Teen History Buff Seeks to Chronicle ‘Heroes' of World War II

18-year-old Rishi Sharma graduated high school this year, and is delaying further schooling to focus on interviewing WWII combat veterans.

The wound didn't shock Art Sherman until he saw how much blood he lost, and realized he was still alive.

He'd seen the fire coming close, and reached for his helmet. Seconds later, he was on the floor of the plane flying over Austria with blood gushing from his head. A thumbnail-sized chunk of flak had penetrated his skull.

Sherman was lucky. He survived being wounded in World War II. Seventy years later the nonagenarian recalled his story to a kid who was about his age when Sherman was battling the Nazis as a bombardier overseas.

"It would have killed me if it had gone a few millimeters more," Sherman said in a video interview at Heroes of the Second World War. "I'm still alive and appreciate living this long."

The "kid" who created the project, Rishi Sharma, recently graduated from Agoura High School.

The history buff came up with the idea because he felt that members of the "Greatest Generation" are being forgotten by younger generations. Some 16 million Americans served during WWII, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Fewer than 1 million survive today and they're dying at a rate of more than 400 a day, according to the National WWII Museum. The VA projects that only half a million will be alive by 2017.

"They're kind of just being left to die, without people realizing what they've done for the world," Sharma said. "People my age just don't realize what these guys had to do."

Sharma was inspired by The Library of Congress's Veterans History Project, which collects stories from veterans of wars spanning the last century. Similar projects exist throughout the country.

"We have more than 100,000 stories in our archive, but there are 21 million living American veterans," said Lisa Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Veterans History Project. "We have our work cut out for us."

Sharma tries to do one interview per day.

He borrows his parents' car to get to the interviews at veterans' homes.

He sets up his camera, tripod and microphone where the lighting is good. And he looks each of his subjects in the eye.

"Before I even do the interview, after I've set up shop, I explain to them how thankful I really am," Sharma said. "I tell the guys, 'I really think that you are a hero. And I just want you to know that.'"

Some veterans he seeks out, some come to him.

Len Zerlin, a 92-year-old Air Force veteran from Thousand Oaks, reached out to Sharma after reading about him in a newspaper.

Zerlin has spoken to classes about his World War II experiences, but stopped because the audiences seemed indifferent.

"I wanted to know about him," Zerlin said. "What motivated a kid who just graduated school to want to do this?"

Milt Bick, a 91-year-old Oak Park resident who served in the Marine Corps during WWII, got in touch with Sharma through his daughter.

"My sister and I thought it was a good idea to get it on to paper," said his daughter, Randi. "He found it fascinating going back in time. He talked about things that he wouldn't normally talk to us about."

Sharma is so committed to the interviews that he says he's putting off college.

"I would be doing this no matter what," said Sharma who is raising travel expenses online. "I'm just trying to meet my heroes and trying to understand who they were."

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