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The Armistice Day blizzard of 1940

November 11, 2008
By Lowell Washburn
Iowa Department of Natural Resources

Submitted by Estella Michels

Imagine this. A powerful fall weather system had just topped the Rocky Mountains and was careening eastward toward the Mississippi river. At the same time, a huge Canadian cold air mass was sliding down from the north, while warm moist air pulled up from the south. Call it a Weather Bomb, Widow Maker, Perfect Storm, whatever. Any way you looked at it, the atmospheric brew spelled trouble for the Heartland.

But no one was looking. The year was 1940. Primitive by contemporary standards, professional weather forecasting was something that most folks put little stock in. In fact, according to the National Weather Service’s own data, no one was even in the building at Chicago’s Mid-west Weather Headquarters during the late night hours of November 10, 1940.

During the wee hours of the following morning, the systems’ combined energy unleashed a storm of unfathomable fury. Barometric pressures plunged to some of the lowest ever recorded, reaching a record 28.92 inches at Charles City. By then, the storm had already begin to cut its thousand mile wide path of death and destruction. Within 24 hours the system would become the most famous and disastrous blizzard in U.S. history. A storm without equal, it is remembered as the day the winds descended, the heavens rained ducks, and duck hunters died.

For mid-western waterfowl hunters, the fall of 1940 was warm and uneventful. And as the doldrums continued into the second week of November, hunters were becoming impatient. Cocking an eye to the North, they watched and waited. Sooner or later the inevitable cold fronts would arrive and birds would move south. For those willing to stick to their marshes, the annual ‘Big Push’ would be a sweet dream.

On November 11, 1940 sportsmen got their wish. But the day was not what gunners had anticipated. Instead of realizing their “sweet dream“, hundreds of waterfowlers suddenly found themselves plunged into a horrific, Stephen King-grade nightmare. Temperatures plummeted from near 60 degrees to below freezing, and then into the single digits -- all within a matter of hours.

By the time it concluded, the storm had dropped more than two feet of snow, buried vehicles and roadways beneath 20-foot drifts, killed thousands of Iowa cattle, and destroyed incalculable amounts of poultry—- including more than a million Thanksgiving turkeys. All told, the storm claimed 160 human lives. At Winona, Minnesota the city bus barn became a temporary morgue as, one by one, the bodies of frozen duck hunters were retrieved. Since many hunters were from out of town, identification was delayed until bodies thawed and pockets could be searched.

On an island near Harper’s Ferry, sixteen-year-old Jack Meggers was one of the hunters who fought for his life that fateful day. A retired Iowa game warden currently living in Mason City, Meggers, now 84, has spent a lifetime on the water. Today, no outdoor event remains more deeply etched in his mind than the morning of Nov. 11, 1940.

“It was Armistice Day [now called Veteran’s Day] and we were out of school,” Meggers begins. “Me, my Dad, and two brothers headed out to an island at Harper’s Ferry. One of the things I remember most is that, just before the storm hit, the sky turned all orange. It’s hard to explain, but I remember that it was really strange.”

The big winds arrived suddenly recalls Meggers, and with the wind came ducks. Not just a flock here or a flock there, but rather hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands. It was a scene seldom witnessed. A scene that in terms of sheer magnitude, will never be repeated.

“We’d never seen anything like it,” says Meggers. “When the ducks arrived, they came in unending waves and they came in all species.”

“Those ducks were all flying about this high off the water [his hand indicates around waist high] and they were all doing about 90 miles an hour with that wind,” he continues.

The Meggers party lost no time in taking advantage of the astonishing flight. But although waterfowl continued to pour down in unending supply, connecting with the wind driven birds presented a major challenge, recalls Meggers. The boys concentrated so hard on the task at hand, that none of them seemed to notice [or care?] as the winds began to attain hurricane force.

“All of a sudden, Dad said, ‘ Grab the decoys -- We’re getting out of here.’ But we were throwing an awful lot of ammunition into the air, and none of us wanted to quit. The sky was just full of ducks,” says Meggers. “Finally Dad said, ‘Grab the decoys NOW or we’re leaving without them. That‘s when we began to see how bad it [the weather] was getting.”

Meggers’ Dad had made the right call. In addition to raging winds and unfathomable legions of ducks, the storm had also begin to deliver pelting rain which quickly turned to sleet, then heavy snow. Visibility dropped to near zero as hunters all up and down the Great River struggled—- many unsuccessfully—- to return to shore.

