California teen dedicates life to finding World War II vets
For as long as he can remember, Rishi Sharma's heroes haven't been sports stars. They haven't been movie stars or any other kind of stars. They've been the U.S. combat veterans who won World War II.
Alarmed that even the youngest of them are now in their 90s and dying each day by the hundreds, the Southern California teenager has launched a campaign. He wants to try to ensure each one's legacy.
"I'm on a mission to in-depth film interview a World War II combat veteran every single day," the 19-year-old said. He had just spent an afternoon in the living room of William R. Hahn of Los Angeles. Sharma spoke with the 93-year-old for hours.
His Canon 70D camera rolling, his long, jet-black hair tied back in a tight ponytail, the son of Indian immigrants listened intently. Hahn recounted how he received the Silver Star for bravery. He charged through gunfire on Easter Sunday 1945. This was as Allied forces retook the German town of Hettstandt.
Asked if he considers himself a hero, Hahn chuckled.
"Not really," said the retired metal-shop teacher. He said he had a bullet come so close to him that it blew the canteen on his belt to smithereens. Other guys, he said, did similar things. Not all came back to talk about it.
Sharma wants to meet and honor every one who did. He knows time is not on his side.
Of the approximately 16 million Americans who served in some capacity during WWII, some 620,000 survive. They are dying at the rate of nearly 400 a day. That's according to the National Museum of World War II.
"I want to create this movement where people, where they just realize that we have such a limited time with these men who saved humanity," he said. "Let's try to learn as much as we can from them and give them a proper send-off. And make them feel like the sacrifices they made were worth it."
He figures he's got about 10 years to do that. He's putting off college. He is putting off finding a job. He's putting off looking for a girlfriend. In fact, he's putting off just about everything except occasionally eating and sleeping between interviewing combat veterans.
Since childhood, Sharma said, he's been fascinated by the sacrifices men his age made during WWII. They risked their lives for freedom. Then they returned home. They raised families and worked everyday jobs as they transitioned back to civilian life.
He read every book and watched every documentary he could find. But it wasn't until his junior year at Agoura Hills High School, just north of Los Angeles, that he became committed to meeting them.
He came across the name Lyle Bouck. He was one of the heroes of Germany's Battle of the Bulge. Sharma learned about him as he read historian Stephen Ambrose's book. It is titled, "Citizen Soldiers."
Fascinated, he looked up Bouck's phone number. He dialed it. But he didn't realize it was 1 a.m. where the 92-year-old war hero lived. A friendly voice on the other end of the phone told Sharma if he called back at a decent hour, Bouck would be happy to talk.
That's when the teen had a big idea.
"It made me realize these guys are really out there. And I could do this for all of them."
Soon Sharma was riding his bike to every retirement home within pedaling distance. After he interviewed every combat-hardened soldier there, he turned to veterans' halls. Then he hit the Internet.
Borrowing his parents' car, he traveled to Oregon over the summer. Then he returned down the California coast, interviewing still more people. He's up to about 160. He has plans to expand his travels to Arizona and other states. On the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack Dec.7, he plans to be in Hawaii.
He makes a DVD of every interview. He gives it to the veteran. Some have passed on copies to the World War II museum.
"He's just totally dedicated and a very decent young fellow," said Howie Beach of Fullerton, Calif., whom Sharma interviewed. What he is doing is important, said Beach, another Silver Star recipient. At 91, he sometimes speaks to high school groups.
"But a lot of them go on their merry way, just taking their lives and their freedoms and all that for granted," Beach said of those students. "So it's good to see a young man like Rishi with such a convincing way about him."
Such an effort doesn't come cheap. Sharma quickly exhausted his modest life's savings carrying it out. He raised about $3,300 through a GoFundMe account. He's spent most of that. To save money during the Oregon-Northern California trip, he limited himself to one meal. And that was every other day.
Sharma also founded a nonprofit. It is called Heroes of the Second World War. He'd like to recruit others to help conduct interviews and perhaps get the interviews to museums. He wants more people to get to know some of the people he says have become his closest friends.
"This one guy I interviewed in Oregon told me he hadn't been visited by anyone in over five months and that he was just waiting to die," Sharma recalled. "This is a 94-year-old who saw combat in the South Pacific. And now he has no one."