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Meet the 19-year-old racing to preserve the stories of WWII veterans

by Austin Cross | Take Two®

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Rishi Sharma with R.V. Burgin. Burgin, a WWII Marine, saw heavy combat. Rishi Sharma/ Heroes of the Second World War

More than 16 million Americans served in World War II. It was a fight that few wanted. But the attack on Pearl Harbor threw the nation into battle. More than 400,000 wouldn't come home. 

Today, the numbers are different. There are only about 600,000 veterans of that war left. Every day, 650 die. 

Enter Rishi Sharma, a young man from Agoura Hills on a mission to record and save the stories of the country's remaining vets. He's only 19 years old, but he's in a race against time.

Sharma has been capturing stories since his junior year in high school. To date, he's recorded over 400.

"I've been one of the many recipients of their sacrifices," Sharma says. "I feel it is my responsibility to really understand what that bloodshed and sacrifice is like for their generation."

He started locally at first. Interviewing vets in Southern California and building relationships with veterans groups. After high school, he kicked his preservation efforts into high gear.

"I spend literally every single day either at a veteran's home, at a senior home, in a hospital, documenting these World War II veterans in — what is for many of them — their dying words," Sharma says.

Sharma now travels around the country, sleeping in the back of his car, and recording about three interviews every day. Tapings can last for more than four hours.

Rishi Sharma with Lester Cook. Cook, a WWII Army Ranger, saw heavy combat.
Rishi Sharma with Lester Cook. Cook, a WWII Army Ranger, saw heavy combat. Rishi Sharma/ Heroes of the Second World War

"I do research on the first interview that I'm going to conduct in the day, which usually starts around nine o'clock," Sharma explains. "The second interview of the day is usually around three o'clock. I'll have some night owl veterans, and I'm able to squeeze in a third one around seven o'clock. I hit the sack around 12, and then I just start the day over."

The result of this day-after-day marathon? Stories that paint vivid pictures of a war that few can imagine. Like the story of Steve Politis. Now 100 years old and living in Southern California, he served in the Army Signal Corps. He told Sharma about his friend Pat:

"Pat had a girlfriend. He was singing to her on the phone one day, 'I'll be Seeing You.' It's an old song. And was singing 'I'll be squeezing you in all familiar places.' He put in the word 'squeezing.' I'll be squeezing..."

Politis was never supposed to see combat, but in July 1943, he did. Along with thousands of others, he stormed an Italian beach during the Allied Invasion of Sicily:

"When we hit the beach, we were all hit, and the medics couldn't get to us. I could hear him singing 'I'll Be Seeing You.' And then he stopped. So, I listened to him die. It still bugs me."

Steve Politis was the only member of his 14-man unit to survive. Both legs had been hit by shrapnel:

"When I woke up back in Tunisia at the evacuation hospital, that's when I found out that the other five had died."

He was given the option to go home, but he refused. He continued to serve, transferring to the Air Corps. His plane was shot down twice.

Experiences like these weren't uncommon. But Risha Sharma knows a lot of these men are running out of time to tell their stories.  

"If they're real old or aren't doing good health-wise, I'll just make a single straight-shot to them to get them documented before they die," Sharma says.

Just last week, Sharma drove from Kentucky to Florida in an emergency trip to record the stories of some veterans who he worried might die before he could get there on his recording tour.

Sharma says he's going to continue his routine, recording as many combat veterans as he can for the next five years. By that time, Sharma says, the vets will probably all be gone — veterans like Steve Politis, with stories that speak to the humanity of the war, stories worth passing down before it's too late.

Steve Politis holds a picture of himself from World War Two. Politis was the only man of his 14 man unit to survive the Allied invasion of Sicily.
Steve Politis holds a picture of himself from World War Two. Politis was the only man of his 14 man unit to survive the Allied invasion of Sicily. Credit: Rishi Sharma/Heroes of the Second World War

Press the blue play button above to hear the story.

If you know of any surviving World War II combat veterans, please contact Rishi Sharma at his website. 

Links to more videos by Rishi Sharma.

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