Teen ded­i­cates life to find­ing WWII com­bat vet­er­ans

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - LIVING - By John Rogers

LOS AN­GE­LES » 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 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 to try to en­sure each one’s legacy.

“I’m on a mis­sion to in­depth 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.

He came across the name Lyle Bouck, one of the he­roes of Ger­many’s Bat­tle of the Bulge of­fen­sive in Bel­gium, as he read his­to­rian Stephen Am­brose’s book “Cit­i­zen Sol­diers.”

Fas­ci­nated, he looked up Bouck’s phone num­ber and called him, not re­al­iz­ing it was 1 a.m. where the 92-year-old war hero lives. 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 an epiphany. “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 the in­ter­net.

Bor­row­ing his par­ents’ car, he trav­eled to Ore­gon over the sum­mer, then back down the Cal­i­for­nia coast, in­ter­view­ing still more peo­ple. He’s up to about 160, and has plans to ex­pand his trav­els in the weeks ahead to Ari­zona and other states and, on next month’s 75th an­niver­sary of the Pearl Har­bor at­tack, to Hawaii.

He makes a DVD of ev­ery in­ter­view and 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,” says Howie Beach of Fuller­ton, whom Sharma re­cently in­ter­viewed. What he is do­ing is im­por­tant, says Beach, another Silver Star re­cip­i­ent who at 91 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

Since child­hood, Sharma says, he’s been fas­ci­nated by the sac­ri­fices men his age made dur­ing World War II, risk­ing their lives for free­dom, then re­turn­ing home to raise fam­i­lies and take every­day jobs as they tran­si­tioned back to civil­ian life.

granted,” Beach says 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, how­ever, and Sharma quickly ex­hausted his mod­est life’s sav­ings car­ry­ing it out. He raised about $3,300 through a Go­FundMe ac­count and has spent most of that. To econ­o­mize dur­ing the Ore­gon-North­ern Cal­i­for­nia trip, he limited him­self to one meal ev­ery other day.

But Sharma, who also founded a non­profit called He­roes of the Sec­ond World War, has huge dreams for his ef­fort. He’d like to even­tu­ally re­cruit oth­ers to help con­duct in­ter­views, per­haps get the in­ter­views to mu­se­ums and al­low oth­ers 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-yearold who saw com­bat in the South Pa­cific, and now he has no one.”

NICK UT — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Rishi Sharma in­ter­views World War II vet­eran William Hahn at his home in Los An­ge­les.

NICK UT — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Rishi Sharma in­ter­views World War II vet­eran William Hahn at his home in Los An­ge­les.

NICK UT — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Rishi Sharma in­ter­views World War II vet­eran William Hahn at his home in Los An­ge­les.

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