There is something majestic about a winter storm, the way it transforms familiar landscapes while the wind howls. The Armistice Day blizzard changed not only landscapes, but lives. It was an event which endures, a moment frozen forever in memory.
The fall of 1940 was a warm one. The war in Europe was front-page news. In Minnesota, the Gophers football team was number one in the nation again. With gardens still yielding vegetables well into October, winter seemed far away. By midday November 11, some areas of southeast Minnesota topped 60 degrees, but a huge storm was just to the west.
WCCO meteorologist Paul Douglas has been talking about and studying the Armistice Day storm for years.
"It hit the Pacific northwest with near hurricane-force gusts," Douglas says. "Usually storms weaken somewhat as they cross the Rockies, but this storm did not weaken. In fact, as it tapped moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and cold air lurking just north over Canada, the two combined into an explosive pattern and the storm system really became what meteorologists call a bomb."
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By early afternoon on November 11, Sonny Ehlers and his hunting partner Norman Roloff were on the Mississippi River near Winona ready to hunt ducks. Roloff says they got in a small boat to cross a slough.
"I recall it being quite warm. It was so warm when I rowed the skiff across I took my hunting jacket off, because it was actually that warm," says Roloff.
But the warmth didn't last long. Skies darkened, winds picked up and sprinkles of rain fell; perfect hunting conditions. Thousands of ducks funnelled into the Mississippi River Valley. Something had impelled them to fly, but in their excitement, Roloff and the other hunters missed the clue.
"Apparently the weather pattern had moved ducks from various parts of the state and they were seeking shelter," Roloff says. "They were looking for shelter in view of what they knew was happening. More so than us, who didn't know at the time."
His hunting partner, Sonny Ehlers, says shotguns echoed everywhere.
"There was just a lot of birds moving. Ducks, there were ducks all over. And then she hit. Then it turned to rain, and rain to sleet and then sleet to snow and then wind. It blew hard," Ehlers recalls.
Thirty miles downstream, Dick and James Bice, brothers from LaCrosse, looked forward to a short school day and some duck hunting. But James decided the warm weather signaled a "blue bird day," too nice to hunt ducks. He stayed home. However brother Dick left with a friend for a river hunt. What began as a shirtsleeve day, turned bad fast.
"That wind came up so darn fast, all of a sudden. We knew it was coming up fast but, boy, we thought, 'This is twice as good, cause ducks will be blowing around all over,' which they were."
One newspaper account called the storm "the winds of hell." Bice faced them alone. His partner took their boat to retrieve some ducks, but was swept helplessly to the next island. As the stranded hunter watched the storm grow more intense over the Mississippi River, the blizzard brought death to central Minnesota.
"We were playing cards," Bice says. "And all at once, we heard a bang like a thunderbolt that was close by, and the ground just trembled."
Wendelin Beckers, 20 at the time, was on duty at the Mobil station in Watkins. He half-stumbled, half-crawled through the storm to see what had happened.
"I felt my way. I knew the area so good and followed the side tracks up to the depot. And when I got there, I saw the awful truth. My God! Two of those iron horses like they had years ago, those steam engines, were smashed right head on together," says Beckers.
A passenger train loaded with duck hunters and a freight train collided in front of the Watkins depot. Unable to see in the white-out, the passenger train's crew missed a track-side signal. An engineer and fireman were killed. Watkins residents formed a human chain to lead the passengers to safety, while an eerie cry mingled with the storm's roar.
"One of the whistles in one of the engines got jammed and it let out the most mournful tone," says Beckers. "All day and part into the night before the steam was all out of the boiler. A low mournful sound like it was crying over the accident that happened, that's the way it sounded."
WCCO meteorologist Paul Douglas says as daylight ended, duck hunters all over the Midwest knew they were in serious trouble.
"It tracked from about Des Moines to Eau Claire. The central pressure was down around 29 inches of mercury and it doesn't get much stronger than that. It allowed moisture from the south to interact with this fresh Canadian air mass to the north and those two converged to produce this incredible intensification to the point where you really did have what you could call an inland hurricane."
In the Mississippi River valley near Winona, day's end crystallized the crisis. The hunter's low-slung ducks boats were no match for 70 mph winds and five-foot waves. But if they stayed put, could they survive subzero wind chills? Hunters abandoned cherished guns and decoys as they searched for a way out. Norman Roloff's 19-year-old eyes took it all in.
"There was panic, certainly, among a number of them. And almost to the point where one man was almost crying, because he saw this body of water, which was getting worse condition by the hour," he said.
Sonny Ehlers knew they had to act fast.
"The snow and the wind was blowing so bad and it was getting so cold. And we didn't have enough clothes on, we just had our regular old hunting coat and they were starting to soak up. And I says, 'Norm, we gotta make it, there's no alternative or we're going to be dead.'"
