Rishi Sharma has made it his mission to conduct commemorative in-depth interviews with WWII combat veterans. He’s stopping at nothing on his quest to meet as many of the 620,000 remaining men as he can — and with most vets in their 90s, the 19-year-old knows time is not on his side.
“This is my sole mission in life, I’m just focused on getting to as many men as I can,” he tells PEOPLE as he hurries to his next interview with 95-year-old Bill Gerard, who served as a machinist’s mate in the Army.
Sharma, a Southern California high school graduate putting off college to complete his endeavor, is the founder of Heroes of the Second World War, a certified non-profit organization dedicated to documenting WWII combat vets on film. His goal? “To be an outlet for vets to talk about their experiences, because most have never done that. I’m the perfect stranger because once they share what they went through during the war, they no longer have to carry that burden. They can be at peace,” he says.
“I need to meet and talk with all the surviving combat veterans of World War II, and I’ll keep doing it until they’re all gone. It’s important to honor these guys.”
Any moment not spent fulfilling that goal is, to Sharma, wasted.
So far, the determined teen has met with around 160 combat vets on the West Coast — most of them for six hours. Sharma keeps a running tab of WWII heroes that are still alive (right now he has 300 on his list) and willing to be filmed. He raises money for food, gas and lodgings on a GoFundMe page and spends his days conducting interviews.
“WWII combat vets are my heroes, best friends and kindred spirits,” he says. “These are the guys I want to look in their eyes and hear firsthand what they had to go through. I want to meet and learn from them, because it’s so important that someone carries on those memories of what they had to endure.”
Sharma films the interviews on a Canon 70D camera and gives each veteran a copy of the interview and full rights to the video. The clips are intended to be just for the veterans, and never for commercial use. The teen only uploads an interview to his YouTube page with permission from the veteran.
“These WWII vets are actually known for not talking about what they went through overseas,” he says. “I’m trying to be an outlet for them to talk about it in a censor-free environment to get their thoughts across before they’re gone. They don’t talk to their families, because they don’t want to burden them with the horror of they’ve seen or done. I’m the same age as they were when they went overseas, so I can relate to what they are saying.”
Sharma drives his family’s Honda Civic (“I practically living out of that thing sometimes,” he says) across the country to meet with vets like 96-year-old Medal of Honor recipient Robert Maxwell of Oregon.
“Robert was very courageous, he was a wire man under heavy fire,” says Sharma. “He would lay communication wires along the front line to make sure the platoons were connected to each other. He had to be out in the front line and brave a lot of fire.
“He actually got the medal because he jumped on a grenade and saved 4 guys around him. Without blinking an eye. It’s incredible.”
Sharma has also visited “Bazooka” Joe Pietroforte, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was named a hero after he stopped a line of German tanks heading for U.S. soldiers.
“He got a high decoration for braving enemy fire and taking out two German tanks that could have caused a lot of damage to the troops he was with,” says Sharma.
“We need to document guys like Joe, so we can add more and more information to the historical record. We have so much technology to document what life was like for these people. In 100 years from now, I want people to be able to look back and see what it was like to fight in the worst war the world has ever seen.”
Because Sharma is only 19, he says he has trouble renting cars and raising enough money for food and travel.
“I can’t keep driving my family’s car. And I’m not old enough to rent a car!” he says with a laugh. “I want to do this on my own, and so I’m trying to raise money for airplane tickets or to get a vehicle. This will be my life for the next few years, so it’s been tricky trying to figure it out.”
The teen heads to Hawaii next month for the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. After that, he’s planning a cross-country trip to interview vets in Nevada, Utah, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee. Sharma has also started an organization called Become Friends with a WWII Veteran that pairs Californians with vets to meet up for dinners, lunches and “just general hangouts.”
“I’d like to see this grow and create a national movement, and get to the point where everyone knows a WWII veteran and spends time with them and learns from these people before they’re gone,” says Sharma. “Heck, if Tom Hanks or [Steven] Spielberg want to get involved, I wouldn’t say no!
“We need to remember and honor combat vets.”