Man recalls the 1940 'Armistice Day Storm' - WXOW News 19 La Crosse, WI – News, Weather and Sports |

Man recalls the 1940 'Armistice Day Storm'

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The National Weather Service in La Crosse plotted the hourly temperature observations on a graph, showing how fast the conditions worsened The National Weather Service in La Crosse plotted the hourly temperature observations on a graph, showing how fast the conditions worsened
Jim Bice Jim Bice
La Crosse, WI (WXOW) -

This week is Winter Weather Awareness Week. Wednesday is also Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, a day which also saw one of the area's strongest storms.

The 'Armistice Day Storm' occurred 75 years ago on November 11, 1940.

The day started out warm, said Jim Bice, who was 17 at the time. His brother, Dick, was among many duck hunters taking advantage of the nice weather, but that changed dramatically shortly after noon when a strong cold front moved through.

According to Meteorologist Jeff Boyne at the La Crosse National Weather Service, "We had winds gusting 20 to 40 miles an hour across the area. Wind chills dramatically dropped across the area from where we were in the lower to mid 40s to down below zero in just about two or three hours."

Dick Bice and his friend, La Vern Rieber, were stranded on separate islands on Lake Onalaska. The waves were too strong to make it back to shore.

Jim and his family started searching around 6 p.m. when they didn't return home. Jim Bice recalled, "We found their car and we looked out on Lake Onalaska and there was an island about a quarter of a mile offshore, it was a pretty good size island, and somebody had built a fire on the island."

The storm was still too strong to launch their boat in a rescue attempt. They waited all night in cars for the storm to subside, but it wasn't Dick and La Vern on that island. Those hunters told the family they saw two boys on another island.

The lake now had a thin layer of ice as the temperatures stayed below freezing, but the attempt to push a boat on top of the ice failed. Jim remembers his horrifying moment. "I broke through the ice and fell in, and I went in up to about my neck."

He managed to get out, but the strong wind on the cold water that covered his body made his him feel numb all over. He was able to run to shore where he was taken to a farm house to warm up, but that ended his efforts in the search.

Hope was not lost, however, as both boys were found in the early afternoon when the ice was thick enough to walk on and they were able to walk to shore with their rescuers. They were in the dangerous conditions for 24 straight hours. Jim Bice said, "The only way they survived- they were both young, 16 years old- and they ran all night to keep from freezing."

In fact, Dick Bice wore a circular trail where he ran around a tree on the small island he was trapped on.

Amazingly, despite not being prepared for the weather, neither boy had any frostbite.

The Bice's never went out hunting again without extra clothing and survival gear.

The lesson we can take from this story is to always be prepared. We can learn from past weather by making sure we are ready the next time a major storm threatens.

Unfortunately, 35 died just along the Mississippi River. 

At the time of the storm, the National Weather Forecasts came regionally from Chicago, and that office wasn't staffed at night, according to Boyne. "So they had closed down actually when the storm started to intensify, and that caused some issues because it was already rapidly intensifying, and people didn't realize that, and they were the only ones issuing forecasts at the time for the entire general area."

Good things did come from this storm. As a result, the Weather Service became staffed 24 hours a day, and added a Minneapolis office to aid forecasting for the Upper Midwest.

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