It was an unseasonably warm November morning in 1940, but not atypical, considering Minnesota weather can change in the blink of an eye. Duck hunters along the Mississippi River, reveling in the last bit of warmth fall had to offer, hitched up their Evinrudes to duck boats, and motored out to the backwaters and islands of the Mississippi. As quickly as the eager skippers navigated through the river’s winding sloughs, though, an unexpected and devastating cold front moved in, stranding many experienced hunters in the quickly freezing waters. Heavy snowfall, driving winds, and bone-chilling cold took the lives of more than 50 area hunters in what became known across the country as the infamous Armistice Day Blizzard. That was 72 years ago today.
Photo courtesy Winona County Historical Society
When the ducks
came, the men died
With the invention of radar, the early 1940s was a time of great meteorological advancement. However, technologies were still in their infancy and those braving the elements often relied on incomplete forecasts. Hunters set out on the morning of November 11, 1940, with little to no winter gear; it was even reported that some wore short sleeves. Light rain was forecast but no one expected a strong northwesterly push of frigid Canadian air.
Just before 3 p.m., hunters sat anchored to the river bottom awaiting flocks of ducks and geese that had apparently been soaking up the Indian Summer in Canada, when a wall of birds and a rapid decline in temperature made its way into Winona.
In a matter of mere minutes, light rain turned to an unexpected heavy snowfall that sent those on the river scrambling for shore. “The violent winds uprooted trees, smashed windows, tore cornices from buildings, leveled frame buildings, broke radio towers, crumbled huge steel electric signs, and ripped away power and communication lines,”
the Winona Republican Herald reported. The blizzard had suddenly turned Winona into a subzero icebox.
Boaters who were far from the safety of shore rowed to the nearest piece of solid land in an effort to get out of the freezing waters. Little did the men on the river know, but they were in for a long, cold night. The storm that seemed to have shown up out of nowhere was part of a system that blanketed the entire Midwest from Wyoming to Illinois with tornadic winds and thick layers of snow.
Hunters were forced to use their boats as makeshift shelters and burn everything they had to keep warm. “We didn’t suffer so much from the cold as from the smoke,” blizzard survivor Clarence Anderson said in an interview with the Winona Republican Herald. “We had to practically sit on the fire to keep warm.” Expensive duck decoys were burned,
hunters shot down tree branches for kindling, and one paper reported several men, in desperate attempts to keep warm, walked in circles and even sparred.
Lock Number 5 near Minnesota City had completely frozen over by the time midnight hit. The temperature, once a breezy 50 degrees, dropped well below zero in a matter of hours. Hunters, hunkered down in the middle of what was the worst storm since 1888, struggled to stay alive. Hypothermia quickly set in with those wearing wet clothing, and the winds from hell extinguished even the most scorching fires.
Gerald Tarras was just 17 years old when he found himself stranded on a patch of land in the middle of the Mississippi with his father, Carl, brother, Ray, and good friend, Bill Wernecke. Tarras, a stocky, six-foot-tall kid, lived to tell his story, but the rest of his posse weren’t so lucky. One by one, his brother, father, and friend succumbed to the elements.
With each passing minute a lost opportunity, local pilot Max Conrad, Lawrence Rolblecki, and Cal Volkel—just three of the many brave souls who conquered the river that day—were thinking of ways to get the hunters back home. And, just before dawn, Conrad took to the air in his lightweight yellow Piper Cub while the other men navigated choppy waters to save those stranded.
Even though Conrad was an experienced and expert pilot, the 57-mile-per-hour winds hit his two-seater aircraft hard. But that did not deter his efforts. Winona Police Captain Stanley Duncanson dispatched the United States Engineer’s ship Chippewa, which was docked in the backwaters near the main channel of the river. The plan was for Conrad to fly over the area, locate stranded hunters, and provide the Chippewa with coordinates.
Conrad, along with his flight student John Bean, searched through the dawn and well into the morning hours. They took up with them small care packages with matches, kindling, and even whiskey, and dropped them down to anyone they could find. But, as the sun continued to rise, it showed a devastating and gruesome sight – still bodies were
littered throughout the area. In an article in the Winona Republican Herald, Conrad, who spoke cautiously and humbly about his ordeal, said he saw half-buried men lying on islands, men slumped over, up to their chests in snow. However, many more were saved because of Conrad’s heroic efforts. Gerald Tarras was one of those men. He and several others were interviewed by the newspaper and spoke highly of Conrad's heroic efforts.
While Conrad surveyed from the air, Lawrence Rolblecki and Cal Volkel did what they could on the ground. Rolblecki was enlisted by a man he simply knew as Lundeen to rescue a father and his son who were helplessly sinking in the waters just off the Minnesota City shoreline. Rolblecki and Lundeen crafted a makeshift boat and faced the white caps head on. The two made contact with the father and 6-year-old son just as their boat capsized. “The father was so glad to see us,” Rolblecki was quoted in a newspaper article. “When I got close enough to them, [the son] grabbed me in his arms and hugged me.”
About half a mile north of Minnesota City, Volkel began searching around midnight for his friend Ed Whitten, who was known to hunt on a nearby island. In the dark, in the choppy water, Volkel rowed to the area Whitten frequented and came across 17 freezing, frightened men huddled around a bonfire. Volkel rowed two hunters at a time back to shore until the very last man was brought to safety just after 7:30 a.m. “The waves were just awful,” a man saved by Volkel said in an interview.
By morning, snow had ceased to fall and the dark clouds cleared, setting up perfectly for the driving winds to rip through town. It was reported that ice became so thick on the Mississippi that a man could stand on it without breaking through. Sadly, more than 45 hunters in the Midwest had been found dead, 15 of whom were in Winona County.
The sudden rush of waterfowl just moments before he storm hit was burned into the memory of one survivor. “Bushels of ducks could have been killed,” the man recalled in an interview. He said more ducks were seen in the area on that day than in the entire season. “But when the storm hit, we quickly forgot about those ducks.”
Throughout the week, more and more hunters were found frozen along the river. On November 14, 1940, the death toll in Minnesota hit 52, and across the Midwest, 106 were reported dead from the storm.
As family members and friends awaited news of their loved ones, the Minnesota Highway Maintenance Department, now called Minnesota Department of Transportation, plowed the streets, uncovered thousands of cars, and brought cities back to life. One week after the storm hit, the department’s trunk fund took a heavy hit. The constant plowing and sanding of roads throughout the area cost $250,000. It was reported that 500 “motorized snow-fighting” units were in motion 24-hours-a-day, costing the state nearly $2,600 an hour in operating costs.
Winonans showed their true colors that fateful November day and proved that when something knocks you down, you only get back up. Dozens of men and women helped in rescue efforts during the storm and in the days following. For their valiant efforts, the Winona City Council passed a resolution recognizing their hard work and presented it to the citizens at their November 20, 1940, meeting. The resolution applauded their “outstanding and courageous efforts of public service” to help those in need, “in many instances risking their lives in effort to render assistance,” the resolution said.
Now, 72 years later, the Armistice Day blizzard, still the "Great November Blizzard" to many locals, is remembered as a time when Mother Nature delivered her most devastating blow. But it is also remembered as a time when citizens, regardless of their age, summoned the courage and bravery to protect one another.