The Greatest Generation grew up during the Great Depression and fought in World War II. They went on to build modern America. The youngest are now in their 90s. Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, fewer than 500,000 are alive today. We lose over 300 every day, and for many, their memories of World War II will die with them. But one young man is working to preserve these memories for future generations.
Heroes of the Second World War
Rishi Sharma founded Heroes of the Second World War to film interviews of all the surviving combat veterans in the U.S., Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. He has interviewed over a thousand World War II veterans so far and traveled to over 40 states and all those countries. His organizations puts the interviews on DVDs to mail to the veterans. They also upload the interviews online and donate them to oral history museums.
So what piqued your interest in hearing these stories of the World War II vets?
Rishi Sharma: I’ve just always been interested in World War II. I mean, ever since I was a little kid and so when I was in high school, I’d read books about the subject or I’d watch TV shows and I started looking at online, some of the veterans who I was reading about and they were alive and I would just find their phone number online and I would just call them. And it was such a cool thing to actually talk to someone that I’m reading about it at the same time, you know, to, to actually make that action. That inspired me to start riding my bike, uh, to the local retirement home and my uh, near my high school. And I just started interviewing all the World War II combat veterans at that retirement home. And I just kept learning so much that I just became addicted to it in the local papers, started doing stories saying that I was looking for veterans to interview and it just got bigger and bigger.
Preserving Stories for Future Generations
Rishi Sharma: You can set up an appointment to talk to them and you know, you’ve preserved that person’s history for future generations. So that 200 years from now, great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren will not only know their great, great, great, great, great grandfather’s name, but they’ll also know what he looks like, what he sounded like, how he sounded when he laughed, when he cried. All these different emotions are tied in with video. People are able to give that. That’s such a beautiful gift that we could give to these future generations of the Greatest Generation.
Are there any stories that really impacted you that you’d be willing to share with us?
Rishi Sharma: They’re all heroes in their own ways, but you know, there are some stories that stick out. You know, I interviewed one veteran who was with his twin brother. They were in the same unit and they were a bazooka team together. Back then, when you fired a bazooka, you needed two people to do it. They were really an amazing couple because they were able to knock out four German tanks together, a couple of machine gun nests. They were put in for the silver star, and they got the silver star.
But the veteran who I interviewed, he was running with his brother, and they got under German machine gun fire. His brother was hit, and he started to cradle him and talk to him and try to give him first aid. So one brother was holding his other brother as he was dying. They’re Catholics, so he was giving him last rites. And before he finished his last rites, a German sniper killed his brother, shot his brother again and hit him in the neck. That’s the kind of caliber person that we’re talking about. We’re talking about a twin brother who held his brother in his arms as he was killed. — Rishi Sharma
Rishi Sharma: I’ve met so many veterans who lied about their age or changed their birth certificates to get into the service at an earlier age. It’s not like they wanted to die. It’s not like they wanted to kill. They were willing to put themselves in a position that no one else wanted to be in so that other people wouldn’t have to. I think that’s what’s so amazing about that generation. At such a young age, you know, in their teen years, in their twenties, that they were able to understand that if they went, other people would not have to and that it was for the greater good.
Advice from the Veterans
What’s some of the best life advice you’ve gotten from these veterans?
Rishi Sharma: During the interviews I always ask the veterans to give me advice, because I’m the same age they were when they were in combat. And a lot of the advice the veterans give is really through the stories. And I would say that talking to the veterans and understanding what they went through, it really gives you such a good perspective on life. It makes you realize that, you know, being stuck in traffic or not having Internet connection isn’t the end of the world. It’s not like I just saw my best friend getting killed. It’s not like I just got into a hand-to-hand combat encounter with a German or Japanese soldier fighting for my life.
And I think that’s a big piece of advice that a lot of them will give is that, you know, you’re so fortunate to be here today, alive without a war going on. You need to make the most use of your time and help as many people as you can because that’s really what the world’s about. You know, it’s about helping people and making this a good place to live for everyone. They’ve done their part and we need to continue that legacy. — Rishi Sharma
How You Can Help
Rishi Sharma: I would just encourage people to please go try to meet some World War II combat veterans in your area and just document. Just imagine what it would be like to see your great, great, great, great grandpa on video, you know, talking about his life and what he went through. And now think that you could give that gift to so many people. It’s very easy. I would really appreciate it if anyone knows of any World War II combat veterans to please reach out and tell us about them because we will get them documented. That’s at heroesofthesecondworldwar.org. Or you could call me at (929) 313-9037.
We’re always looking for more people to try to go meet veterans in their area and document them. If a Civil War veteran suddenly came up from the grave, all the world’s media would be hounding him just for five minutes of his time. They’d be using the nicest cameras, the fanciest equipment. And what boggles my mind is we have this opportunity. The World War II veterans are arguably way cooler than any Civil War veterans. — Rishi Sharma
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