Rishi Sharma is not your average 22-year-old from Southern California.
He’s a man on a very unique mission – to record interviews with as many World War Two combat veterans as he can, before they pass on.
He has managed more than 1,100 already – so dedicated to his cause that he has not been home in four years.
Now he is in Australia, talking to our last survivors of what has been dubbed “the greatest generation”.
It is a poignant time to be here. Just this week, two of our best-known WW2 Anzacs – Adelaide’s “Rat of Tobruk” Laurence McEvoy and Sydney’s Dick Payten, who fought in the Middle East, New Guinea and Borneo – were farewelled for the last time.
To Rishi, their passing rams home the urgency of his project, with less than three per cent of WW2 veterans believed to be left. In Australia there are an estimated 14,000 still alive.
“These men are some of the greatest people to have ever lived,” he said, pointing out that Australians fought all the Axis forces of “tyranny and oppression”, and were involved in the war two years before Pearl Harbour brought the conflict to his native US.
“All I care about is getting them documented properly, because that’s what these men deserve.”
Rishi spends hours with each man, filming the interview which he then gives back to the veteran and their family – and in some cases to museums.
“These men have their memories preserved for all time. Their great-great-great grandchildren will get to know them, how they moved, sounded, spoke and looked; to hear their war experiences and life advice.”
While most of his subjects are American, Rishi has interviewed Canadians, Brits and Kiwis; and this is his second trip to Australia, funded by his US charitable organisation Heroes of the Second World War.
He has already been to Qld, WA and Victoria and is en route for NSW and Tasmania. With an open return, he hopes news of his mission will open the door to more interviews to add to the 40-odd he has clocked up.
Rishi’s quest began aged 16, when on a whim he tracked down the phone number of a US veteran he had read about in a history book – and rang the man. Before long, he was cycling around his home town of Agoura Hills, going to houses and nursing homes (sometimes skipping class to do so) chatting to men who were often astounded to have a youngster so interested in their story.
While interviewing every veteran is an enriching experience, he says the Aussies are special.
“Australians are so nice,” he said, noting he has been invited in for meals and drinks. “They are very casual.”
And the process goes two ways.
“The most important thing these veteran interviews have given me is perspective,” Rishi says.
“If you were my age in WW2 your biggest worry would be if you would be alive this time tomorrow.
“Having internet connection or being stuck in traffic are not the biggest deals in the world.”
As for the 21st century obsession with reality TV, from Kardashians to Married At First Sight, Rishi is just baffled — for him, the only stories that count are real ones.
Among the standout interviews he has conducted here were:
– Infantryman Alfred Carpenter, of Newcastle, who lives by himself at the age of 103 and still teaches kids. “He’s quite the character,” says Rishi.
– Gordon Wallace, one of the “Rats of Tobruk” who lives near Brisbane. “This was a big moment for me,” he says.
– WA’s Norm Eaton, who cycled 500 miles to Perth to enlist. “Before he even began basic training,” laughs Rishi. “Just incredible.”
Among those he spoke to recently in Hervey Bay was former commando Jack Hanson, 98, who said the recordings would help ensure future generations appreciated what was done for them.
“We won against the odds and an important lesson learnt was that nothing was impossible,” Mr Hanson said.
Rishi hopes his findings will inspire others to talk to veterans they know while they can.
“Go to your local RSL or residential home and spend time with these men,” he said.
“If an American 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. What boggles my mind is that we have this opportunity with the WW2 veterans. We should not wait until there is only one left to acknowledge their sacrifices and to document them.”
If you’d like to contact Rishi Sharma email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0411921149