Becoming A Published Author – Chapter 34

Becoming A Published Author

Agony and Ecstasy of Writing a Book

By Evan and Lois Swensen

Chapter Thirty-Four

Hearts of Courage

John Tippets

A few years ago I began to realize that my children and grandchildren knew very little about my parents, Joseph and Alta Tippets. They were wonderful people, strong in their faith, but sadly, passed away before their grandchildren were old enough to remember them.

A verse in the Scriptures caught my eye. “Hath this been in your days, or even in the days of your fathers? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children of it, and their children another generation” (Joel 1:2–3). And so a project was started—writing about the lives of my parents, searching out information from extended family and personal memories.

The stories gradually became a history of two young people born in the years before World War I and growing up in small Utah towns during the Great Depression. They were married in 1936 while Dad was in the navy, then moved to the western desert for his first job with the Bureau of Air Commerce. By the spring of 1940, Joe and Alta were in Alaska. It was the beginning of an exciting new chapter of their lives, which would bring adventure and great joy, but also incredible challenges.

I gradually became convinced that the events of these Alaska years, including the story of the 1943 Gillam plane crash and Dad’s 29-day survival in the snowy wilderness, could provide enough material for a really interesting book. From family letters, newspaper and magazine articles, old photos and several tape recordings of Dad telling the story of the Gillam crash I began to write down details of their 1942–43 experiences. New information soon came from all sorts of unexpected places. Hearts of Courage was beginning to take shape, despite time constraints from my full-time job and other obligations over about a four-year span. The research was sometimes sporadic, but there were numerous wonderful discoveries. Some examples:

In an Anchorage Alaska Museum filing cabinet, in a drawer full of old CAA/FAA pictures, I found one of the Annette Island Rock Quarry (p.42). A blasting sound from that quarry on February 10, 1943 caused Harold Gillam to think that they had crashed on Annette. He headed out to look for rescue for his passengers.

A sister of a daughter-in-law had a summer job one year at the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum. I was in Alaska on a fishing trip when she reached out to me to suggest I come and go through a box of old CAA “Mukluk Telegraph” newsletters. From those I found some really special references to Dad and the story (see the end of this article).

Reading the Tucsan ship log at the National Archives gave another perspective as the skipper described the rescue of Joseph Tippets and Sandy Cutting.

Attending a meeting in Juneau, Alaska we visited with Dee Longenbaugh at “The Observatory Books and Maps.” She helped us find two 1940s magazine articles where Robert Gebo and Sandy Cutting had recounted their memories of the crash and survival.

From a notebook Dad carried with him at the time, I found names which I traced with two particular successes: I found and visited in Phoenix with Renee Richardson, and a daughter of S. Omer Smith shared her father’s personal journal recollections with me. Renee and Omer had been soldiers at Fort Richardson in Anchorage and they were 1943 members of the Latter-Day Saint (LDS) congregation. They had both interacted with Alta when Dad was lost and they each heard Dad tell of his experience when he returned to Anchorage.

As the research process was pretty much finished, my wife, Bonnie, was concerned that we still did not have enough information about Susan Batzer, the new CAA employee who was on the plane headed to Anchorage to start her job. Susan’s injuries from the crash were severe and she had passed away on the second day. Bonnie made a sequence of calls and had a new lead at each step. The town clerk in Morristown, South Dakota explained that there was no library, the high school was closed, and there had never been a high school yearbook, but she did have a 90+-year-old father-in-law still living who might be helpful. I realized he was close in age to Susan and in fact, when Bonnie talked to him the next day, he described having been in her class and remembering Susan well. Then from his lead we ultimately found the good picture of Susan (p.35) and the March 1, 1943 letter Joseph wrote to Susan’s parents. That letter became Appendix A. Ultimately too, we met Susan’s surviving sister in San Diego and the family shared with us a box of special materials, pictures, and articles about her.

There were many more such finds and as a result increasing numbers of details of this event surfaced.

Thinking about putting Dad’s story in book form, I had made the decision quite early that this project was going to include a great many pictures and illustrations, perhaps one on almost every page. My model was a sort of National Geographic look. Pictures are worth a thousand words, and I felt they would be essential to capturing the extreme elements and circumstances of a January Alaska wilderness plane crash. And, because this is almost a Ketchikan legend I was able to enlist local artists, photographers, forest service and museum staff to help me get the pictures and illustrations I felt I needed.

