Judith Skillings says she will never forget her first bomber pilot.

Arthur Jennette of Tennessee was a member of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress crew who died during World War II when his airplane was shot down over Germany.

Skillings said she learned Jennette’s story while researching his background to write his life story for Stories Behind the Stars, an initiative created to organize a centralized digital location to collect the stories of the more than 421,000 Americans killed in World War II.

After writing her first biography, Skillings was hooked. By her own estimate, Skillings has written at least 500 stories of World War II veterans over the past 10 months — an average of two per day.

“I feel like I’m doing something meaningful,” Skillings said.

Vietnam War veteran Ron Arneault of Lewiston, right, salutes Saturday as the national anthem is played during a Memorial Day weekend ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Stories Behind the Stars has an ambitious mission: To write the story of every U.S. serviceman who died in World War II. The profiles have been written by hundreds of volunteers from across the country. According to its website, more than 29,000 stories had been completed by mid-May. The goal is to have all the stories completed by 2025.


“The concern is that people who remember the war are dying off, and there were so many who would never be remembered,” Skillings said. “A call went out for volunteers, and they got thousands from around the country.”

Skillings was born in Portland and raised in Skowhegan. Her grandparents lived in Lewiston and attended Bates College. She moved to Pennsylvania after she got married, but maintained a second home in Maine, where she lives four months of the year.

Now retired, Skillings read about the Stories Behind the Stars initiative last Memorial Day.

“I thought, ‘I could do that,'” Skillings said. “All of the information is pretty much available online.”

The website has tutorials on how to choose a veteran, where to find information on the veteran’s family and military record, what to include in the story and how to write a profile.

For the first assignment, the organization assigns the volunteer a veteran, usually a bomber pilot or crew member of a downed plane. Once the biography is submitted and approved, the profile is posted on the military website www.fold3.com.


“Every story is fascinating,” Skillings said. “They all unfortunately end the same way, but they were such individuals. It is so much fun to find out this burly Marine liked to play Tiddlywinks. It’s nice to try to bring them to life.”

Once the volunteer feels comfortable, the person works with a state director on how to proceed. Skillings, who is Stories Behind the Stars’ director in Maine, said some volunteers will do a particular cemetery or memorial marker in their hometown. Some will do one particular branch of the military. One woman in Maine is doing Jewish veterans. A Brunswick volunteer has asked to do the 25 World War II veterans on a memorial marker he passed every day while walking to work.

Volunteers are not restricted to writing profiles from their state.

There is a current emphasis on completing biographies of all 8,700 veterans who died in World War II and are buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

The eventual goal, Skillings said, is to build a cellphone app that will display the veteran’s story when the phone is pointed at a gravestone.

There are about 25 volunteers in Maine writing stories. Skillings would like to see more participants.

To get started, people should go to the Stories Behind the Stars website and click the volunteer link.

“I’m addicted to this,” Skillings said. “I finish one and I’m already starting to research information on the next one.”

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