When he was a kid, Rishi Sharma became fascinated with the men who fought in World War II, men who dodged bullets and watched their friends die, only to return home to raise children they hadn't yet met and take mediocre jobs to pay the bills. Sharma read every book and watched every documentary on WWII he could find, and when he was in his junior year at Agoura Hills High School north of Los Angeles, he had a revelation. Some of these men were still alive and he could meet them.
Sharma had been reading about Lyle Bouck, a WWII vet and hero of the Battle of the Bulge, in Stephen E. Ambrose's "Citizen Soldiers," when he realized that Bouck was still alive and just a phone call away. He looked up the number and dialed. Soon after, the teen began riding his bike to nearby nursing homes and asking to speak with military veterans. The following summer, Sharma borrowed his parents' car and road-tripped around Oregon and California, talking to as many veterans as he could while sleeping in his car and eating fast food to save money.
Take a load off
Since graduating from high school, Sharma has made it his mission to meet and interview as many WWII vets as he can. Because many of these men are in their 80s and 90s, Sharma figures he has around 10 years before the veterans of the so-called greatest generation are gone, so he's putting off everything else in his life — college, dating, finding a job — to dedicate himself to documenting their stories.
For each military veteran who Sharma interviews, he creates a DVD of their story so they can share it with family and friends. These men are known for their stoicism and a refusal to discuss what happened during the war, but Sharma has found that as the men grow older, they're happy to finally share their stories more widely.
"You talk to them and take that load off," Sharma told The Military Times. "They no longer need to worry about the war. They can die in peace."
In May 2016, Sharma founded Heroes of the Second World War, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the stories of WWII veterans. He also launched a GoFundMe page which, to date, has pulled in more than $186,000. Sharma uses that money to pay for his travel and video equipment.
Of the roughly 16 million Americans who served in some capacity during WWII, some 620,000 survive, but they are dying at the rate of nearly 400 a day, according to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Sharma says he won't stop interviewing until the last of these men is gone. In the meantime, he hopes to preserve as many stories from these "living history books" as he can — for their sakes, and for ours.