Columbus resident George E. Schmidt volunteered for the U.S. Army in 1941, parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for valor after being killed by a sniper that day.
Until recently, that’s about all most people could find out about Schmidt.
Thanks to a volunteer writer for the Stories Behind the Stars project, though, you now can learn that Schmidt was the only one of seven siblings who never married, that he talked a lot about entering the ministry, and that he loved writing short stories, especially Westerns.
What started four years ago as a one-man hobby has expanded into a nationwide effort to research and write mini-biographies of the 2,502 Americans who died on D-Day — and eventually, all 416,800 who died during World War II.
The idea is that the bios add context to the “name-rank-serial number” basics and provide insightful details about their lives.
More than just a name: Telling stories of those who died serving in World War II
“The goal is I want these (bios) to be the primary way someone knows about these men going forward,” said project founder Don Milne, who also plans to develop an app with which people could scan a gravestone and pull up the bio. “Going to a cemetery now can be a richer experience. There’s no reason with technology why I can’t know where the man was from, where he went to school, was he a football player.”
Many individual stories can be found, of course, from various sites. Friends or family members post tributes to loved ones lost, and genealogy websites have made it easier to share information.
But even more than 75 years after the end of the war, no one before Milne has tried to compile all of the stories in one place, according to John Long, director of education at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia.
“Not for as many as he is taking on,” Long said. “If you were interested in Uncle Frank who died in the war, you can always Google him and you might find something, or if you knew his unit was the 2nd Rangers, you could find information about him from there.
“But Don’s idea of this being a more or less comprehensive database, I don’t think it exists anywhere.”
Milne, 60, was simply a history buff, living in Utah and working in the banking industry, when in 2016 he decided there was not enough readily available information about those who died in World War II.
He started a personal project of writing one biography a day, and his efforts began to attract quite the online following.
When he announced he would stop his writing on Sept. 2, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the Japanese surrender that ended the war, those followers raised a ruckus.
“I thought, `Well, if enough people like this project, maybe I can find a few others who wouldn’t mind helping.’”
As it turned out, his full-time job was eliminated last year, and armed with a healthy severance, he decided to dive into Stories Behind the Stars full tilt.
With the help of 126 volunteers, the stories of the more than 2,100 Utah natives who died in the war were written. And then he tackled the D-Day project.
That attracted more volunteers, such as Pat Nauseda of Columbus.
Nauseda has no family connection to serving in World War II, but remembers an emotional visit to the Normandy beaches several years ago.
She is a member of Ancestry.com, and Milne has partnered with Fold3, the branch of Ancestry.com that focuses solely on military records. Fold3 is where you can find the Stories Behind the Stars database.
When Nauseda got an email from Ancestry about the opportunity to help Milne with the project, she signed on.
“I really enjoy it,” said Nauseda, 62, who lives on the Far North Side. “I love hunting and pecking for clues. I’ve learned so much, and each of these stories, they were real people with families.”
Stories of Ohioans who died in Normandy on D-Day
Milne, who now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, said some volunteers write one or two bios and that’s enough. Others have written hundreds. Nauseda began in January and has written about 20, she said.
Several have really struck her, she said.
One was her bio on Carl Joseph, a union activist from Toledo who was arrested several times in the 1930s. When he signed up for military service, a judge agreed to chop two years off his five-year probation.
A member of the 101st Airborne Division, Joseph was killed around 10 a.m. on D-Day after parachuting behind enemy lines. He is one of 135 Ohioans who died that day.
Another of Nauseda’s profiles was on John Pavalescu Jr. (also with the 101st Airborne), who she found out grew up along with his sister in the Fairmount Children’s Home, an orphanage in Stark County.
“His parents were alive, but that’s where you would place your kids if you couldn’t feed them,” she said. “It’s really interesting, the tangents you end up going on all the time and learn things you didn’t know.”
Milne said more than 2,300 D-Day stories are done, and more than 8,000 stories of American World War II military members overall.
Like Nauseda, Milne said he has learned so much from the project, and said he has been struck by the diversity of those who served and died in the war.
“Contrary to what you see if you watch your standard old World War II movie, it doesn’t take too long to realize that not all these men are descendants from England,” Milne said. “They were from all different backgrounds, from Germany, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Japan.
“They weren’t serving based on a common (ancestry), but on a common idea that they were fighting for freedom and democracy.”
The fact that more than 400,000 Americans died fighting for those ideals can wear on Nauseda, but she plans to keep researching and writing.
“Sometimes it’s very depressing and sad because they were so young,” she said. “But I’m hopeful that this is something that will memorialize them so people won’t forget.”