Ask any midwestern duck hunter born before 1930 where they were during the Armistice Day Blizzard and they will be able to tell you. It was on that day, Monday, November 11, 1940, that one of the most powerful and tragic storms ever to hit the upper midwest struck.
Armistice Day, the forerunner of our Veteran’s Day, was a holiday back then in commemoration of the end of World War I only 22 years earlier. War raged in Europe on that day, but Pearl Harbor and our entry into World War II was still a bit over a year away.
The fall of 1940 had been an Indian summer, very pleasant, but not good duck hunting weather. Monday’s forecast predicating lower temperatures and “a few flurries” held the promise of the kind of duck hunting that had been absent all fall. With many schools and businesses closed for the holiday, and with a storm vastly more powerful than predicted bearing down and driving all the great flights of ducks from the north ahead of it, the stage was set for the tragedy that would soon follow.
Temperatures in the morning were in the 50’s and 60’s, the skies were overcast and sometimes misty, and the ducks were flying. Around 10 a.m. things began to turn worse. The barometric pressure began to fall fast and soon reached record lows. The winds quickly picked up, and by that evening had reached sustained speeds of 50 mph with gusts of 80 mph or more. The mist turned to rain, and then to snow, and before morning more than two feet of snow had fallen in places and had piled up into drifts reaching as high as 20 feet in open country. And the temperature, so mild in the morning, was in the single digits by nightfall, never to rise above 12 degrees all the next day.
Hundreds of thousands of head of livestock were lost that day, and the pheasant population took a hit that would take years to recover from. All across Minnesota and the upper midwest daily life had ground to a halt. Thousands of motorists were stranded, the towns and cities were paralyzed by the storm, and farmers were literally lost in the whiteout blizzard between the house and the barn. On November 13, 1940 the Winona Republican-Herald reported that 49 lives were lost in Minnesota, nearly half of them were duck hunters in the backwaters and islands of the upper Mississippi. Some have never been found. They reported another 69 lives were lost on Lake Michigan where several ships went down. Others died in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois.
But many were saved by their own determination to live or by the heroic deeds of others. The story of pilot Max Conrad, flying a Piper Cub, is particularly notable. Conrad, with his assistant Bobby Bean, flew low over the backwaters, fighting high winds while trying to locate stranded hunters. Conrad would then circle those hunters and lead rescue boats to them. Many hunters owed their lives to this pilot.
But the duck hunting was great. The great northern flights of mallards and bluebills, of redheads and canvasbacks had all come at once. Donald Henkel, in the book All Hell Broke Loose, later wrote, “Ducks reached from horizon to horizon, and were so closely packed together that we could hear their wings slapping the wings of adjoining birds. It seemed that all the waterfowl in North America were on the move and were riding ahead of that storm.” Hunters later spoke of ducks flying so low that they could almost grab their feet, in numbers greater than anyone had ever seen. One duck hunter ran out of shells and went to town for more. Disappointed that he could not get back to the marshes because of the weather, it turns out that he was one of the lucky ones. Others, unwilling to leave, stayed too long to get out and were stranded. They simply could not or would not stop shooting and head for shore. Ed Kosidowski from Winona, Minnesota wrote, “The ducks were all over so we just stood there and shot ’em. We kept firing away. Oh, it was a terrible night. We didn’t make it to shore until 10 o’clock. But that shooting, oh that shooting, you couldn’t imagine it.”