California native Rishi Sharma is on a mission.
The 2016 graduate of Agoura High School, which is north of Los Angeles, has been on the road since December 2016 interviewing World War II combat veterans across the United States, as well as in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. He has done interviews in 46 states, and the only two states he has not visited are Alaska and Arkansas.
Sharma, a first-generation American born to parents who emigrated from India in the 1980s, has interviewed more than 1,100 veterans so far and has no plans to stop.
His project, which he calls “Heroes of the Second World War,” actually began in high school.
“When I was in high school, I read books about World War II, and I contacted several of the veterans I read about to thank them for their service. It amazed me that to interview a celebrity, you have to go through all these channels, but I could talk to a veteran by just picking up the phone,” Sharma said.
He said he wanted to meet a veteran in person, so he rode his bicycle to a retirement home near his school, and the director introduced him to 25 veterans who lived at the facility.
“I would do these interviews after school. The director let me use his office as a studio, and I would videotape these veterans and just let them talk about their experiences,” Sharma said. “I had a good first experience doing this, so that inspired me to continue. These guys are extremely cool. They are walking history books.”
He said several months after graduation, he took his project on the road. He raised approximately $200,000 through a GoFundMe social media page, and he said he just used the last of that funding in the past several weeks.
“CBS This Morning” did a story about his project several years ago, which helped him land other donations and sponsorships. He interviews the veterans and then a friend of his edits the interviews onto a DVD, which he gives to the veteran at no cost. He also posts the interviews on his YouTube channel, “Legends of World War II,” and advertising from that site also helps fund his project.
“I have 15,000 subscribers to my YouTube channel and sometimes, one interview will get 100,000 views,” Sharma said.
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
“I can’t interview them all myself. The most recent statistics show there are approximately 300,000 living World War II veterans worldwide. I need help,” Sharma said
To that end, he is partnering with other nonprofits focused on veterans to start an oral history initiative under Heroes of the Second World War, which is the nonprofit he runs. He said they are in the fundraising stage to create the paid oral history team and donate a monthly prize for those who submit WWII veteran interviews. The goal is to create the world’s largest video archive of WWII veterans.
After raising the necessary capital, Heroes of the Second World War will start a media campaign to spread the word it is conducting a lottery of sorts regarding a collection of oral histories of the WWII veterans.
“The idea is that in exchange for interviewing WWII veterans and sending footage and the rights, individuals will have the opportunity to win a large sum of cash with no strings attached,” Sharma said.
Every month, Heroes of the Second World War will offer two prizes of $10,000 to individuals who interview WWII veterans and send them the footage. One entry will be chosen at random to encourage people to interview more than one veteran to increase their chances of winning the money. The other entry will be chosen based on the quality of the interview, both visually and by the way the interviewer conducted themselves. This will encourage people to do the best possible interview in order to increase their chances of winning, Sharma said.
He will direct people to his website and have a phone number to call if they have questions. On the website will be a video tutorial and some tips on how to find these veterans. There will be step-by-step instructions on how to set up a camera and a list of questions to ask the veterans.
The interviews will have some kind of minimum time in order to be eligible for the prize money. The contestants will send Sharma and his team the raw footage either through YouTube, Dropbox, the physical mail or some means yet to be determined. The contestants will sign something giving his team the rights to use the footage.The winners of the month will be showcased on the website and also on the group’s social media channels.
“The bedrock of Heroes of the Second World War are the WWII veteran interviews. This is what makes us unique and valuable. If we raised capital, we could fund dedicated teams of roving oral historians whose sole job is finding and documenting these WWII veterans. In exchange for their salary and expenses being paid, all the content they gather would belong to Heroes of the Second World War,” Sharma said. “Imagine historians dedicated to a certain region and like five historians in each of the other countries. While this sounds like a lot of cash, I am confident the funding / funders are there, and we all know plenty of people who want this job even if it was just travel expenses paid. These teams are the core of Heroes of the Second World War.
“People will do anything for money, but for me, it’s not about the money. It’s about preserving these stories for future generations,” Sharma said.
All of the veterans he interviews are combat vets from the Allied countries, and he said their lives have very similar arcs: They were all born between 1915 and 1926, they all grew up during the Great Depression, and they all have stories about what their lives would have been without being in the war.
“The most common theme is Pearl Harbor and how they heard about it. Most of them will tell you that the bombing of Pearl Harbor was the catalyst for them to volunteer for military service,” Sharma said. “Then they will tell you how they joined, their time in combat and their readjustment to civilian life.
“These veterans could have been angry after their experiences, but instead they are grateful. These men had a hand in creating many of the civic organizations that still exist today. They wanted to make the world a better place.”
Sharma said one veteran he interviewed is 104 and still volunteers at his local Veterans Affairs clinic, and another delivers Meals on Wheels even though he is in his 90s.
“They have an attitude of putting others before themselves, which is such a contrast to the ‘selfie’ generation I am part of,” Sharma said. “They didn’t join the military, and they don’t volunteer for the recognition. They do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Sharma admits he was not a good student in high school and often skipped class to interview veterans. He didn’t go to college, and he doesn’t earn a regular paycheck.
“This is my job. My whole life is finding these veterans and interviewing them,” Sharma said.
He said he has been interviewed multiple times by television stations and usually gets some coverage in the local newspaper, after which he will have more veterans to add to his list.
“I use Spokeo to get their names and addresses and phone numbers. I also have a directory of wounded war veterans from all wars, and I have the World War II ones circled. And veterans know other veterans, so word of mouth helps me locate them, too,” Sharma said.
Sharma said he does not have his own social media page, but he uses Facebook and YouTube just for his project. His nonprofit is called Heroes of the Second World War, but a lot of the veterans don’t like to be called heroes, so his YouTube videos are called “Legends of World War II.”
“If a Civil War veteran suddenly came back to life from the grave, all the world’s media would be hounding him, begging for an interview using the nicest equipment and the fanciest cameras,” Sharma said. “What boggles my mind is that we have this opportunity with the WWII veterans. We should not wait until there is only one left to acknowledge their sacrifices and to document them.”