After early efforts to write in the third person a second decision was made; I realized how much of Hearts of Courage were really Dad’s words. Recognizing that, I decided to do the book, substantially in Dad’s first-person voice.

Then there was the process of writing early drafts, having different individuals read those and provide edits and input. Two of those who helped were a retired BYU English professor and Marthy Johnson in Alaska. Trudy Johnson, a church friend in Texas acted as secretary/typist and editor over the years. Even in the last months, each paragraph and each sentence was written and rewritten many, many times. The final and best editor was my wife, Bonnie. It was painful at some points as she wanted to change something I felt strongly about, but in the end we made a product of which we were both proud.

As the form of the book became clearer in my mind, I shared my concepts and drafts with four publishers, two in Alaska and two Utah LDS book publishers. There was interest from three of those, the dropout was Deseret Book. Publication Consultants was introduced to me by J. L. McCarrey III, whose parents, Judge “Mac” McCarrey and his wife, Cora had been close Alaska friends of my parents from the 1940s.

Evan Swensen (Publication Consultants) was an exceptionally good fit both with his understanding of Alaska and of the publishing industry, and also because he saw the labor of love of creating a legacy of my parents that this was for me. Evan was a straight shooter and gave sound suggestions. He told me the standard industry formats, cover designs, content layouts, and so forth. He was clear about the fact that I was less likely to ever have a profitable product with the pictures on every page, and I could get a better cost and perhaps some other benefits if we printed in China. Much of his advice I chose not to follow, but we made a good team as I sat beside him for many hours at his computer as each page of the book was carefully constructed.

The product that became ready to go to print was one I was very pleased with and I hope he was as well. The cover by Terry Pyles is impressive and well captures the moments before the crash; the wonderful Chip Porter photographs, and other pictures and illustrations blend with the narrative and readers get a sense beyond what text can offer.

I’m a bit biased but Hearts of Courage was everything I had hoped for. I had decided it was important for me to have all of the ownership and control rights. Evan willingly provided his skills in design and layout and bringing the book into reality while allowing me to technically self-publish. We then did a first printing, which sold out pretty quickly.

At some point early after the book was released I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that described three book genres or themes which have special appeal to American readers. Those were “man against nature”, “polar survival” and “maritime.” I surmised that “aviation” was likely equivalent to maritime and I realized how Hearts of Courage really had all three of those elements. Plus, for good measure, it included a love story and the role of a strong faith in God. It was clear that almost all who might learn of Hearts of Courage and read it, were going to enjoy it.

Many of the stories in this book for Evan and Lois will largely end at the point of the author’s getting the book published, but for Hearts of Courage I do want to describe several wonderful experiences that have occurred as a consequence of the book’s being on the market.

In early 2008, I was preparing to retire after a 42+-year association with American Airlines, the last 17+ of that tenure as the president and CEO of the American Airlines Credit Union. As one form of a retirement gift, the curator of American’s C.R. Smith Museum arranged an extremely professional Hearts of Courage exhibit funded by Credit Union friends and vendors. The exhibit was on display at that museum for a year and then went to an Idaho history museum in Boise (home of the Morrison-Knudsen Company, owners of the airplane in the story).

Next year, 2013, 70 years after the events of the story and 100 years after my Dad’s birth, that impressive exhibit will be on display at the Museum of Idaho in Idaho Falls; just a few miles from Arimo, where Joseph Tippets was born.

In a sequence of people learning about Hearts of Courage I was introduced to the dean of fine arts at Brigham Young University who in turn arranged for me to meet with a BYU TV producer. Bonnie had always felt there should be a BYU connection, in part because in 1967, the year before he died, Dad was recognized with a BYU honorary doctorate degree for his years of public service. And Bonnie was right: the producer with student actors and staff did a Hearts of Courage: The Story of Joseph and Alta Tippets documentary as part of their Inspiring Lives series. The program has aired many times on BYU TV over the past couple of years, and I hear regularly from someone who has been thrilled in watching it.

