Armistice Day Storm of 1940:  Personal Accounts

Jeff Boyne, NWS La Crosse, WI

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If you have your own stories of the Armistice Day Storm (November 11-12, 1940), and/or their aftermath and would like them recorded on this webpage, please send them to the National Weather Service via e-mail at Jeff.Boyne@noaa.gov or via regular mail at N2788 County Rd. FA, La Crosse, WI 54601-3038.  We appreciate your help and your time in commemorating this remarkable, but tragic event. 

 

My Grandfather was caught in this storm while duck hunting.  He survived by burning the gun powder from his shells and taking turns staying awake with his hunting buddy.  Thankfully they made their way to a farmhouse.  In the morning, the police found his car buried in the snow and presumed he had frozen to death and delivered the devastating news to my pregnant grandmother. Thankfully, due to the kindness of the people who took him in, they survived and he lived for another 68 years!

Julie Sokoloski, Kenyon, MN


 This story is true to the best of my memory and although it happened 23 years ago, I have some mighty vivid memories of that murderous, freezing blizzard of Armistice Day, Monday, November 11, 1940.

It was the most miserable day I’ve ever lived through, and I have lived through a few other not-too-comfortable days while serving 38 months in the Pacific with the Navy during World War II.  I’d take any two days and nights of the five major campaigns I went through before I’d relive November 11, 1940.  I’ve never been so miserably cold nor felt so close to death as I did in that freezing nightmare.

I grew up near Alma, Wisconsin in Buffalo County, and I believe I know the rivers and sloughs in that area as well as any man.  From the time I was old enough to bait a hook, I was out in the Beef (Buffalo River) or Mississippi River bottoms every chance I got.  I fished in the Beef River below the red railroad bridge before the Alma Dam was built and you could walk up and down the banks but that area is all under water now, and you have to go back up in the middle of Rieck’s Lake before you can even see the banks of the Beef.

The dam backed all the water up and the highest land in the river bottoms became a chain of scattered islands, covered with trees, brush and tall marsh grass.  These islands became a duck hunter’s dream beneath one of the world’s most famous flyways.  Hunters came from all over every fall, and I learned from the many I talked to that there just wasn’t any finer place for water fowl shooting.  

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool duck hunter and there isn’t anything I’d rather do.  Before I was old enough to get a duck stamp, I went out with other hunters and, after I could hunt legally, any time the weather looked right, I was out there.  All I thought about were ducks.  All I hunted were ducks.  And I ate duck; fried, roasted, stewed or smoked.  

Shells were $1.25 a box.  You could take a mixed bag limit of 10 birds daily but wood ducks were protected.  When the Canadian flight came down, all I would shoot were mallard and canvasback … a mighty fine return for a nickel shell.

There must have been a lot of fellows out there in that blizzard who loved duck hunting as much as I did.  And another thing, unless they were a lot older than I, they had never seen a sky so black with ducks.  How could a duck hunter let a “little weather” drive him off the river when every duck from Canada, including some big white honkers, were milling all over those islands.

I liked to hunt in the Crooked Slough area about a mile south of a kind of square-ended island called the “Firing Line.”  The Firing Line faced north and about a mile upriver was a group of islands which were a U.S. wildlife refuge and flocks were coming and going up there almost any time of the day.  If you were on the Firing Line and pretty handy with a duckcall, you could call a few down occasionally and when you did, it sounded like a small war had broken out.  There were blinds every 20 feet.  It was too crowded to suit me so I usually hunted south of there.  

It had been a mighty quiet duck season so far but Monday, November 11, 1940 looked like it might stir up something.  It had rained all day Saturday.  Sunday there was a heavy fog and toward evening a light rain started and continued all night.  It was still raining Monday morning but the wind had shifted from the southwest to the northwest.  Although it wasn’t very cold, it looked like it might start the big migration.

