Rishi Sharma remembers his interview to apply for California American Legion Boys State in 2015. Two veterans, one from World War II and the other from the Korean War, came to his Los Angeles high school to see if the senior-to-be qualified. He did. More important to him, though, was another opportunity to make firsthand contact with one of his heroes.
“I didn’t even know about the Legion before that,” says Sharma, whose mission is to interview on video all World War II combat veterans before they are gone. “Now, whenever I go to a different state, I can call the Legion and they put me in touch with (World War II) veterans. That Boys State experience has opened so many doors.”
So far, he has interviewed more than 870, and counting.
Their stories, along with the purpose of his nonprofit organization and more, can be found at www.heroesofthesecondworldwar.org – which he got started in part with a Go Fund Me campaign.
In June, Sharma could be found in the company of D-Day veterans in Normandy, France – those who had served in the U.S. armed forces, as well as Brits and Canadians who began the deadly 11-month march to defeat Nazi Germany in 1944 and 1945. Along the northern coast of France, he took time from his recordings to meet with American Legion National Commander Denise H. Rohan as well, who was a featured speaker at the La Fiere Bridge Memorial and parachute jump near Ste. Mere-Eglise in honor of the invasion’s 74th anniversary. The following day, the national commander found the former California Boys Stater talking with veterans at the National Guard Monument at Vierville-sur-Mer overlooking Omaha Beach.
“I’ve been on a mission to meet and interview two to three World War II combat veterans every single day, until the last one passes away,” Sharma told the commander. “This is my full-time job.”
He started collecting the stories of World War II veterans while still a high school student. That experience, he told CBS News in 2016, led to some missed classes. Time, he felt, was of the essence and was better used getting these histories before they disappear. He has taken his video camera to nursing homes and assisted living centers where he has befriended hundreds of veterans.
His nonprofit organization – which he says raises just enough money to keep him traveling to meet and to capture the stories – offers a guide so others can produce videos of World War II veterans they know, or advise him where to find them, so he can set up interviews.
What has he learned from this project? “I get to meet my heroes every day – those who sacrificed for me.”
Sharma said it amazes him how young so many World War II GIs were at the time they stepped up. “They were real people – 17, 18, 19 years old – and some of them changed their birth certificates just to get into the service and then to have their lives ripped away from them in some small town halfway across the word, or some island they couldn’t point to on a map.”
He is especially inspired by those who did not come home. To them, he says, he owes his freedom. “We really need to realize that 410,000 Americans gave their lives so that we could be here today. We cannot take a single moment for granted. We need to make the most of our lives because they didn’t get to make the most of theirs.
“They are my heroes. A lot of people are born, they live and they die without making an impact on the world. But those people who serve have a sense of purpose. They have done something to contribute to the world around them – much greater than the world has ever done for them. I find that so amazing.”
He is also impressed that if he wants to reach a World War II veteran, “I can just pick up a phone and call them. But if I wanted to talk to some celebrity, I’d have to go through 1,000 people. And what did they ever do for the world?”