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Utahn’s project honors World War II fallen

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SALT LAKE CITY — Some people find heroism in the deeds of others who never made news headlines, but actively participated in the fight to preserve the freedom that Americans today enjoy.

For one Utahn, documenting the stories of such a group of military heroes has become a passion project and a way to bring recognition to men who lost their lives in World War II.

In December 2016, just after the 75th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Bountiful resident Don Milne started thinking. With the 100th anniversary of Veterans Day approaching on Nov. 11, he wanted to bring attention to a large group of military members whom he believes has been somewhat overlooked, at least on an individual basis.

The group is the remaining veterans of World War II "who are all quickly passing away from old age."

"Within a few years they will all be gone," he said. "As a student of history, I read a lot of soldier memoirs. Invariably these memoirs make mention of the servicemen who never made it home, that they were the real heroes.

"Not to take anything away from the remaining living veterans, but they made it home and lived a full life in the greatest nation ever," he added. "The fallen never made it home."

Milne noted that the Vietnam Memorial lists the names of all of the fallen for that war, while the national World War II Memorial is a wall of remembrance with 4,080 stars, each representing 100 of the fallen — making them effectively anonymous.

Since he enjoys writing, he decided to use his free time to undertake a project where every day beginning Jan. 1, 2017, until the 75th anniversary of the end of the war on Sept. 2, 2020, he would write a brief profile about one of the fallen on that person's 100th birthday.

"I've been a student of history my whole life," Milne said. "Military history has a lot of cool stories because it's real. You hear stories of people that are put in difficult situations … that make a difference (in the world)."

In all, it would tally to about 1,600 individual profiles of "unsung heroes," he estimated. "It takes me about an hour a day to write the article," he said.

Milne, who is the financial literacy manager for Zions Bank by profession, often posts the profiles online as he commutes to and from work on the bus each day.

Considering the relative ease of gathering information with the internet, he was surprised to find that no one had already created a website to individually honor WWII fallen. Since he launched his effort nearly two years ago, his daily profiles have attracted more than a million views online and through social media, he said.

The stories he tells are sometimes about average people put into challenging circumstances, along with stories of some performing extraordinary feats of bravery that result in the ultimate sacrifice for their country. He said part of the success of the series thus far has been people's interest in real feats of heroism in combat or just learning about the lives of ordinary veterans that lost their lives while serving their country who were also true patriots.

As an example, he mentioned the story of a Utahn in the military transport command named Lewis Smith, son of Joseph Fielding Smith — 10th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — who while on break took a trip to Jerusalem.

"After they were done, he was flying back to Egypt and his plane crashed," Milne explained. "It wasn't combat related, but he never made it home."

Another Utah-born soldier was Donald Roy Christensen, the youngest of 13 children. He completed four years of college and was sent by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to serve as a missionary in Denmark, but his mission was cut short when the war started in Europe.

As an Air Force pilot, Lt. Christensen was flying over Czechoslovakia in March 1945 when his B-17 aircraft was shot down, killing Christensen and all but one of his crew. He left behind a wife and two sons.

Today, his eldest son, Don Christensen, 76, lives in the central Colorado town of Salida. He said Don Milne's project to commemorate the lives of men like his father is "amazing."

"Somebody who is not related to almost any of these people that is taking all of this effort and that much time is very commendable," he said. The author of a blog called Carrying Fire, Christensen has also spent a fair amount of time and labor to find out more about his father's life as a World War II airman.

He is grateful to Milne for his efforts to highlight the lives of fallen WWII veterans. "I'm glad people are remembering these things more than they use to," he said.

For Milne, being able to tell the stories of real-life American heroes has been particularly satisfying.

"There are a lot of people who like following the Marvel movies because they're superheroes who do 'super' stuff, but they're all make-believe," Milne said. "These guys were the 'real deal.'"

While Milne does most of the writing, he has some help from fellow history buffs Christopher Prough of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and Bob Fuerst of Huntsville, Alabama. He has created a Facebook called WW2 Fallen 100 and is also an administrator for the Facebook group America’s Fallen Warriors with 39,000 followers.

"I would guess this is the site where most of the readers come from," he said.

He doesn’t make money from this effort, but the Greatest Generation Foundation donated $250 to help him pay for some internet site subscriptions that provide more information than is available for free, Milne noted.

To read more about those from Utah that Milne has profiled, visit https://ww2fallen100.blogspot.com/search?q=utah.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly spelled Lewis Smith's name as Louis Smith. And photo captions incorrectly referred to the 100th anniversary of WWII instead of the 75th anniversary.