The audacious quest to document the lives of all 421,000 American soldiers who died in WWII
In his Stories Behind the Stars project, it is Don Milne’s not immodest goal to chronicle the lives of all the G.I.s who gave their lives for their country during WWII
It’s a few days before Memorial Day and Coby Crump is standing in front of the brand-new Veterans Memorial Wall in West Valley City, where the names of Utahns lost in wartime are listed.
Coby, an accountant, isn’t a clairvoyant, or a magician, or a showoff by nature, but she’s showing off just the same.
Pick a name, any name, of the nearly 2,000 World War II soldiers on the wall who never made it home, and within seconds she’s telling you their life story — their hometown, their family, their wartime unit, where and how they died.
It’s all right there … on her phone.
“Anyone can do this,” Coby explains, pointing to the Find A Grave app on her phone. Then she goes through the steps: first, download the app; next, type in the soldier’s name; after that, click on the “FOLD3 SOLDIER PAGE;” then click on “STORIES” and voila, there’s a concise summary of his life.
The stories are about people who made the ultimate sacrifice, Coby proudly notes, “and they all need to be told and preserved.”
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The only magic behind all of the above is the fact that someone’s brain hatched the audacious idea of making sure every American who died in World War II — all 421,000 of them — is recognized with a recorded summary of their life that is accessible to everyone.
That someone’s name is Don Milne, a former Utahn who now lives in Kentucky.
For nearly 30 years, Don, 61, was an executive with Zions Bank, supervising the company’s community outreach program — teaching financial literacy to the public.
He did that until 2019 when Zions discontinued the program and he was laid off.
His dismissal came with a healthy severance package, which he took with him to Kentucky so he and his wife could be near grandchildren.
Something else he took with him was a project that he started a few years earlier on his lunch break at work.
In 2016, Don, a history buff of the highest order — his namesake grandfather, who taught history at Jordan High School, started giving him books for Christmas when he was 5 years old — was intrigued by all the news about the upcoming 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
As he watched interviews of remaining Pearl Harbor survivors, his historian’s mind went to the ones that couldn’t be interviewed because Dec. 7, 1941, was their last day on Earth.
As a tribute to these Pearl Harbor fallen, he joined Ancestry.com and set a goal to research and write one story a day on the subject’s 100th birthday. He posted these stories on a blog.
In 2020, out of work, locked in by the COVID-19 pandemic and inspired by the million people who read the vignettes on his blog, he decided to expand what he calls his “little hobby.”
Instead of posting the soldiers’ stories on his blog, he would deposit them online in Fold3.com, a sister company of Ancestry.com that tracks military records. Here, the histories he wrote would be stored and preserved indefinitely.
He named his new project Stories Behind the Stars and got to work. For starters, he set a goal to write narratives about each of the 2,106 Utahns who died in World War II.
For this he knew he needed help. He started a website, storiesbehindthestars.org, and solicited volunteers.
He was soon surrounded by people who revered World War II veterans as much as he did.
Within a year, the Utah project was completed, and Don and Co. were just getting started.
Their next goal was to do narratives on the 2,502 Americans who died on D-Day in time for the invasion’s 75th anniversary on June 6, 2021.
That accomplished, they then wrote narratives about all 2,341 who fell at Pearl Harbor in time for the 80th anniversary on Dec. 7, 2021.
As we speak, Stories Behind the Stars volunteers are hard at work doing narratives on each of the 8,000 World War II dead buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. With a little luck, they hope to have those all completed this year by the Fourth of July.
And after that? Yep, Stories Behind the Stars not only aims to make sure narratives are written for all 421,000 Americans who perished in World War II, but to have that finished by the 80th anniversary of the ending of the war in September 2025.
“I’ll be 65 by then and ready to retire,” says Don, who, when he’s not working on Stories Behind the Stars, drives for Lyft and Uber to make ends meet, all the while soliciting donations (on the website) to keep his World War II project going.
“It’s fun and addictive for a lot of people,” Don says. “You start with a name and don’t know anything more; two or three hours later you’ve unearthed a story that hasn’t been accessible to the general public.
“I think it’s a way to celebrate and pay these heroes back in some small measure, and never forget the hard choices they made that made it possible to create the many blessings we’ve all enjoyed the past 75 years.”
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Meanwhile, as Memorial Day approaches, Coby Crump is checking her smartphone to make sure all of Utah’s World War II fallen are present and accounted for.
Coby’s story is typical of the small army of volunteers that keeps making Don Milne’s dreams come true. One day in 2020 she happened to read about his project in the media, thought “I could do one of those,” and signed up for duty. That was 67 narratives ago.
Now, she’s database director for the Utah project as she continues to write narratives of World War II’s best.
Almost 16,000 of their stories are written; just 405,000 to go. “We’re going to need more help,” says Coby, “but we have the motivation and ambition to make it happen.”