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A quest to document WWII combat veterans’ stories before their voices disappear

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

While most 19-year-olds are enrolling in college, working their first full-time job or considering what’s next in life – all of which keeps their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts buzzing 24/7 – Rishi Sharma is on a far different quest. The 19-year-old Californian has been interviewing at least one World War II combat veteran a day for more than a year, recording their stories and learning all he can from that quickly disappearing “Greatest Generation.”

Rishi Sharma has been interviewing at least one World War II combat veteran a day for more than a year. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Rishi Sharma has been interviewing at least one World War II combat veteran a day for more than a year. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

To date, he’s interviewed more than 260 such veterans, including several from New Mexico.

“My best friends are World War II veterans,” said Sharma, the son of Indian immigrants who was raised in Agoura Hills, Calif.

Armed with a video camera, a lengthy list of questions and a razor-sharp focus on the job at hand, Sharma has already traveled thousands of miles in his Honda Civic to interview any combat veteran with the mental acuity and time – typically four to six hours – to spare.

Four days into his New Mexico swing last week, Sharma was in the Northeast Heights home of Jim W. Wilson who, at age 95, is likely the last remaining Army paratrooper who helped liberate 2,147 civilian and military prisoners being held by their Japanese captors at the Los Baños internment camp in the Philippines. The Los Baños raid, which occurred 72 years ago this month, is among the most successful POW rescues in modern military history.

Over the course of several hours, Sharma and Wilson discussed the veteran’s childhood on a sharecropping farm in Elgin, Texas, the challenges of growing up during the Depression, his military service, the famous raid and his life after the war. Taking brief breaks as needed, Sharma patiently and painstakingly queried Wilson, hoping to get as complete a portrait of the veteran as he could.

At the end, Sharma offered Wilson a copy of the video to do with as he chooses.

“Some veterans will share the video with their families and friends, and some won’t do anything with it. It’s entirely up to them,” Sharma said. That’s his standard operating procedure.

“I’m not trying to make a cute movie of grandpa for the family. That would be a waste of time,” Sharma said. “What I’m trying to do is give these World War II combat veterans a chance to get some things off their chests before they pass away.”

Sharma said that although he thinks it’s important to preserve the veterans’ stories, there’s no documentary or book in the works. Although he has sent the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project some of the videos, he doesn’t do it routinely. With a veteran’s permission he posts some of the videos on his Facebook page.

“I’m not trying to commercialize anything. I even give them the rights to the videos,” he said.

A common interest

Being a stranger with a genuine interest in their wartime experiences, Sharma said, makes it easier for some veterans to share their stories – sometimes for the first time ever.

“I’m here one day, and gone the next, so they’re able to unload a lot of stuff on me,” he said.

“A lot of these veterans have told me things they haven’t talked about in 70 years.”

Sharma is keenly aware that time is running out for him, and the veterans, to get their stories told.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, about 620,000 are still alive, according to the National World War II Museum. But about 372 of them die each day. Sharma said he thinks he has about seven years before his mission draws to its inevitable close.

“My biggest thing right now is just interviewing them” he said.

“I don’t want us to be a society that, when the last World War II veteran dies, it dawns on them that they should have asked grandpa more about his life, and that they shouldn’t have taken them for granted.”

Even Sharma isn’t sure when his interest in World War II, and the men who fought in it, started, though it’s been “as long as I can remember.”

“I’ve always found it fascinating,” he said.

“World War II was the worst war this world has ever seen. …Countries put their entire efforts and energy into killing each another, without a clear end game,” he said.

“When I was little I wanted to be a Marine, but I just thought of them as these strong guys with just the shirt on their back and a rifle, fighting on the sands of Iwo Jima,” he said. “I was pretty naive. Everything was black and white, good against evil.”

It’s not that way today, he said, and he has no interest in a military career – or any other career – until he finishes his project.

Traveling around the country to interview veterans isn’t expensive, he said, but it’s not free, either. Because he’s not old enough to rent a car – which makes flying a challenge – he drives his Civic everywhere.

“Really, my biggest expense is gas money,” he said. “I’m not very high cost, and I practically live in my car.”

Sharma has set up a nonprofit to help fund his travels.

The goals of the nonprofit, he said, are to encourage people to befriend a World War II veteran, and to urge the media to publish or broadcast stories about World War II veterans to preserve their personal histories.

“They’re dying at such a rapid pace,” he said. “The next seven years is all we have with these guys.”

And he laments that most of his peers have little interest in history, let alone the veterans of World War II.

“We’re so selfish today,” he said. “We care more about the Kardashians … than we do about the men who saved our world.”

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