Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Veterans’ voices

Cook author preserves memories of local service members

Marcus White
Posted 9/19/18

COOK - There are stories we tell one another to remember the past, and there are stories we’ll never know, either because they’ve been forgotten or somewhere along the line someone decided their …

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Veterans’ voices

Cook author preserves memories of local service members

Posted

COOK - There are stories we tell one another to remember the past, and there are stories we’ll never know, either because they’ve been forgotten or somewhere along the line someone decided their stories weren’t worthy to tell.

It’s the latter that local author and former teacher Sandra Butalla wants to write, especially those from veterans who may not be around much longer to have their voices heard.

Butalla was at the Cook Library Tuesday night to share some of those stories and to sign copies of her two books, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “Warbirds in the Cloak of Darkness.”

Butalla didn’t initially set out to be an author. She had originally worked as an English and writing teacher for 15 years, 10 of which were local, at the old Cook School.

She knew, however, that one day she wanted to write a book; she just didn’t know what it would be about.

Life changed when her mother, who was dying of cancer, told her it was time to write her first book.

Butalla would embark on the journey to write and was led to finding inspiration at the Virginia Legion hall.

“There were several men working their hearts out,” Butalla said. “I thought, gosh, they must have some good stories to tell.”

And they did. The problem was they were the stories of people who had already died and Butalla wasn’t simply looking to write “another biography.” She wanted to find someone from whom she could not only hear their story, but who would open up their soul and really understand the person behind the story.

That’s when her husband asked if she knew about the man down the street who fell out of a plane over the North Sea.

The man down

the street

“I went with a lot of faith that this man would talk,” Butalla said. “He had a mind of steel, even at 89 years. He never hesitated, I took notes as quickly as I could.”

The man down the street turned out to be Robert Gibens, a World War II veteran who had the unfortunate experience of being aboard a B-17 bomber as it broke apart over the North Sea.

Gibens would survive the 20,000-foot fall that should have ended his life and lived just long enough for Butalla to write his story, that would form the basis of “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

The book was published in 2016. Butalla read him the entire manuscript before he died.

The Carpetbagger

Not long after the publishing of her first book, Butalla received a call from her sister in the Twin Cities. She had met Robert Holmstrom, 92, of St. Paul, another World War II vet who should never have made it out of the war alive.

Holmstrom was one of the few surviving “Carpetbaggers” who fought for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the Second World War.

The Carpetbaggers were a group of men who flew planes under enemy radar to drop spies and their supplies behind enemy lines.

“America needs to know what they did was amazing,” Butalla said. “He (Holmstrom) wouldn’t talk initially because he figured no one would care.”

During the time Butalla interviewed Holmstrom he would win a Congressional Medal of Honor, one he accepted with reservation because so many of his fellow veterans, who he felt were also deserving, had long since passed.

He himself should have never made it through the war. He was told by his commanding officers when he willingly volunteered to be a Carpetbagger that he would likely never live to see his third mission. Holmstrom would fly in 30 before walking away alive.

An evolving career

Her mother’s prompting has kept Butalla going, and now a third book is on the way, about women veterans who served throughout history.

So far she’s interviewed more than a dozen women who’ve shared their stories.

Beyond her third book, Butalla has not planned for what she might do next. She said she is focused on telling the stories of the women with the same method of getting to their souls as she previously did with her first two books.

“It really touches your heart,” she said. “It is my privilege and honor to preserve their stories.”

Books by Butalla are sold under her pen name, S. Fabian Butall, and are available online through Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

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