And there have been a number of special people with connections to those times that I have met or had contact with: Leonard Olsen, living on Wrangell Island in Alaska, was one of the U.S. Coast Guard reservists who was on the Tucsan and rescued Dad and Sandy Cutting. “We took them on board, gave them clean and dry clothes, warmed and fed them pork chops,” he described. From Leonard’s wife, Josie, I have received copies of pictures taken on board the Tucsan of Leonard and Carl Dudler, the two who were in the rowboat on February 3, 1943.

Bill Lofholm, nearing 100 years old in Boise, Idaho, had worked in the 1940s as a Morrison-Knudsen employee alongside Joseph Tippets on many airport projects in Alaska. He was scheduled to be on that plane January 5, 1943, but he had problems getting to Seattle and arrived too late. He went by the hangar and saw that the plane had left.

Fred Hill was responsible for organizing the shore party of the U.S. Coast Guard to go back into the wilderness to search for Dewey Metzdorf and Robert Gebo after Dad and Cutting had been found. In 2009 at his home on Whidby Island in Washington State he described his unhappiness when he learned that Joe Tippets and Sandy Cutting would be going with them. “We were just going to find two dead men,” he said, “and these two going with me might die as well . . .”

Two girls, Beverly and Donna Sainsbury, were 8 and 10 years old in the LDS Anchorage Branch during the time when Dad was lost. They remember it well today. “ . . . As everyone was fasting and praying and your mother kept saying ‘He is alright and will come home.’ Her faith probably carried the whole branch. But it did happen and of course everyone was over joyed.” — Beverly

And, sharing the Hearts of Courage story in a Sunday School class, a son of my cousin Linda learned of Ben Lofgrens personal journal account where he described being present at the house in Anchorage when Alta learned the plane was missing. “ . . . My task in Joe’s absence was to see that Alta and her small son were safe and comforted . . . On that day I left work and walked about a mile to the Tippets home and found the family excited that Joe would soon be there . . . the phone rang. Joe’s boss wanted to talk to me . . . told me to break the news that the plane was lost somewhere . . . We all knelt in the bedroom to pray, I left about 11 p.m. with the storm still raging outside.

“The process went on for a week, then two . . . and still no trace or whereabouts of the pilot and passengers. But the newspapers were full of the story–all very frank and brutal in stating the slight chance of there being any survivors. Finally I had to agree; there was little possibility that any could yet be alive. Much as we hope and pray, there are the cruel realities of life. But Alta could not be consoled . . . Joe was out there alive, and someone had to find him . . . On the 29th day word was received Joe had been found.”

I do presentations of Hearts of Courage for different audiences about once a month. At those occasions and in phone calls and emails, I constantly get feedback about the story and how its message of courage, faith, and prayer, of perseverance in the face of adversity is even today continuing to impact hearts and minds of those who hear and read it.

Dad once described how reluctant he was to consider that God had intervened to preserve his life. He just felt that there were far too many good, decent, and innocent people losing their lives in those times; their families had prayed for them, they had hopes and dreams and would have been productive members of society. But, he said, God might have done so “if it might be for no other reason that my life has been preserved, except that I should tell my story so that others might be inspired to persevere in the face of adversity.” That is why I will share it today.

And now, 70 years since those times and that experience, we are continuing to tell Dad’s story in a book, in a TV documentary, in a museum exhibit, and in luncheon and dinner presentations to interested groups, hopefully inspiring and encouraging readers and listeners as Joseph Tippets wished and because he felt it could have been the reason his life was spared.


“We all remember the almost incredulous joy and amazement we experienced on February 3 upon hearing that two survivors had been found, including our good friend and coworker, Joseph H. Tippets. After a month of privation and suffering, the fact that even four of the six on board the ill-fated plane survived the long, miserable month almost taxes our imagination, and proves indeed that faith and hope and courage and endurance have tangible rewards.

“The age of miracles is not past!”

Marshall C. Hoping, Alaska Regional Manager

Civil Aeronautics Administration

Muluk Telegraph, March 1943

Evan, who lives in Anchorage, has 9 children, 25 grandchildren, and 6 great grandchildren. As a pilot, he has logged more than 4,000 hours of flight time in Alaska, in both wheel and float planes. He is a serious recreation hunter and fisherman, equally comfortable casting a flyrod or using bait, or lures. He has been published in many national magazines and is the author of four books.