I lived on a small farm in Iron Creek, about 2 miles back in a valley from the old icehouse on Highway 35.  This icehouse was about 3 miles north of Alma on the band of Beef Slough or Number One as we used to call it.  Number Two Beef Slough is separated from Number One by the railed embankment.  By going around the north end of Number One, you could walk south on the railroad track until you came to the south end of Number Two.  Then you could walk straight out into the bottoms for quite a ways if you dodged a few potholes.  Crooked Slough would stop you from walking out to the Mississippi or the Firing Line.  You needed a boat to cross the slough.  It runs out of Number Two and goes through a maze of islands and joins the Beef River just about where the Beef joins the Mississippi.  Once you were across Crooked Slough you could walk up or down the islands next to the river for quite a ways if you were wearing hip boots.

After doing the chores, I put on my duck pants, boots and cap, grabbed my old Springfield single 16 and my duckcoat, drove down to Highway 35, then north about half a mile where I parked my car near the Spring Creek Road.  I was wearing a T-shirt under my woolen shirt.  I put my coat on when I left the car and walked down the tracks to Number Two where I had a light, narrow duck skiff locked to a tree.

This saved me from walking out through the bottoms to Crooked Slough and I made better time zipping along with that little skiff and one oar.  I went skimming along out through Number Two, across the outlet and pulled into the big island bordering the Mississippi’s main channel.  I now had Number Two’s outlet into Crooked Slough between me and the mainland, a distance of about 500 feet.  

But that was the last thing I was thinking of.  I pulled my skiff up on shore and covered it up with some dead, soggy marsh grass.  I always did this, even though I wasn’t going to stay near the skiff.  There usually were other hunters in blinds around there and anything as unnatural as a boat in plain sight could sure spook up their shooting.  I loaded my shotgun from the shell loops in my duckcoat pocket.  I had the loops full of number fours and about five loose ones in my pocket.  That made about thirty shells.

I was all set for the big flight if it started today.  I walked across the island, going around a bowl-like slough and crossed a long narrow neck of water over near the river bank, wading knee-deep in a few places.  I got out to the riverbank, sat down on an old stump and took a look around.  The wind was still from the northwest, driving a light rain and the Mississippi had a slight chop.  It was 12 o’clock noon with nothing much doing yet.  A few high-flyers were coming through but a couple skybusters on the Firing Line a mile upstream kept them up.

I liked to sit out here and look around.  On the Wisconsin side of the river, bordering bluffs reared up against the gray, overcast sky and on the other shore, Minnesota’s flatlands looked blue and hazy.  I always marveled at the great difference in two places like this, merely separated by a river.

About 1 o’clock things started to speed up.  Small flocks started coming over.  From the bombarding Firing Line and all the islands around, the shooting sounded like a scattered string of giant firecrackers going off and the thundering reports came echoing back from the tall, rocky-faced bluffs.  It got a lot louder around 1:30 and sounded as though half the State’s duck hunters were out there.  

I learned there were about 50 hunters in this area but they were missing a lot of shots because of the high winds.  One of the storekeepers from Alma used a 10-gauge, double-barrel magnum and I could hear that thing everywhere on the river when he was hunting there.  I didn’t hear it today and thought of what he was missing.  I often ran into one of Alma’s tavern keepers out there too and I’d always ask him a few questions about shotgunning.  He was one of the finest shots on ducks I’ve seen and gave me a lot of good advice.

At 2 o’clock the rain turned into wind driven sleet and snow and within the next 2 hours I saw more waterfowl than I’ve seen in my life.  About that time some hunters started to go ashore but I thought it was just an early snowstorm and paid no attention, besides, I was having the time of my life.  

I was standing behind a little bushy bur oak tree loaded with big rusty-red leaves.  Redheads and mallards by the thousand were flying over and on both sides of me.  My earflaps were down, my eyes were watering and my hands were stiff even though I had on a pair of light gloves that had been in my hunting coat pocket.  I was shooting out over the river.  A big greenhead came down over the water about 10 feet above the curling white-capped waves.  He was following the island’s bank for shelter and my load of number 4’s caught him head-on about 30 yards upstream from me.  By this time those ducks coming down the river had gusts of a 60 mph tail wind behind them.  This duck was killed instantly but the wind flipped him through the air end-over-end and he just missed me behind the tree.  With that wind behind them, those ducks were mighty hard to hit.