A backwater slough blocked their path home. They found a tree-protected portion of the water, but it was still a treacherous crossing.
"The waves were pretty substantial, probably about two-and-a-half feet high, maybe three at places," Roloff recalls. "We started paddling, not rowing, but paddling across and by the time we got over, the boat was at least half full of water because of the waves."
But they survived where others drowned or froze to death. With their soaked clothes freezing on their backs, they made it to a nearby town.
About the time Ehlers and Roloff made it to safety, a young pianist began a concert at the College of St. Teresa in Winona. The world would come to know him by his last name, but on this stormy night he was still Walter Liberace from Milwaukee. Published reports say the roar of the wind almost drowned out his music. But when Liberace surrendered to the storm and began to leave the stage, the audience urged him to continue. As an ode to the maelstrom which was killing people just a few miles away, he ended the concert with a piece called "The Night Winds."
It may have been that Dick Bice was getting cold. He was trapped on a small island in the Mississippi near La Crosse. He knew he had to move to keep warm and stay alive.
"The wind kept getting stronger and stronger and stronger," says Bice. "Oh boy, it was kind of vicious. I knew I had to do something, and so I'd just run around the circle maybe for 15 minutes or 30 minutes or whatever, to try to keep warm. But I never reached the point where I thought, 'Well I'll never make it alive,' or anything like that."
While Bice ran laps, his father, brother and friends tried to rescue him. But their small boat was no match for the hurricane-force winds. Before abandoning their search, they saw a small fire and two figures on a nearby island. Certain this was Dick Bice and his companion, the rescue party retired to their nearby vehicles, waiting for morning light.
On Tuesday, November 12, the "winds of hell" brought a deadly reckoning. The Armistice Day storm cut a 1,000-mile-wide path through the middle of the country. On Lake Michigan three freighters and two smaller boats sank, 66 sailors died. In Minnesota, 27 inches of snow fell at Collegeville, the Twin Cities recorded 16 inches. Twenty-foot snow drifts forced rescuers to use long probes to find missing cars. Passenger trains were snowbound. And along the Mississippi River, the first bodies of duck hunters were brought in. "The city of Winona turned their city garage into a makeshift morgue and were bringing in those that were frozen and they thawed them out their for identification," says Norman Roloff. When stories of how people died began circulating, he realized just how lucky he had been.
"I recall one man that they found, was found frozen upright in the water. And for some reason he had held on to a branch and the rescuers just cut the branch on either side of his hand and so in was brought in that condition; branch still in his hand."
One young man survived because his hunting dogs kept him warm. Some bodies were bruised, because hunters hit themselves in a desperate effort to stay warm. On the shores of the Mississippi River that morning near Winona, the Bice family got ready for a happy reunion. There was activity on the island where a fire had burned through the night. Two hunters began walking across the now frozen water, pulling a boat. But when they arrived on shore, James Bice was shocked to find out it was not his brother and his friend.
"I've told a lot of people it was one of the worst moments of my life. Because at that moment we didn't know, we thought we'd lost 'em," Bice says.
But on a tiny island not far away, a well-packed footpath circled a tiny tree.
"I never thought I was very smart, but I was actually doing pretty well by myself then. On that small island I'd just keep running in circles," Bice says.
Later in the day, the Bice family finally had their reunion. Dick's father and a friend managed to reach him by walking over the thin ice. Bice's hunting partner was also found alive on a nearby island. In St. Paul state officials were scrambling to meet the emergency. State workers mobilized to help stranded motorists and to plow lanes through rock-hard drifts. Farmers were hard hit, one million Thanksgiving turkeys died. In the days and weeks after the storm, the U.S. Weather Bureau responded to criticism that it failed to predict the huge blizzard. Officials said they knew a storm was coming, but were wrong about its strength and scope.
But perhaps the most embarrassing revelation was that no one was watching the storm's explosive development in the pre-dawn hours of November 11. A retired government forecaster says the Midwest headquarters in Chicago was not staffed overnight. The uproar led to several changes. The Chicago office went to round-the-clock operation and the Twin Cities branch was upgraded so it could issue forecasts.
Meteorologist Paul Douglas says the Armistice storm still resonates today.
"Meteorologists shudder when the Armistice Day blizzard subject comes up. I think technology has helped and we would not be caught again with some of the new technology. But certainly there can still be scenarios where we are surprised, where we are caught and that's why this can be such a humbling profession."
Time is taking its toll on the people who survived the Armistice blizzard. There have been other big blizzards, but none has taken so many lives. As the Armistice storm generation fades so does the power of their story, the strength of their warning. But their words still carry a healthy dose of fear and wonder, something which could come in handy when the winds of hell return.