For as long as he can remember, Rishi Sharma’s heroes haven’t been sports stars or movie stars or any other kind of stars. They’ve been the US 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 to try to ensure each one’s legacy.
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“I’m on a mission to in-depth film interview a World War II combat veteran every single day,” the earnest 19-year-old says after a recent afternoon spent in the living room of William R Hahn of Los Angeles, where Sharma mined the 93-year-old’s memories 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 as Hahn recounted how he received the Silver Star for bravery by charging through a hail of gunfire on Easter Sunday 1945 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 who 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, and not all came back to talk about it. Sharma wants to meet and honor every one who did, and 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, but they are dying at the rate of nearly 400 a day, 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 says. “Let’s try to learn as much as we can from them and give them a proper send-off and make them feel like their sacrifices they made were worth it.”
He figures he’s got about 10 years to do that so he’s putting off college, putting off finding a job, putting off looking for a girlfriend, putting off just about everything except occasionally eating and sleeping between interviewing combat veterans. Since childhood, Sharma says, he’s been fascinated by the sacrifices men his age made during WWII, risking their lives for freedom, then returning home to raise families and take 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.