Amateur genealogists memorialize World War II soldiers

Mostly boys, not unlike those found all over the Midcoast today.

Herb “Herbie” Campbell grew up on Georgetown Island and attended Morse High School before enlisting in the US Army Air Force in December 1942 at the age of 18. He died behind enemy lines in 1944. Photo contributed by Stories Behind the Stars

The sons of fishermen, factory workers, and shipwrights filled the classrooms at Morse and Brunswick high schools. Others made their way to Maine after high school, drawn by the prospect of a steady job at Bath Iron Works.

In the years following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, tens of thousands of young Mainers left their homes and families to fight for causes bigger than themselves. Many, like the smiling Herbert “Herbie” Campbell of Georgetown, who was just 18 when he entered, never made it home.

Today, almost 80 years after Campbell was shot down and killed behind enemy lines in France, a growing network of amateur genealogists are working to keep his story and the memories of his comrades alive.

According to Judith Skillings, the Maine director of the organization, Stories Behind the Stars is a grassroots effort to write an obituary for each of the more than 400,000 Americans who died in World War II.

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“It’s an amazing set of human stories,” said Skillings, who researched and wrote about nearly 130 soldiers, including Campbell, in just four months. “I mean, I just love every one of them.”

Though she has long enjoyed unraveling lost histories, Skillings has never been interested in military minutiae. But after she decided to dip her toes in the water with Stories Behind the Stars, she found herself hooked.

Now she researches and sometimes writes three 500- to 2,000-word obituaries each day, each of which can take up to four hours to create.

“They’re like potato chips,” she said. “With my mouth full, I reach for the next one.”

Tales Behind the Stars started as one man’s hobby during his lunch break.

“I just wanted to do this as a hobby,” said founder Don Milne, a Utah banker who began writing and publishing a daily World War II obituary in 2016. “In about a year and a half it had over 1 million views and by the end other people were like, ‘Hey, can I write stories too?'”

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Nearly 1,000 volunteers have since contributed to the effort, Milne said. About half of these are people who have written about one of their family members, while the rest are volunteers who write occasionally, weekly, or even daily.

An online boot camp teaches new members how to search resources like ancestry.com for military records, family histories, high school yearbooks, and other clues that can help uncover the life behind a name on a grave.

“You’re something of a detective,” said Milne. “Within two or three hours you really know who that person is.”

Most of the organization’s volunteers are elderly retirees, such as Peter Duston, who developed his research and analytical skills as a history teacher and Army intelligence officer.

Over the past two decades, Duston has used his knowledge of military records to help families secure military honors for loved ones and has also written about several World War II veterans. Now he uses those skills to help the Skillings volunteer team ensure the 3,500 or so Mainers who lost their lives in the war are remembered.

“That someone remembers them and they’re not just forgotten in the dust of history is just really important to me,” he said. “If you want to call it a mission, then I think it is a mission.”

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According to Milne, Stories Behind the Stars has compiled over 21,000 obituaries to date and aims to complete its project by September 2, 2025, the 80th anniversary of the end of the war. An accompanying smartphone app allows visitors to all cemeteries around the world to learn more about the veterans buried there.

The project, he hopes, will help transform Memorial Day and Veterans Day from vaguely conceptual celebrations for veterans into more concrete, enriching experiences.

Skillings is actively seeking Maine volunteers to help her pay back heroes like Herbie Campbell who lost their lives too soon.

“My mother used to say in her older years, ‘As long as I’m remembered, I’ll live,'” Skillings said. “This is how I feel about these guys: someone needs to remember them.”

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