by John M. Tippets
In my own experience, the drama of real-life almost always trumps fiction, and such is certainly the case in John M. Tippets’ wrenching saga, Hearts of Courage. Tippets is the son of a survivor of the famed Gillam plane crash, so named for noted Alaskan bush pilot, Harold “thrill-’em, spill-’em, no kill-’em” Gillam, who piloted this ill-fated Alaska-bound flight. The story is drawn heavily, and with harrowing understatement, from Joseph Tippets’ journaling about the crash that left him and five others stranded in Alaska’s freezing extremities in January of 1943.
It opens with John Tippets’ fascinating glimpse into Alaska’s defensive importance during WWII, setting up the background for the flight and its passengers—five valiant men and one courageous young woman—most of whom were attached to the aeronautics industry, federal and civilian. The author has compiled exhaustive records and historic photographs detailing the crash and the victims’ month-long ordeal in the desolate, frozen Alaskan terrain. That portion of the story is chilling. But even more compelling is the author’s switch into his father’s voice through the vehicle of Joseph’s journal, allowing us to be intimate, “on-set” witnesses of the groups’ struggles and triumphs. From this point on, Hearts of Courage becomes an illustration of the majesty of the human spirit.
It is courage and character under fire as we read how the principles exercised their strengths and abilities for the welfare of the group—both defying death and in the face of death—putting the interests of others above their own. It is a story of faith and reliance on the Lord through petitions to heaven, and daily group readings from Tippets’ salvaged Bible, and a book of sermonettes titled Unto the Hills, from which Tippets read to the group.
But it is also the story of Tippets’ family’s faith; that despite numerous calls for Alta to face the inevitability of her husband’s death, she knew otherwise, and she never gave up. And neither did his failing mother, who only relaxed her vigil, slipping into death, when her son’s rescue was confirmed. Joseph Tippets recounts how he instinctively drew upon these sources, and upon oft-told stories of the unwavering courage, despite their own sufferings, exhibited by the Mormon pioneers who grace his and Alta’s family lines.
The human cost of the experience is understated in the tender mention of Alta’s miscarriage during that fated month, the deaths of two of the group, the tears of frustration and elation of the survivors. One of the most poignant moments came when Tippet’s hope of survival began to wane. With frozen fingers, he scrawled a final note to Alta and their children—little Johnnie, the author, and Alta’s unborn child who he feared he would never see.
Eyes tear at the dedication of the military—Canadian and American—over devoted employers and co-workers, religious leaders, congregants, friends and neighbors who exhausted themselves in the search for the victims, and in the care of their families. So, yes, Hearts of Courage is also a story of great love—of family, of God and of country—and a reminder of what we each can become as we succor one another.
At one hundred and thirty-six written pages, it is a quick read, but its impact is lasting and satisfying, despite gender or age.
Hearts of Courage, by John Tippets, is available at Amazon, Deseret Book, Ensign Book, other LDS and Alaskana book retailers.