Arlington National Cemetery’s uniform rows of white tombstones tend to blend together if you see them from afar, but when you get up close, you can’t help but wonder about the people whose names appear there: What was this person’s story?
That kind of curiosity is what drove Don Milne to start chronicling the lives of the 7,700 servicemembers who died in World War II and are buried at the cemetery. A retired financial-literacy manager from Louisville, Milne now leads a nonprofit called Stories Behind the Stars, which has spent the past year finding information and writing up short biographies. The results of those ongoing efforts are available via Ancestry.com’s Fold3 military-records database.
Milne came up with the idea to tell the servicemembers’ stories in 2016, after watching interviews with Pearl Harbor survivors on the 75th anniversary of the attack. He couldn’t stop thinking about all the Americans who died in the war and didn’t get to share their stories. “This is my way to honor and give recognition to these people who never made it home,” says Milne. “They deserve to be remembered by more than just having their name carved on a grave or memorial somewhere.”
At first, Milne saw this as a personal hobby, and he planned to write up one story each day on his blog to mark what would have been the subject’s 100th birthday. But reader response was so intense that he decided to greatly expand the idea, and Stories Behind the Stars was born. He’s now aided by hundreds of volunteers, who pore through online newspaper archives and genealogical databases such as Ancestry.com to put together the bios.
Before turning to Arlington National Cemetery, the group looked into the lives of military personnel who perished on D-Day and at Pearl Harbor, and when the Arlington work is complete, the plan is to keep going. More than 400,000 Americans died fighting in WWII, and Milne wants to profile all of them by September 2, 2025—the 80th anniversary of the war’s end.
When that date arrives, there will still be living veterans around to celebrate it, but for how much longer will that be the case? The question is very much on Milne’s mind as he steers Stories Behind the Stars: “I think they’d be glad to know that when they’re gone, the friends they’ve been remembering for the last 75 years can be forever remembered.”
This article appears in the July 2022 issue of Washingtonian.