Veterans Day 2014 saw most of the country plunged into a deep freeze courtesy of a “polar vortex”. Armistice Day seventy-four years ago brought some surprising weather, and turned out to be disastrous for duck hunters in Minnesota and the Upper Mississippi River region. For Minnesotans, it ranks as the second most significant weather event of the twentieth century. It was one of those days that people born before 1940 can say exactly where they were on November 11, 1940.
It started out as a rather balmy day for that time of year, in the 40s and 50s. Colder temperatures and a few flurries were forecast for later in the day, but still duck hunters considered that a perfect day, some dressing only in short-sleeves. It seemed like an ideal hunting day as thousands of ducks flew into the river valley and marshes. What the hunters did not know, however, was the unusual mass of birds portended disaster – the fowls were seeking shelter for the storm they already knew was coming.
The storm on its way, and largely underestimated, had started in the Pacific Northwest and featured hurricane-like winds. Storms originating in that part of the country tended to fizzle out over the Rockies though. This one was different, however, because the system was being fed with moisture from the Gulf of Mexico which then collided with a cold air mass from Canada.
The skies began to darken and winds began to pick up, and by noon snow was falling. Even though the temperatures were rapidly falling, the amassed flocks of birds were too tempting to pass up apparently, several hunters deciding to stay until the 4:00 p.m. daily deadline or until they had bagged their limit of ten.
Several hunters discovered at 4:00 that they were marooned, many having spent the day in areas on the Mississippi River between St. Paul and Prairie du Chien. A few hunters made it through to safety, but many were forced to seek shelter on small islands and tried to stay warm. Tragically, several hunters froze to death. Of the forty-nine deaths reported in Minnesota as a result of the storm, almost half were duck hunters.
There were other deaths throughout the Midwest, totaling one hundred and forty-nine in all, including over sixty sailors who died on Lake Michigan as their ships sank. Additionally, thirteen (each) died in Illinois and Wisconsin and four in Michigan. Thanksgiving was also impacted that year as over one million turkeys throughout the Midwest died from exposure. In Lincoln, Nebraska residents were warned not to buy the frozen birds.
Apparently, salesmen were intent on nevertheless making a buck or two off of the turkey disaster as they went door-to-door claiming the birds had been properly butchered as soon as they had perished. But what to do with all those dead turkeys? The Lincoln Evening Journal of November 13 reported that inquiries had begun to come into state agriculture authorities asking if the turkeys could be fed to other animals like hogs. They concluded that hogs might choke on the turkey bones or might ingest some spoiled meat, so that idea was nixed.
Meanwhile, snow had piled up in record amounts of over twenty-five inches in some places with drifts of ten feet or higher. In March of 1941 another storm hit the region, another one underestimated for its intensity. At that time, weather forecasts for the region were issued from Chicago. A change of policy was in order and thereafter regional centers were set up across the Midwest to coordinate and produce more accurate predictions.
Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!