Looking back: 80 years after the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 and the crash of an Army plane into Big Spirit Lake

"The worst pre-winter blizzard in a decade" struck much of the upper Midwest on November 10-11, 1940. In addition, an army plane carrying three men crashed into Big Spirit Lake on the night of November 10, 1940. Below are articles from the Spirit Lake Beacon as they appeared in the November 14, 1940 edition of the paper. A PDF version of these articles is available for download at the bottom of this page.

Armistice Day Blizzard Causes Much Damage

KILLS THOUSANDS TURKEYS AND MANY HEAD OF LIVESTOCK

Spirit Lake, Dickinson county and the entire middlewest was visited Sunday night and Monday by what is reported to be the worst pre-winter blizzard in a decade. The wind rose to almost hurricane vilocity (sic) which man or beast could not face. Throughout the country, millions of dollars worth of damage resulted from the early November storm that came with most persons unprepared. Spirit Lake and Dickinson county had damage to livestock and turkeys running into thousands of dollars. While many communities reported the loss of many lives as the result of the storm, Dickinson county had no fatalities as the direct result of the blizzard itself, but three Army men lost their lives when their plane crashed into Spirit lake Sunday evening about 6:03, during a rainstorm, which turned to snow later in the evening and made the task of searching for the bodies an impossibility.

The heaviest losses in this territory was the death of thousands of turkeys and stock. Many turkeys were smothered and others had such heavy coats of ice form on their heads that breathing was impossible.

Pheasant hunters in the territory were marooned in farm houses and gathered in hotels while awaiting the opening of the pheasant season on Tuesday afternoon. Many pheasants failed to survive the storm and it was reported that many of them were dead or either dying in the fields, where farmers and hunters were picking them up.

Several farmers in the community spent all of Tuesday in search for stock that had drifted with the storm on Monday. Paul Gunderson, living two miles west of Montgomery, had 110 head of cows missing when the storm abated and was reported Wednesday to have traced practically all of them. Forty-five head of the White Faced Herefords drifted with the storm into the town of Spirit Lake and were seen at various places about town throughout the day. They were finally rounded up and taken to the stock yards where they were later claimed by Mr. Gunderson. He reported that three head were killed by the storm. Mott Miller reported 78 head of cattle missing when the storm was over. By Wednesday morning he had found all but two head of the stock. Thirty-five of the animals were found Tuesday in the grove at the E.G. Sharp farm. Several others were found toward Terril, and 22 were located Wednesday morning at the Superior stock yards. Les Baker reported 12 calves were killed in the storm. Irvin Frost had around 25 head of sheep killed in the storm.

Turkey raisers throughout this community as well as elsewhere lost thousands of birds in the storm. The Spirit Lake Produce Co. reported that they had previously purchased 12,000 birds in this territory which they were going to prepare for shipment to markets. They had intended dressing the birds this week, but will be handicapped greatly in filling the orders as most of the birds in the flocks they purchased were killed. The Malcolm Jackson flock of 1200 turkeys north of Spirit Lake was lost, with the birds estimated at weighing 22 and 23 pounds each. Another flock of 1200 birds belonging to Ben Meyers west of Spirit Lake was lost. The Arnold Cook flock which was to have been prepared for the Christmas market, numbered around 3700 birds. Around 1500 of these birds were lost. Those still alive were brought into the Spirit Lake feed barn Tuesday and the produce company started dressing out the birds Wednesday morning. Mrs. R. E. DeLong lost approximately 300 of the turkeys on her farm east of town, and others throughout the territory reported big losses, with many chickens also dead.

Additional losses of stock and property reported this morning included 1100 out of 1300 turkeys on the Geo. Seidel farm near Lake Park. Earl Jackson of near Terril was reported this morning to have lost 78 head of feeder cattle in the storm. Otto Walston lost two head of cattle and others may die. Bill Rosik of south of Superior lost 13 head of cattle. Mr. Shonkwiller suffered a heavy loss in sheep.

Property damage included that at the George Higgins farm where part of the barn was blown over. H. B. Dyson had the roof of his cottage on the east shore of Spirit Lake blown off, and Mr. Gregerson on the south shore, reported a cottage off its foundation.

