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Honoring the 421,000 WWII Americans Who Never Returned Home

Grassroots project aims to preserve each of their stories


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AVR Staff (Source: Foreground: SBTS; Background: STF/AFP via Getty Images)

During his lunch break as a banker in 2016, Don Milne embarked on a personal project to write a narrative commemorating the 100th birthday of a World War II soldier who never returned home. From this small beginning grew "Stories Behind the Stars," a global grassroots movement to document by 2025 the stories of all 421,000 Americans who died during the war.

“They paid the ultimate price for the freedom and liberty that we've enjoyed for 80 years,” Milne said. “And they don't get as much recognition as they should because they died before Facebook or the internet or any way for people to remember them.”

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Milne, a lifelong history enthusiast, made it his mission to honor them by making sure each of their stories is preserved. Together with his volunteers, they aim to honor the estimated 421,000 fallen service members of WWII. Their first effort was first focused on the 2,100 who died in Milne’s home state of Utah, marking the first time a complete narrative of all individuals from a single state was achieved.

Other projects the Stories Behind the Stars team have completed is documenting all 2,503 Americans who lost their lives in Normandy and the 2,341 who died during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“If you're going to write the stories of everybody, you actually have to know an exact count by name of each person,” Milne said. “It's hard to tell which of the six names [were left out] because usually totals don't give you a breakdown.”  

Each soldier's story is about 500 words, is saved to a database and can be accessed for free via FindAGrave.com or its mobile app (available on Android and iPhone). Milne hopes this resource will change the experience of visiting military cemeteries and memorial sites by giving people the opportunity to read individual stories, connect with the past and learn about an important era of American history. 

The team is working to document all the fallen from WWII buried at Arlington National Cemetery by Memorial Day. They initially estimated that the task would include approximately 7,700 graves, but they discovered an additional 1,000 while going through cemetery records line by line. 

“You've got to remember this is the day before computers, even punch cards, so they're probably using files of 3-by-5 cards to try to put together these lists,” he said. “(The U.S. was) a nation of more than 100 million people and 16 million people that served in the military. They're gonna miss people.” 

Volunteering and training

About half of the volunteers for Stories Behind the Stars are over 55 years old, with a significant number being retirees.

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“They're kind of our bread and butter who do the most work,” Milne said. “We asked if people could do one story a week. But I've got some retired people who do two or three stories a day because they've got an affinity for this. They just love the process of starting off with a name, someone they know nothing about, and two or three hours later, they’ve completed a story that’s shareable.”

Anyone interested in volunteering can sign up on the project’s website and will be put in touch with a state director. But there are different paths volunteers can take depending on their interests. Some just want to provide a submission on a family member or friend, while others opt for a free online training course before getting started and have the option to provide as many stories as they want.

By the 80th anniversary of the war’s end on Sept. 2, 2025, Milne hopes there will still be living WWII veterans who will see not only their service honored, but also the memory living on of their friends who never made it home.

“It's going to be something that will be a legacy for decades to come,” he said. “Our WWII generation that’s died is always going to be remembered because anytime anyone anywhere wants to look up their story, each of them gets remembered.” 

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