I saw a black duck hit by gusts of sleet-laden wind out on the river about 50 yards.  Those gusts knocked her right out of the air and down on the water.  The send time it happened, she gave up flying and went bobbing up and down on the whipping swells.  The waves were breaking up against my shore from the northwest so whenever I dumped a duck in the river the waves brought it in to me.  Hundreds of ducks came past me within 15 feet, probably going around 80 miles an hour.  At 3:45 I had 5 mallards and 2 canvasbacks, big, plump northern ducks.  I had fired 21 times.  But I was well satisfied.  

Now to get home and thaw out.  Between gusts of wind, I still heard the hunters hammering away up on the Firing Line.  As I picked up the ducks I’d killed, a coot landed on the bank right beside me.  I guess he had enough of the storm too.

The reason I remember all these little things is that this was the last good duck hunting I ever had.  I went twice after the war and then gave it up.  Where did all these pre-war ducks go?  

Two hunters had been shooting off the south end of the same island I was on.  I decided to walk down there and see if they had a big boat.  Maybe I could bum a ride across Crooked Slough.  Snow was falling so heavily by now that visibility was around 40 feet and it was getting dark.  I got to the south area just in time to help both hunters out of the water.  Their boat had broached and swamped again, it was the second time they had tried to launch it.  I saw I didn’t have a chance with my skiff.  The men were wet from head to toe and I was wet up to my waist from pulling them out.  

I helped beach their boat and lean it against a tree for a windbreak.  Now to start a fire.  I always carried a waterproof tin box of matches in the breast pocket of my hunting coat.  I felt of my pocket.  It was flat!  Frantically I went through all my pockets while my heart went sinking into my wet boots.  No matches!  One fellow tried pouring powder out of a couple shotgun shells into a pile, then took the shot out of another and shot that blank into the power.  No good.  The muzzle blast blew the power away.

Neither man could swim, so I told them to keep jumping around and if I could swim across that outlet, I’d send help.  They said I’d never make it but I told them we just couldn’t last until morning sitting here, all wet without fire.  I stumbled back through the dark bottoms to my skiff, put my boots, jacket, shotgun and ducks under the skiff and walked down to the wild, cold water.  Ice was forming on the marsh grass along the bank and there I stood in my stocking feet on the snow-covered ground with 500 feet of freezing dark water between me and home.  I must have been getting kind of lightheaded, all I could think of was a crazy little ditty I’d heard somewhere in my childhood:

“Oh, the fox came out one dark stormy night
and he prayed to the Lord to give him a light.”


I needed a light all right and a big boat and a hot stove and some dry clothes and some …

Well, there was only one way to do this, get in there and swim in the direction of that other shore.  I knew just about how it would feel, having fallen into the Beef Slough 3 years ago with a bag of about 20 marshrat traps on my back.  I had on a heavy jacket and hip boots with a hunting ax slung from my belt.  It was in the spring of the year though.  The temperature was about 35 degrees above and ice-cakes were floating down the river.  I lost my traps and ax but managed to drag myself out and walk about a mile home, soaking wet.  But this was going to be much worse.

Being already wet up to my waist, my pants had started to freeze.  I couldn’t see over 30 feet from me as I stepped into the raging water and waded out to where waves started going over my head.  I stood there a moment to get my breath and then started swimming, using just enough effort to stay afloat.  The waves were about 3 feet high but were coming from the northwest angle behind me. Almost every wave was going over my head but I seemed to be getting enough air between waves.  There was a fairly strong current as I got out toward the middle and I tried to swim at an upstream angle to keep from being washed downstream where it got much wider.  I shut every other single thought out of my mind except that invisible shore and dragged my numbed, tired arms and legs through their motions.