Mr. and Mrs. Lyman Eads, who live across from the county farm, played host to ten men and two women from Des Moines and nearby, who had come to their cottages for the pheasant hunting. The two carloads of people had been in their cottages on Haywards Bay and attempted to come to town early Monday morning when the storm became severe. They had driven as far as the Eads place when they were forced to stop and take refuge there. In the group were members of the Wallace family of Des Moines. Although the Eads had plenty of food on hand to take care of their unexpected guests, they did run out of butter and the visitors occupied their time by doing the churning during the day’s stay. Part of the group left the house Tuesday morning at 11 o’clock while the rest remained until around 6 o’clock Tuesday evening, after spending two days and a night in the Eads home. The visitors had hoped to reciprocate for the hospitality of the Eads by serving a big pheasant dinner in their cottage Tuesday evening, but due to the weather the Eads remained at home.

The largest group of people reported marooned by the storm, was at the Hintz dance pavilion at Sioux Valley. Included in the group of well over 80 people were a number of from Spirit Lake who had gone to attend the dance there Sunday night, and were unable to return home until Tuesday evening.

Around 80 people crowded into the bar room at the pavilion, so that the fuel would not be needed to heat the larger dance floor, which could easily accommodate the people marooned there. Still others were entertained in the Hintz home during the time the roads were impassable for travel away from the pavilion. It is reported that although the food ran short during the stay of the crowd, the beer supply was plentiful.

Mr. and Mrs. Louis Rachofsky of Grand Junction, who were staying in their cottage on Fair Oak beach on West Okoboji, had an experience which they do not care to repeat. They were not able to drive away from the cottage early Monday morning, and were forced to remain there. Although they had plenty of fuel on hand to weather the storm, yet the cottage is not completely winterized and the temperature stood at around 50 degrees Monday and Monday night, and they sat huddled by the fire with all of the coats they could muster together, bundled around them. The Glen Hall truck was able to get to the place Tuesday morning and brought the couple to town, after a nerve-wracking experience.

Armistice day and high school homecoming programs scheduled for Monday were necessarily postponed due to the storm, and some former graduates who had arrived over the weekend to attend the festivities were snow bound here until Wednesday before being able to return to their homes.

Electric and telephone service was not handicapped in Spirit Lake by the storm, although service by telephone was somewhat slowed up by the number of calls placed both local and long distance. A number of towns serviced by the Northwestern Light and Power Co., in southern Clay county were without electricity during the heighth (sic) of the storm.

Mail service into Spirit Lake was necessarily interrupted when trains were unable to run, and the highways were blocked holding up the star route deliveries. After being unable to make a run all day Monday, the Rock Island’s west bound train reached here in mid morning Tuesday. Postal clerks here who were rushed already in getting out the delayed mail, were further handicapped Wednesday morning when pipes in the floors overhead under the Masonic quarters bursted and a steady drip of water fell into the back end of the post office room. Several window panes were broken out in the Masonic hall and snow blown into the rooms. The wind sometimes reached gale proportions and twirled the nearly foot of snow that fell, into monstrous drifts.

The Spirit Lake streets were piled with huge drifts, some of them nearly six feet deep. Many motorists attempting to drive uptown Monday, had to leave their cars, sometimes in the center of the business streets, and continue their trip by foot. Some of these cars were still hemmed in by huge drifts even Wednesday, as garages were not able to keep up with the calls from motorists, who had not yet prepared their cars for winter temperatures.


Three Army Airplane Men Crash In Big Spirit Lake Early Sunday Eve

PILOT’S BODY AND ONE WING WASHED ASHORE—ARMY OFFICIALS HERE TO RESCUE MEN AND WRECKAGE

Appeared in the Spirit Lake Beacon, November 22, 1940 edition.The above photograph shows the wreckage of an ill-fated army observation plane that crashed into Spirit lake off Stony point on Sunday evening, November 10 (1940). Bodies of two of the occupants, Lieut. George Smith and Private Anthony Cerrato, were found in the twisted cabin, and it was necessary to remove the bodies by use of hacksaws, wrecking bars, etc. The picture above was taken shortly after the tangled mass of steel was first brought to the surface, and the body of Cerrato was removed a half hour later, Smith’s body was removed more than an hour afterwards.Appeared in the Spirit Lake Beacon, November 22, 1940 edition.

Crushed beyond recognition, the body of Lieut. Robert M. Prange, 22, of Fredericktown, Mo., United States Army flier, whose plane crashed into Spirit lake Sunday evening, was recovered Tuesday around noon from an ice jam on the north shore of big Stony point. Still missing are Lieut. Prange’s two flying companions, Lieut. George Smith, 26, of Clinton, Ill., and Private Anthony J. Cerrato, 22, of Canton, Ohio. A misty rain was falling at the time of the accident.

