Jim Scheetz was just three years old when the plane carrying his older brother, U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps Pvt. Paul Albert Scheetz, went missing on Sept. 1, 1944, during a mission flying supplies to front line troops fighting the Japanese in the Himalayan Mountains of Burma in World War II.
His parents back in Hanover, Kansas, received the terrible news by Western Union telegram after 17 days. Paul, their firstborn child, had registered for the draft a month before graduating high school in the small farming town where he grew up, excelled at auto mechanics and spent summers pulling shifts at a local garage.
The 19-year-old wrote his final letter to his parents on Aug. 29, 1944, saying he and his crew were ready to head off again to drop needed rations of food, clothing, medicine and mail by parachute.
He’d already flown 40 of the particularly harrowing missions, which crews called “flying the hump.”
Initially, the mission was considered a success. But the plane, known as the Monsoon Marauder, lost communications in poor weather conditions.
It would be two years before families of the fallen got word that the downed plane had been found.
Today, Jim Scheetz is in his 80s and living in Manhattan with a trove of information about his brother that he doesn’t want lost to time. A retired journalist, Scheetz said he is the “last of our family,” and there is no one readily available to pass memories to since his brother had no wife or children when he died.
“I’d hate to just leave the material in a museum or someplace like that where nobody’s going to go see it,” he said.
But after reading a newspaper article in May about an ambitious national project that’s chronicling the lives of the more than 421,000 Americans killed in World War II, he got a chance to share his brother’s story — and is now writing about other Kansans who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
“It’s rewarding,” Scheetz said.
The national project, Stories Behind the Stars, is looking for volunteer researchers to help write a short biography about every fallen service member by Sept. 2, 2025, the 80th anniversary of the end of World War II. The completed stories are currently available online and will eventually be compiled into a database accessible with a smartphone app.
The project — named after the gold stars given to families of the fallen — took hold in Kansas over the summer after its founder, Don Milne of Louisville, Kentucky, was featured in a Washington Post article this past Memorial Day. What started in 2016 as a hobby writing stories about fallen World War II servicemen on their 100th birthdays during his work commutes and lunch breaks has since grown into a national effort that will create “an entirely new experience” for people visiting memorials and grave sites for decades to come, Milne said.
So far, Milne and his volunteers have finished around 22,000 stories, including for all 2,341 Americans killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the 2,502 who lost their lives in Normandy on D-Day.
But they have 399,000 more to go — including working through more than 5,400 from Kansas.
“We have our work cut out for us,” he said.
Milne estimates it will take 2,000 to 3,000 volunteers writing one story a day to finish every single story across the U.S. by 2025.
Kansas needs about 40 stories completed daily to meet the goal, he said.
“You don’t have to be a genealogist or a world war historian. If you can write an obituary, that’s basically all you need,” Milne said.
Currently, there are about 10 volunteers working through the list of Kansans — about half of whom regularly contribute, said Doug Rupe, the state-level director for Kansas. To date, they’ve completed more than 500 stories in about a tenth of the state’s 105 counties, but “we have a ways to go,” he said.
Like Scheetz, Rupe became involved in Stories Behind the Stars after seeing the Memorial Day article about Milne.
A Wichitan retired from a career in corporate real estate, Rupe has his own personal tie to World War II: His father, Kenneth D. Rupe, who celebrated his 103rd birthday on Dec. 3, served in the 300th General Hospital group in Italy from 1942 through November 1945.
Rupe has written a handful of stories himself.
“Those people that gave their lives in service to our nation deserve the recognition,” he said.
But largely his focus is on finding volunteers willing to give up a few hours to honor a fallen soldier, sailor, airman, Marine and others from Kansas who died in the war. More are needed, including volunteers who want to write about individuals from Sedgwick County.
“I’d love to have anybody that is willing to contribute one story a week, one story a month. Whatever they’re willing to do,” Rupe said.
“If you want to do one a year, that’s fine. That’s one more than we had when we started.”
One of the regular contributors in Kansas is Norene Allen, a retired librarian in the Kansas City area who has written about more than 500 service members since June.
She also saw the Memorial Day article and thought: “It’s all right up my alley.”
It quickly became an “addicting” passion project where she researches and writes one or two stories each day, tackling all names in a single Kansas county before moving on to the next one in an alphabetical list she’s working down, she said.
She’s worked on Allen through Chautauqua counties and plans to keep going until the project is complete.
“It’s interesting. It’s intriguing. It’s sometimes heartbreaking. Obviously the end story is these men did not come back. You know that from the beginning,” she said, adding that she feels “very lucky and fortunate” that her eight uncles who served in World War II all returned home alive.
“If you want to honor those people that came before us and gave the ultimate sacrifice, I think this is an interesting and good way to do it,” she said.
HOW TO HELP
Stories Behind the Stars is looking for volunteers to research and write about American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and others killed in World War II. Volunteers receive short training and coaching, plus free access to online research resources including Ancestry.com, Newspapers.com and Fold3.com. They can also conduct in-person research at libraries, historical societies and museums and interview family members of fallen soldiers, but that’s not required.
Stories typically range from 500 to 1,500 words and usually take around two to three hours to complete. Participation is entirely free, and volunteers can write as many or as few stories as they want.
Tax-deductible contributions to the project can be made at www.storiesbehindthestars.org under the “Donate” tab.
Amy Renee Leiker: 316-268-6644, @AmyReneeLeiker