The forecast for Nov. 11, 1940 was nothing out of the ordinary.
It was unseasonably warm, with the high temperature pushing 60 degrees before noon. All throughout the Midwest, people left their homes in short sleeves and without coats, and, on the Great Lakes, freighters were in transit.
It was a seemingly normal day, and then it wasn’t. The weather conditions changed. By 6 p.m., below-freezing temperatures and wind gusts up to 79 mph wreaked havoc on the region and many were caught in its fury.
By the time the storm had dissipated, three massive freighters, 64 sailors and four Muskegon-area residents would fall victim to one of the greatest storms in the history of the Great Lakes.
The Armistice Day Storm was caused by the collision of several weather systems, including a storm that began on the West Coast and caused the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge on Nov. 7, 1940.
It was forecasted that the storm would dissipate over the Rocky Mountains, but instead it continued to move east where it collided with an intense low pressure system that had tracked from the southern plains northeastward and a cold arctic air mass from the north.
The 420-foot-long William B. Davock, 340-foot-long Anna C. Minch and the 250-foot-long Novadoc, as well as two smaller vessels, the Indian and the Richard H., were all lost beneath the waves. The entire 32-man crew of the Davock and the 24-man crew of the Minch died in the incident.
Four local civilians were also confirmed dead from the storm. Those victims were Gladys Barr, 52, who was the village treasurer of Spring Lake, Harold George, 33, of Spring Lake, Stanley Nowak, 29, of Grand Rapids and Roy Blain, 60, of Gaines Township.
Archives show that at least 30 duck hunters froze to death after being caught in the flash blizzard and more than 2 million turkeys and livestock throughout the Midwest were killed because of the rapid change in temperature.
Millions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses in Grand Haven, Muskegon, Ludington and other communities were also reported.
While tragic, the Armistice Day Storm of 1940 effectively changed weather forecasting on the Great Lakes.
Prior to the event, all of the weather forecasts for the region originated at the National Weather Bureau in Chicago and were made during 12-hour days, six days a week. Forecasting responsibilities were expanded to include 24-hour coverage and more forecasting offices were created throughout the Midwest.
“In the case of so many accidents, if we can find good that comes out of bad, then we can realize that the people who died didn’t die in vain,” van Heest said. “In this case those who died prompted major changes with the National Weather Bureau that led to being able to predict the changing weather conditions more efficiently. Those people’s lives may have saved many, many people in the years since.”
Since then, no single weather event on the Great Lakes has claimed more ships or taken as many lives as the Armistice Day Storm of 1940.
For the full article, see Brandon Champion, “‘Landmark storm’: 75 years ago, Armistice Day Storm engulfed the Great Lakes”, MLive, November 11, 2015.