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RISHI SHARMA: Preserving World War II Combat Stories, One Veteran at a Time

Rishi Sharma has logged a lot of hours on the road in recent years, connecting, meeting and filming interviews with combat veterans who served in World War II. To date, he has amassed a comprehensive archive of over 850 interviews – easily over 4,500 total hours and counting — all part of his ambitious plan to honor America’s World War II heroes and preserve their stories for generations to come.

It is a lofty goal and he is determined to press on until there are no stories left to tell. In a relatively short time, Sharma has generated impressive public exposure and private support for his project. He is patient, polite, responsive and well-prepared, treating each veteran he meets with respectful reverence for their service and sacrifice.

There is one more thing that Rishi Sharma brings with him whenever and wherever he is conducting his interviews: a youthful curiosity and enthusiasm that has no seeming limitations.

That’s because Rishi Sharma just turned 20 years old.

It is hard not to be inspired by Sharma or his vision for a perfect world where veterans of World War II never die. He is driven to do all he can every day to meet and thank veterans while recording video of their story. He wants more people to reach out to the veterans in their communities before it is too late, and has created a step-by-step guide with sample questions to make the process easier.

His mission has garnered local and national media attention. CBS Sunday Morning has profiled Sharma twice in recent years, helping to catapult the program that he started in high school by visiting local veterans homes and senior centers to a broad-based national campaign. He has established a not-for profit organization that has already raised over $180,000 through a successful GoFundMe campaign started in May 2016. That funding has allowed Sharma to travel greater distances for his interviews, typically conducting two or more per day depending on the location. He provides a copy of the finished product to each family and is exploring options now for a permanent home for the collection.

What moves you most about Sharma is his determination to inspire others. His hope is that his generation will mobilize and embrace these extraordinary veterans as mentors, thank them for their service and utilize all the technological resources to post their stories online as part of a national archive at: #ww2vets.

Rishi Sharma joined the conversation as he was travelling by car from Fond De Lac, Wisconsin — where he met with James ‘Maggie’ Megellas, the most decorated veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division, on the occasion of his 101st birthday — by way of an interview in Rockford, Illinois toward his final destination, a veteran meeting in Champaign, Illinois …  just another day in the life of a young man on a mission to preserve World War II combat stories, one veteran at a time. PODCAST

Rishi Sharma ...“Ever since I was a little kid, I've always been interested in World War II and I've always been fascinated talking to the older veterans. In high school. I visited a lot of nursing homes and I interviewed a lot of the World War II veterans there and I got hooked on it. I started calling up veterans who I'd read about in books with the idea that I could talk to like a real-life hero about what was written about them in a book and hear their side of what they went through.”

For future generations ...“I know that it means a lot to the families of the veterans I have interviewed to have that 4 to 5 hour filmed interview of their grandpa or their dad talking about what it was like going through hell. For future generations, that's going to mean a lot. They won't just get to know their grandfather's name, but they'll get to know what their great, great grandpa looked like, how he talked, how he laughed, how he cried and who he really was.”

Following their life journey ...“I prioritize combat World War II veterans and tend to focus on the infantry. My purpose is truly to highlight the sacrifices made in combat so that we could have a chance at life today, 75+ years later. … when I meet the veterans, basically the interviews follow a pattern. We talk about growing up in the great depression, what it was like as a kid, how they heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. And then we dive straight into following their life journey. It's a chronological interview. … how they ended up in the service, whether they enlisted or they were drafted, and then the focus is on the battles that they saw, what their role was, their friends who didn't make it, the things that they had to see, the things that they had to do, the struggles of the living conditions in combat, the fear of not knowing if you're going to make it another day.”

One-on-One ...You're talking to people who saw the worst of the worst and had to do the worst of the worst and now to bring back those memories after 70+ years, it takes a lot out of the person being interviewed but also out of the interviewer because it's a tough thing to talk about killing people and seeing your friends die. I'm in a very fortunate position because I have three major things going for me. … my age, I just turned 20 and I'm the same age as a lot of the veterans were when they were in combat. … I do a lot of research before our interviews. It's important to know the difference between a company and a platoon, a division or what a certain division did in a certain battle. … it's hard enough for the veterans to talk about the worst days of their life, but it's even harder when they have to talk about it and try to explain it in terms that a civilian would understand. … the most important thing that I have going for me is that I'm not related to any of these veterans, so there's no emotional attachment and these men can sit down one-on-one with me and just talk as if I'm one of the guys and they know that they won't be judged.”

#WW2VETS ...“A lot of people will come to me and say, “My grandpa never talks about it. He wouldn't talk about the war.”  “My father never talks about it.” … but in all honesty, it's really because people don't ask. If you don't ask, they won't bring it up on their own. … all you have to do is whip out your phone and instead of taking a selfie, why not actually contribute to history, take a photo of a World War II veteran, add a caption to it and post it online at #ww2vets. A hundred years from now, historians will be digging through the online archives and they will find a composite image of all these different social media posts and videos that people have made. It took them like two seconds to make, to take a short video or take a picture, but they've contributed to this big composite image of what it was like to be a World War II combat veteran and what they went through.”

Comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

PHOTO CREDIT: Rishi Sharma|Heroes of the Second World War


Rishi Sharma's website( offers detailed information about conducting interviews in your community, the World War II Veteran for A Day media initiative and how you can make a donation to support this initiative at:

Special thanks to Regus Chicago, the market leader for office space, for their support of our program.

PODCAST available on iTunes, Libsyn and Stitcher


For William Massolia, Griffin Theatre Company's Founder and Artistic Director, the last ten years touring LETTERS HOME has been an extraordinary journey that has elevated his understanding of the commitment of our military and the family members who support them. That journey continues in April when LETTERS HOME returns for a run at The Den Theatre in rotating repertory with GHOSTS OF WAR, a new one-man show based on the book by Ryan Smithson. 

After viewing a documentary in 2004, Massolia made the decision to create a theatrical piece based on Iraq and Afghanistan letters. Following a successful 2007 Chicago run, LETTERS HOME went on the road and has been seen by an audience of over 100,000 in 100 cities across the country with the cast and production team participating in post-performance discussions with family members, students and veterans organizations.

Massolia’s new production, GHOSTS OF WAR, is based on the true story of Ryan Smithson, who joined the Army Reserve at 17 and was deployed to Iraq two years later as an Army Engineer. Smithson’s acclaimed 2010 memoir became a bestseller in Youth Adult Military and praised as an unforgettable story of the realities of war. Massolia worked with Smithson to develop the one-man show for its upcoming Chicago premiere at The Den Theatre.

William Massolia joined the conversation on March 23rd to talk about the development process and the profound impact of these real life stories of service and sacrifice. PODCAST

The human side … “I really thought that the letters exposed the real humanity that lies within the war as seen through the eyes of the men and women fighting it. And that's really what I wanted to tell in the play … to expose the human side of it.”

What the letters tell us … “Most of the letters touch on the fact that people would rather be home than fighting in a war. Very few of the letters that I've found, to be honest with you, touched on questioning the job at all. They knew they were there to do what they had to do and a lot of them enlisted after 911, so, they knew what they were getting in to. Some of the letters do comment on them knowing that people don't feel exactly comfortable with what they're doing there, but they have to sort of remove that because they can't let that cloud their judgment or cloud what their job is there because if they start to question it, then they could put themselves in harm's way or put somebody else in harm's way. So, it touches on that a little bit, but not too much because when people are writing letters home, they want to know about what's going on with the family. They want to tell people how much they miss them. They want to let them know that they're fine.”

A universal theme… “I'm not sure if any of the letters reflect them knowing there was an end in sight. I think they were more focused on what their job at hand was. It obviously would be hard for them to predict, if they were deployed in 2004, I don't think they could predict that we'd still be there in 2010. … a lot of the letters reflect wanting to help the Iraqi people. That a fairly universal theme throughout.”

About the cast … “There are 10 actors … nine of the actors portray servicemen and servicewomen. …each of those nine actors portray one individual and you will hear a series of the letters over the course of an entire deployment. … one actress portrays four different mothers and the letters are about four different issues that surround the war.”

A broad spectrum of individuals … “I have to be honest, when I first created the show, I didn't know anybody in the military, not a single person. I was moved by what I saw on the documentary and thought, ‘Oh, this is something I want to create.’ But at this point, 10 years later, after meeting hundreds of veterans, I feel I have a pretty good understanding of what, these men and women go through and what they expect from us. I don't think a lot of them really want the thanks so much as they just want people to understand who they are and why they chose that life. … I think the show sheds a light on that, whether you agree with it or not is certainly up to you. But I think that I've learned that the military is made up of a broad spectrum of individuals with a lot of different ideologies and mindsets. I think what binds them together is that they all have a strong love of this country and they wanted to do something that is probably bigger than just themselves.”

On the book “Ghosts of War” … Ryan (Smithson) wrote it after he came back from his deployment …enrolled in college … took a creative writing class and his professor told him he should write about his deployment. And he was like, ‘I don't want to talk about that or write about that.’ And, finally, he got up enough courage and wrote one piece and when he turned it in, his professor said, ‘Oh, well now you know, everybody's going to read their pieces out loud to everybody in the class.’ So, he had to go up in front of the class and read it out loud to everybody. He hadn't even told his wife this story and now he's going to read it to a bunch of strangers. But he did that and it became the basis for the book because with the encouragement of his professor, he started to write more pieces and then basically put the book together.”

About the stage version … “He's been quite involved in the production. …it follows his deployment and then coming home and readjusting to civilian life. … he talks a lot about the reasons he enlisted and what you have to go through in basic training … about loss … what's great about the book is he's not the Navy Seal and ‘Lone Survivor’. … he's just this regular guy doing his job.”

Presented in rotating repertory at the Den Theatre April 6th through May 6th … “Each show is performed three times a week …Thursday and Friday will be the alternating nights for the two shows. On Saturday and Sunday, the two shows are flipped.”

Commentary has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Photos Courtesy of Griffin Theatre Company


In Rotating Repertory
April 6th through May 6th

1331 N. Milwaukee Ave
Chicago, IL 60622
Box Office: 773-697-3830

PODCAST available on iTunes, Libsyn and Stitcher


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