I don’t know how long I had been swimming when I bumped into a stump and found I could touch bottom.  I laid there in the water a few minutes, thanking the Lord.  The cold air hit me when I came out and I was almost tempted to get back in the water a bit longer.  I’d drifted down much further than I thought.  I must have walked 400 feet upstream before I came to the shore of Number Two directly opposite from where I had started swimming, so I think I swam about 700 feet in one of the heaviest snowstorms I’ve ever been in.  

I went trotting through the wildly-whipping trees toward the railroad tracks, swinging my arms like mad.  Every now and then I’d run into a tree, pick myself up and take off again.  Then, to add insult to injury, I ran into one of the numerous potholes out in those bottoms.  All of a sudden I was head-over-heels back in the water, right in the middle of what sounded like 10,000 mallards frightened out of their wits.  They took off in every direction as I wallowed back to shore.  The ducks had picked the tree-sheltered pothole and settled for the night.  I don’t know which of us was the most startled.

About halfway to the railroad, I saw a big flickering fire on the bank of Number Two.  The flames were leaping 6 feet in the air and red-glowing sparks went whirling up through the swirling snow.  About this time, I started thinking about the story I’d read when I was in the 3rd grade of school.  It was the story of “The Little Match Girl.”  She was out selling matches in the freezing streets.  As she froze to death, the whole world seemed to be a warm, rosy, glowing place and she was warm and happy.  Well, I was far from being warm and happy and I didn’t lose any time getting to that fire either!

Two fellows had their rowboat tipped against a tree.  They had set fire to an old punky white oak log and were standing just as close to that great, big, beautiful fire as they could get.  Their clothes were steaming and they both looked all tired out.  I gave them quite a start when I came prancing up into the firelight.  My shirt, pants and cap were one sheen of glistening, crackling ice.  My stocking feet had little balls of ice and snow clinging to them and my cap was frozen to my hair.  I had one canvas glove on and had lost the other.  They stared at me as though I were some monster that just crawled ashore in a storm.  These fellows said they were from Green Bay.  They had tipped over and clung to a boat.  The wind had driven them ashore.

They had a waterproof matchbox, thank God!  Now all they wanted to know is, “How do we get off this blankety-blank island?”  “Island?”  I said, “You aren’t on an island.  The railroad track is right over there, a quarter-mile away.”  My teeth were chattering so hard they had trouble understanding me.  I told them how to get over to the highway.  They said they wanted to get good and dry first and then, when they got to a phone, they would send help for the two men I’d left on the land.

After roasting myself for about 30 minutes, I was still quit damp but it was getting colder, the slough had started to freeze and all I could think of was getting home.  It was very cold up on the railroad track and gusts of wind almost blew me off the embankment.  My feet got sore from the ties and pebbles, then became so numb I felt nothing.  I was numb all over when I finally stumbled up to my car.  It was an old car, without a heater and the radiator had frozen.  I was very fortunate that it started.

By the time I got home, I felt like I was frozen into a sitting position.  My hands were so stiff I could hardly straighten them and ice had welded my right sock to the accelerator.  My father came running from the house to help me.  He had been listening to the Winona, Minnesota radio station and heard about the stranded hunters.  It was now 9:15 in the evening and ordinarily I would have been home around 5.  

He called the Alma telephone office and reported the positions of the four men I had left.  The operator said these men had been reported earlier and were being rescued.  I found out later that quite a number of fellows from Alma and Nelson were out along the shore looking for stranded hunters.  

I practically pried my frozen clothes from my body and wrapped a blanket soaked in lukewarm water around me.  It felt like a million needles in that blanket, all sticking into me.  I drank 4 or 5 cups of hot coffee, then rubbed myself with a big, rough towel for about 10 minutes, my teeth still chattering.  

