Rishi Sharma, 20, has enjoyed learning about the Second World War ever since he was a little boy. Now, the young man from Agoura, California is on a mission and he feels significant time pressure. Sharma is aiming to interview as many living World War II combat veterans as he can and documenting their stories before they are lost forever.
In the past four years, that is since he was 16-years-old, he has traveled to 45 states and Canada to interview more than 870 veterans. But be is not done yet and is still looking for more. He not only wants to preserve their stories but also relay his gratitude for their service.
“They’ve given us the world that we have,” he said. “It’s truly amazing.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 558,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were still alive in 2017. But the youngest of those soldiers are in their late eighties, and some are more than 100-years-old. The VA estimates that more than 362 of them die each day.
Sharma was just a sophomore in high school when he started what he calls his “mission.” He heard about a decorated veteran, Lyle Bouck, whose small unit had held off a much larger German battalion in the Battle of the Bulge. The young man tracked the veteran down and interviewed him.
Then Sharma began biking to retirement homes to get to know the veterans in his community. Many aging veterans don’t get many visitors and are anxious to share their stories, he said.
Sharma records the interviews on video and then makes DVDs which he gives to the veterans. Some veterans want their stores to be public and others just want to keep them within their family. The public stories are posted to his YouTube channel.
It is amazing to see how powerful the stories are and how vividly many of the veterans remember them with emotion. Don Pullen was interviewed by Sharma. His unit was attached to the Air Force. Pullen befriended a family in Velten, Germany. The father was beaten to death by German soldiers who wanted information from him and the soldiers also whipped the daughter.
“That was the most godawful thing we’ve ever had to witness … what happened when the Germans beat those people,” he said.
Sharma also has talked to many veterans about their struggles after the war. Joseph Diamond, a combat medic, recounted the pain he faced upon his return home.
“The nightmares were there,” he said, “and you couldn’t go to sleep at night without fighting the war all over again.”
In 2016, Sharma founded Heroes of the Second World War, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving interviews with WWII combat veterans for future generations. He also set up a GoFundMe account to fund his efforts. So far he’s raised more than $181,000, which helps pay for his travel expenses and video equipment. It’s now the young man’s full-time job. His life on the road is hard because his age keeps him from renting cars or even checking into many hotels unaccompanied. “I live out of the car when I’m on the road,” he told CNN. “(It) makes my job a lot harder.”
In late 2016, CBS News did a story on his work. After it aired, he received thousands of emails suggesting new veterans to interview. He believes there are plenty of real-life heroes just a phone call away.
Sharma doesn’t want to do this all by himself. He encourages anyone who is interested in his work to reach out to WWII veterans in their areas and document their stories.
“We don’t need to use iPhones to take selfies,” he said. “We can actually document history with them.”
This young hero isn’t resting. He said recently, “I was in Canada until this morning and now I have some interviews (in) San Diego, and I’m going to Texas and then Oklahoma,” he said Monday. “I’ll go wherever the World War II combat veterans are.”