“It was really rough. By the time we finally made it to the shoreline, you couldn’t even see the shoreline,” Meggers recalls. “By then, the combination of snow and wind was just incredible. Our group made it back. But not everyone did.”

An island away from where the Meggers party hunted, a father and two sons were equally mesmerized by the arriving swarms of waterfowl. Lured into staying beyond the point of no return, their shallow draft duck boat proved no match for the wind and waves. As visibility and daylight faded, the hunters found themselves stranded.

“The oldest son was a college athlete,” Meggers continues. “When things started getting tough [probably the onset of hypothermia] he told his younger brother to jump to stay warm. Every time the younger kid quit jumping, his brother would punch him. The Dad and older brother died on that island. The younger brother just kept on jumping through the night. They rescued him the next day. His legs were frozen hard as wood below both knees and he lost them. He was the sole survivor of his group.”

“That kid was 16, same as me,” says Meggers. “I’ll never forget what happened that day on the river.” A short distance downstream, four more hunters died during the night on an island near Marquette.

For as long as he can remember, Clear Lake’s Max Christensen has been an avid waterfowler. Today, it seems more than a little ironic that Christensen nearly missed out on history’s greatest duck hunt.

“I still remember nearly every detail from that day,” Christensen begins. “I was a high school senior when the November 11 snowstorm arrived in Ventura, Iowa. I lived on a farm and we hadn’t even had a frost yet. The livestock was still in the fields and all the poultry was still outside.”

“I got on the bus at eight o’clock, wearing just a light jacket. The bus driver was Max Millhouse, and I always sat right behind him because he liked to talk about hunting. As we got closer to school every cornfield had little cyclones of feeding ducks. The closer we got to Clear Lake, the more we saw. There were so many ducks that it was almost eerie.”

“By the time we arrived at Ventura, I had already decided to head back home. There were just too many ducks in the air to be in school. Max [the bus driver] suddenly announced we was going with me.”

“When we got back to my house, the storm was coming up fast and my folks were trying to get the chickens inside. We helped, and so instead of being in trouble for skipping school, I was a hero.”

“With that finished, we went to a nearby 30-acre marsh,” said Christensen. “It was already snowing when we got there, and at first we didn’t see anything on the slough. I thought-- ‘Oh No, the ducks left.’ Then we saw something move, and suddenly realized what was happening. That slough was completely covered in ducks -- so many that you couldn’t see any water or make out individual birds. We started shooting, and it was something. Every duck on that slough was a mallard. You can‘t even imagine what it was like.”

“The storm really picked up and Max announced that he was heading back while he still could. I went to a different marsh closer to home and kept hunting. I don’t think it would have mattered where you went that day, every place was full of ducks. They were everywhere.”

“The snow finally got so bad that I had to take my ducks and walk for home,” said Christensen. “A school bus came down the road, but it couldn’t make it in the snow and had to turn back. Before leaving, it dropped off 17 school kids at our house. They had to spend the night.”

When Christensen entered his farmstead, he was informed that a Garner dentist by the name of Doc Hayes had parked in the yard and then walked to a nearby marsh. Since he hadn’t returned, the hunter was feared lost. Tossing caution to the winds, Christensen immediately launched a daring rescue.

“I knew I had to try and find him,” relates Christensen. “I was young and didn’t think of any danger. I had a good idea of where Doc would have been hunting and started up a fence line that led from the buildings. I don’t think I could see more than 15 feet in front of me, that’s how bad it was.”

“I found Doc Hayes on that fence line. He was just standing there, stuck in a drift. He couldn’t move. When I got up to him, he started crying. ‘I thought I was dead,’ he said to me. I took his gun and a big bunch of ducks and we started back. I told him to step in my tracks. I broke the trail, and our tracks would disappear almost instantly.”

“When we got home, my Dad and all those school kids were already in the basement picking my ducks. I don’t know how many mallards were down there, but it was a lot. It was really something. We still had fresh tomatoes from the garden, all those ducks, and snow drifts piling up outside,” said Christensen.

“The next day we shoveled out Doc’s Cadillac which was buried in the yard. When we reached the road, something moved in the snow. I had shoveled out a live coot. That bird had lit on the road and become buried in a drift. The coot was just fine and flew away.”