By morning the temperature was 2 degrees above zero with the blizzard still raging.  Since Monday noon, the temperature had dropped about 70 degrees and out in the Winona river bottoms 50 freezing men still awaited rescue.  A plane was used to spot them and all day long the rescue work went on.  Three rescue men from Alma were out in the blizzard all night.  It took a lot of courage to brave those churning, white-capped waves, using inadequately-sized boats for rescue but they pulled it off.  The last of the stranded hunters in the Alma area were rescued by 8 o’clock Tuesday morning.  20 men died between Red Wing, Minnesota and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, 2 of them near Alma.

The Winona area claimed the heaviest losses.  For two days, old Mother Nature acted like a mistress of the Grim Reaper, howling, lashing and freezing everything in her reach.  Then Wednesday arrived; clear, cold and still.  The nation added the “flyway” toll to the long week-end highway toll and life moved on again.

A man from Marshfield donated an adequately-sized, all-weather rescue boat to the City of Alma for any such needs in the following years.  Today, in this advanced day and age, such a tragedy could hardly happen but then, again, who can foresee the future.

I am very thankful that all I got out of that freezing ordeal was frost-bitten feet and hands, frozen ears and a large bruise on my forehead where I bumped it on a tree.  I’m not counting all the nightmares I had the first few years after that day.  In every single one, I’m still in that icy water, getting weaker and weaker, swimming toward a dark, snow-covered shore that is never there.

NIGHTMARE on the MISSISSIPPI
A Written Personal Account by Dale H Engler, 1963


He was 24 that year, that year when the ducks came and men died, and like most hunters trapped in the deadly Armistice Day storm, he left home wearing only a canvas coat.  It was shirt sleeve weather.  50 degrees.  Few had given a second thought to cold weather gear.  But few could have imagined the deadly nightmare that would besiege the Upper Midwest that day.

For sure, Oscar Gerth had no idea of what would happen to him … chopping up two dozen handmade cedar decoys and burning them to stay alive, the long hours of peering into a smoky fire of dim hope, afraid to walk more than 15 steps in any one direction for fear of becoming lost.  No, no one could have imagined the tragedy that befell duck hunters on November 11, 1940.  No one at all.

The storm was extraordinary in its intensity and suddenness.  This one, the one that baited hunters with a drizzling dawn and beckoning warmth, was rooted far to the north and west.  A low pressure system had whistled across the Pacific Northwest, steamed south towards Colorado and took a brief breather over the Texas panhandle, where it sucked in moisture from the balmy Gulf of Mexico.  From there it turned north, drenching Kansas with an inch of rain and it ominously eyed the Upper Midwest.  The second system, cold and nasty, had swung down from the North Pole, late on the morning of November 11th they collided over the Mississippi River.  That, old-timers say, is when all hell broke loose.

At first hunters welcomed the southwest’s gusting winds and chill.  On those winds was the promise of ducks.  “Let ‘er rip,” they said.  But before long the Mississippi River was a swirling tide of unnavigable whitecaps.  BB-size snow began pounding flesh—winds howled like sirens, temperatures would soon plummet to 9 degrees.

Mr. Gerth of Winona, 74, didn’t forget.  Not even if he wanted to.  With each sentence he paints a vivid picture of the storm that killed some 161 people, 20 of them hunters between Red Wing, Minnesota and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.  Gerth is telling how not far from the blind in which he was unloading a man died standing in the water, the thickening ice slowly entombing him, a hand clutching a willow branch.  That image causes Gerth to pause in midsentence.  He cocks his head the way people do when they are lost in thought, and after several moments of reflecting, he continues.

“Anyone who went out that day, fell in the water or got wet somehow, they were done.  Hardly anyone could have survived that.  The only thing that saved us is that we kept our clothing dry.  The cold was bad enough but the wind was something else.  It froze so hard that night that the next morning we walked over little ponds, one man in single file right behind the other.”

