‘Beyond just the name’: Volunteers with Utah ties working to honor every single fallen Pearl Harbor serviceman

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HONOLULU, HI – DECEMBER 07: The Pass-in-Review by the USS William P. Lawrence (DDG 110) as Pearl Harbor Commemorates the 78th Anniversary Of World War II Attacks at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial on December 7, 2019 in Honolulu, Hawaii. On the morning of December 7, 1941 the Japanese mounted a surprise military air strike on the the naval base at Pearl Harobor leading to the United States’ formal entry into World War II the next day. 2,335 were killed in the attack and dozens of naval ships were damaged or sunk. (Photo by Kat Wade/Getty Images)

(ABC4) – December 7 is a day for deep remembrance.

The date marks the anniversary of the attacks at the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor that killed 2,335 Americans and prompted the nation’s entry into World War II. 2021’s passing of the occasion will be the 80th anniversary of the surprise strike by the Imperial Japanese onto the United States servicemen at the base in Hawaii.

The massive loss of life, which subsequently led to more loss over years of conflict in World War II, is important enough to honor as a whole. Longtime Utahn Don Milne, who now makes his home in Louisville, Kent. to be near his grandchildren, believes honoring each individual fallen soldier from that horrific day in paradise is just as important.

Each of those who passed had a story, and his organization, Stories Behind the Stars, is working to tell each and every one of those stories.

“I think Americans do a great job at remembering those who served in the military, both Veterans Day and Memorial Day,” Milne explains to ABC4.com. “I think it adds a little extra if we know a little bit more about them beyond just the name.”

A longtime history buff with children who served in the armed forces, Milne’s interest in knowing more about the names etched into stone memorials from some of the most remarkable moments in U.S. history was born on the last big anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the 75th in 2016.

Armed with an Ancestry.com membership and a passion for history, Milne began undertaking the project of essentially writing an obituary for every single U.S. military member killed during the attacks at Pearl Harbor and compiling them into one single location.

Quickly the task of doing it all on his own became too much, luckily he has been able to lean on a network of more than 150 volunteers, including more than two dozen from Utah.

Every single one of the Utah-born servicemen and women who passed at Pearl Harbor now has his story listed online thanks to Stories Behind the Stars. The group is just 30 or so away from completing the entire Pearl Harbor project.

The project has become deeply personal at times as volunteers have reached out to surviving family members to learn more about their fallen heroes and compose an obituary that is that much more vivid and reflective of who they were.

The goal from there is to build an app that can provide the obituary on the spot for visitors at war memorials all over the country, from the one at Pearl Harbor to the new one here locally in West Valley City.

“Anyone that visits that person’s gravesite or memorial will be able to read that right there on-site,” Milne explains of the future vision, which is still under development. “Just pull out your phone and read that person’s story.”

Milne’s project has received major support, not only from Ancestry.com, which is aiding in building the app and database but also from some of the biggest names in American politics. In an op-ed piece to The Hill in May for Memorial Day, Utah senator Mitt Romney cited Stories Behind the Stars’ work when expressing his appreciation for the American servicemen who have given the ultimate sacrifice.

Romney wrote:

“This Memorial Day weekend, we have a responsibility to ensure that these brave men who sacrificed their lives to defend our freedom are remembered and that their stories and legacies endure for generations.

We can thank scores of Americans for picking up where Cronkite and Eisenhower left off. The nonprofit, grassroots initiative, Stories Behind the Stars, engages thousands of volunteers nationwide to research and publish the stories of our fallen heroes. Its founder, Don Milne, started the project in Utah to document the 2,095 servicemen who never returned home from World War II. His project has met with great success. Using ancestry databases and online newspaper archives, Milne and volunteers in every state have contributed stories about their family members and have participated by writing dozens of entries themselves.

For many families, this project brings the remarkable lives of their loved ones to new light. When I read them, I am moved by their heroism. They sacrificed their lives to protect their brothers in arms and to preserve the ideals of freedom from the threat of fascism.”

Even with the high praise from Romney, Milne wants to keep pushing forward. His goal is to complete the obituaries for every single fallen U.S. fighter who passed in World War II. There are over 420,000 to do and the target is to have them all done by Sept. 2, 2025, the 80th anniversary of the end of the war.

To get the job done, Milne is looking for recruits to get the next phase done, building an obituary for all those who died in the war and are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, on the east coast.

“We definitely could use as many volunteers who want to help out and, and join us to write these stories,” Milne humbly asks. “Give up a night of watching Squid Game or whatever we’re enjoying these days and write a story. If you could write an obituary, which most people have to do at some point in their life, then you can help us with this project here.”

It’s the least that we as living Americans, can do for the ones who passed in conflict, he says.

“I think it’s just an act of gratitude and I think a lot of our hundreds of volunteers would share that thought,” he says. “It’s just a way to recognize why it happened. There are probably hundreds of thousands if not millions of people that are living today because of some of the actions taken by some of these individuals who did not make it home.”

And Stories Behind the Stars won’t let them be forgotten.

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