More than 421,000 Americans died during World War II. This project aims to compile their stories.

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The simplest facts of James Gerald LaMarre Jr. life and death are engraved on his gravestone in Arlington National Cemetery: born May 2, 1921; died February 2, 1945; a U.S. Army staff sergeant from Virginia who served with the 18th Infantry.

Suffice it to say, LaMarre gave his life in service to a worthy cause, but Don Milne wants you to know even more about the 23-year-old.

He wants you to know that LaMarre attended Fairfax High School, where he was president of the agriculture club and played in the field for the school’s baseball team; that in civilian life he was a truck driver; that, five months before his enlistment, he married Ethel Rose Fox at the Methodist Church in Rockbridge, Virginia; that he had blue eyes.

Milne, 61, is the creator of Stories Behind the Stars, an effort to research all the last American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who died in World War II and write a brief essay about each that can be extracted on an app to smartphones.

It’s a gargantuan task. More than 421,000 Americans have died in the conflict, and Milne wants to collect all of their stories by September 2, 2025, the 80th anniversary of the war’s end. He broke it down into manageable chunks, relying on volunteers around the world to scour genealogy sites to gather information and write the text.

“I have about 400 volunteers who regularly contribute stories,” said Milne, who retired as a financial literacy manager at a bank and lives in Louisville. “In order to reach our goal, we will need 2,000 to 3,000 people to do one story per week.”

Milne hopes to find more people willing to “give up a night of Netflix and instead watch ‘Tiger King’ make a story about someone who gave their life for our country.”

Kathy Harmon of Saint Thomas Township, Pennsylvania, is one such volunteer. So far, she has investigated the lives of more than 300 World War II dead, including that of Sgt. LaMarre.

“I have a passion for genealogy,” said Harmon, 65, who has traced her own family back to the 1700s. The World War II project led her to think about history in a way different.

“When I first started doing this, the young age of most of them really struck me,” she said. “My eldest grandson is 18. I thought, ‘Wow, those guys who gave their lives were that age.’ ”

Volunteers like Harmon use sites like Ancestry.com to find census records. They scour online newspapers. They visit Fold3.com, which archives military records. They track the photos. Sometimes they find relatives on Facebook.

Milne estimates that it takes about two to three hours to create a story.

“Everyone does it a little differently,” he said. “It’s like a version of leaving flowers on a grave. There are no rules for what is appropriate. Some are fanciful. Some are simple.

All are quite short, around 500 words. Stories are saved in the Fold3.com database and can be accessed by entering the person’s name through the FindAGrave.com app. Milne hopes it will one day be possible to scan a gravestone with your phone and retrieve the story.

Stories Behind the Stars – the name comes from the gold stars given to grieving families – has previously listed the 2,341 Americans who died in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the 2,502 Americans killed on D-Day. The current focus de Milne is to create stories for all of the World War II dead buried in Arlington National Cemetery, approximately 8,000 men and women. He expects most of this work to be completed by July 4.

On a recent trip to Arlington, Milne noticed visitors tended to stay on the trails, seemingly reluctant to venture into the low forest of white markers that cover the 639-acre cemetery.

“What reason do they have? ” He asked. “They might come in and see names on headstones. They can’t do much more than that. Once people know it’s available—especially in sections rich in WWII scraps, like Section 34—they can walk from grave to grave and read each person’s story. It makes the experience much richer and much more engaging.

Jeff Joyce, 61, an Air Force veteran from Manassas, is another volunteer. He also volunteers with the group Wreaths Across America and the Honor Flight program which brings veterans to Washington.

“There’s a phrase: you die twice,” Joyce said. “You die when you die physically, then you die a second time when no one remembers your name. Part of this process is trying to remind myself and others that this person has had a life – a family – and deserves to be remembered, as I would like to be remembered. you remember me.

To learn more about the project, including how to volunteer, visit storiesbehindthestars.org.

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