Gerth is among a dwindling legion of hunters who lived through what some say is the worst hunting disaster in U.S. history.  He’s the kind of man who in a different day might have occasionally told his tales while sitting near the general store’s pot-bellied stove, his feet resting on a keg of nails.  Today, finding men like Gerth is a hunt in itself.

Drinking coffee in a Wabasha resort is Willis Kruger, 77.  He was a game warden here for some 30 years.  Nowadays most mornings he can be found at the Wapasha Resort sipping coffee with ‘the boys,’ a group of retired men who always know where the fish bite and ducks fly.

Of all of Kruger’s stories, two tend to make him shudder.  One is the time he was attacked while trying to make an arrest.  In the nick of time he stuck a gun in a man’s nose.  The second is the Armistice Day storm.  Five men died in the area he patrolled.  “We tried to rescue people that night but … we didn’t have a boat big enough to handle those waves … Everyone knew there were men trapped out there … and everyone knew some wouldn’t make it through the night.”

Ted Beaty, 73 of Wabasha, was 29 the day he walked along a small slough at Robinson Lake near Wabasha.  By 4pm he knew that no duck in the world was worth another minute crouched in a blind.  ‘On my way back I stopped to pick up a man who had rowed across the lake in a little duck boat.  He was just wearing a shell vest and no cap … he was just about a goner.  He had sat down and fallen asleep.  I took off my parka and put it around him.  That kind of helped.  It was a long hike, the two of us together, and I didn’t get home “til pret near 9 o’clock.  The doctor said he would have froze to death if someone wouldn’t have helped him.”

There were many heroes and losers in the game of life that day.  Among rescue volunteers was Max Conrad, a Winonan already nationally known for his long-distance flying adventures.  At dawn on November 12th he eased his Piper Cub into a 50-mph headwind and spent the rest of the day guiding rescue parties to stranded hunters.  To some he dropped food, whiskey and cigarettes.  To many he was the sign of hope they had been waiting for.

“I remember him flying over us,” Gerth recalled.  “I can’t image how he managed to fly so low.  He was just above the group trying to look under tipped over boats to see if anyone was underneath them.”

The luck hunters, men like Ted Bambenek of Winona, didn’t have to worry about burrowing under a boat for protection.  22 then, he was among 17 hunters stranded on an island in Straight Slough.  Together they had the strength and resources to build a blazing fire.

“We took turns going out and fetching wood that night,” Bambenek explained. “For the most part we just stared at the fire and wondered what the people in town were wondering.  Come morning, when we were able to make it to shore, someone brought a bottle of whiskey to us.  We were all supposed to get a drink but I didn’t.  The bottle never made it that far.  I think it was dry before it was halfway around.”

The storm was big news across the country and many newspapers dispatched reporters to Mississippi river towns.  The Milwaukee Journal sent Gordon MacQuarrie to Winona, and in the prose of the times he wove a compelling tale of heroism and tragedy.

“Over in Winona General Hospital tonight lies Gerald Tarras, 17 a survivor.  He is a big boy, nearly 6 feet, and strong.  He ahd to be to live.  He saw his father, a brother and his friend die.  He has not yet come to a full realization of what has happened, for grief is sometimes far in the wake of catastrophe,” he wrote.

Casualties ran so high, in part, because the shooting was so good.  Mallards were everywhere, though had to hit because of the ferocious wind.  Winonan Ed Kosidowski, now 70, remembers what it was like.

“The ducks were all over so we just stood there and shot ‘em.  We had warm clothes—extra socks and all—so we kept firing away.  Oh, it was a terrible night.  We didn’t make it to shore until about 10 o’clock.  But that shooting, oh that shooting, you couldn’t imagine it.”

No one knows exactly how many hunters died along the Mississippi river that day.  Their deaths were lumped together with all the others, like the people who died stranded in their cars on the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the sailors who drowned in Lake Michigan.  But some say that perhaps as many as 80 men died in their blinds or boats.

Excerpted From “All Hell Broke Loose” by William A Hull, MA
Stratton Publication Services, Edina, Minnesota, 1983

 


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