and sacrifice,” he says. “What good is what they had to go through if we don’t learn from it?”
Every day, the ponytailed 19-year-old son of Indian immigrants interviews at least one American combat veteran of World War II. “I am doing this until the last one passes away,” he says. “Each interview helps me get closer to understanding what combat was like in the worst war the world has ever seen.”
Sharma estimates it will take about 10 years to complete his task. He has put off college, a career, and even dating to track down veterans and record their stories on his Canon 70D digital camera. He gives the vets a DVD of the interviews, along with rights to the material — all free of charge. Some donate the interviews to museums.
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His parents are not thrilled. “I don’t think they are jumping for joy,” Sharma says. But since his undertaking has drawn widespread media attention, they believe he is making a difference. Sharma has set up a nonprofit (heroesofthesecondworldwar.org) and, as of January, had already exceeded his $105,000 goal by raising more than $130,000 in travel funding on the online site GoFundMe (gofundme.com/ww2heroes).
Sharma has long been fascinated by World War II, but his interest piqued during his junior year in high school. While reading about Lyle Bouck, a hero of the Battle of the Bulge, in Stephen E. Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers, something dawned on him: maybe he could actually talk to Bouck. He found the vet’s phone number and called him.
An obsession was born.
Sharma soon began riding his bike to nearby retirement homes to interview vets. Last summer, he borrowed his parents’ car for a road trip to Oregon and California, talking to aging GIs and scrimping on meals to save cash. When World War II contacted him in December, he was in Hawaii for the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
“Mainstream folks don’t understand how special these guys are and what they actually had to go through — sitting in a foxhole and seeing your buddy put his head up and get shot right between the eyes, fighting the enemy hand-to-hand,” he says. “It’s such a horrible thing that people don’t like to think about it.”
The stories stick with him. There was the Big Red One vet whose unit was decimated during the invasion of Sicily. While badly wounded, the soldier looked over and saw his best friend, bloodied and singing Billie Holiday’s “I’ll be Seeing You” to his girlfriend far away. The friend stopped mid-song and died. And the Tarawa veteran, then 17 years old, who could not shake the memory of a Japanese soldier who kept charging after being shot by three Marines, his face melting after a flamethrower attack.
Sharma doubts there will ever be another generation like that which fought in World War II. “They grew up real tough” during the Great Depression, he says. “They had it bad when they were seven or eight. They were going hungry.” They took jobs as kids to bring money home to their families. And when war came, they were clear-sighted. “It was good versus evil,” he says.
By contrast, Sharma says his own generation is self-absobed and ignorant of the past. When he asked his high school classmates when World War II was fought, no one knew. “Kids my age have absolutely no idea what it was like for these men,” he says. “They are more concerned about what the Kardashians are wearing.”
Members of the “Greatest Generation” are known for their reluctance to talk about their experiences during the war. But Sharma says many of them are opening up as they face death, wanting to unburden themselves of painful memories. “You talk to them and take that load off,” he says. “They no longer need to worry about the war. They can die in peace.”