The young army fliers, returning from St. Paul, Minn., to Fort Crook, Nebr., on an observation flight, crashed into the lake in their 0-47 three place cabin single motor ship, at approximately 6:03 o’clock Sunday evening. A number of residents in the vicinity of Sand Bar, and on the north and east shores of the lake heard the plane flying low overhead and the crash when the plane dove into the lake. They notified Coroner Dr. B. W. Jones and Sheriff J. L. McQuirk, who immediately started a search in the vicinity where the plane was thought to have fallen. It was not until Tuesday morning, however, that the first body, that of Lieut. Prange, was sighted by searchers on Stony Point. Murl Andreas of Spirit Lake, his uncle, Lloyd Clark, of Monticello, and Mr. Clark’s son-in-law, Bud Reynolds of Monticello, who were visiting at Orleans, found the body at about 10 o’clock Tuesday morning and notified officers, who already had started from Spirit Lake to again take up the search. The officers removed the body from the lake upon their arrival.

The plane apparently struck the water with great force as the seat in which Pilot Prange was strapped with a safety belt, was torn from the plane and was still attached to the body when it was found. The body was badly mangled and identification was possible only by the card found in one of Prange’s pockets. It is thought that the bodies of the other two fliers will be found in the plane, as they rode further back in the compartments. The plane is thought to have fallen in the water around 150 yards northwest of Stony point.

The right wing of the missing ship was broken off in the crash and was washed up onto the north side of the point and lay near that of Prange’s body.

Operations for attempting to locate the plane and other bodies were temporarily halted Wednesday when the lake froze over. Fish hatchery crews this morning were getting their equipment ready to drag beneath the ice as soon as the ice is thought safe enough for them to start operations.

Army Officials Here

Two Army men, Sgt. E. Dubberphuhl and Corp A. C. Wurtzel, attached to the Area Air Corps detachment at Ft. Crook, arrived here Tuesday and planned to remain here until the plane and bodies are recovered. The rescue work however will continue at the present under the direction of the local officers and the conservation commission crews. Capt. Geo. C. Henderickson, of the Medical Relief Corps at Fort Omaha, came Wednesday afternoon to check statements of persons who heard the crash for official army reports.

The body of Lieut. Prange was brought to the Donovan Funeral Home and on Wednesday evening was sent to Hardin, Ill. The young man’s father, A. W. Prange, of Hardin, and his uncle, Bright Isaac, of Gillespie, Ill., arrived here Tuesday shortly after the body was found. The boy’s parents heard a radio broadcast of the accident Monday and called a radio station to have the story confirmed. Not knowing with whom to get in touch in Spirit Lake, the boy’s father and uncle started for Spirit Lake Monday and arrived here early Tuesday afternoon. Upon reaching here they learned that the body of their son and nephew had been recovered.

The army plane was making an observation flight between Fort Crook and St. Paul at the time of the accident. On such a flight planes are to cruise at 200 miles per hour, keeping close enough to the ground to observe all objects at all times. The army order, found in Pilot Prange’s pocket, proved that the flight from Fort Crook had started on Saturday, November 9, and that they were to return from St. Paul before dark Sunday evening and were scheduled to arrive in Fort Crook at 6:05 p.m. The accident occurred here at 6:03 according to observations made by residents, indicating that because of weather conditions the fliers were long overdue in their return to Fort Crook. When they were first heard over the lake they headed north, circled into the bay east of Big Stony and turned and started south, when it was noticed by residents that the motor was cut off for a few seconds. The motor came back on again, and went off at the same time that residents heard the crash, which led them to believe the plane fell into the lake somewhere near Stony Point. The army sergeant here stated that he had seen many crashes, and he feels from the condition of the wreckage found, and Prange’s body, that at the time the plane struck it was traveling at a speed of 200 miles per hour. He feels when the plane struck, it burst into pieces, the propeller smashed, the wing broken off, and that the engine dropped from the plane and will not necessarily be found with the rest of the wreckage. It is thought that the pilot’s seat was literally torn from its position and went through the front of the machine.

The plane which crashed in the lake is reported to have weighed 9000 pounds.

Mr. and Mrs. Roscoe Johnson on McClelland’s beach, distinctly heard the sound of the motor and the thud as the plane struck, even with the wind blowing the sounds away from them. They started for the vicinity of Sand Bar, where they checked directions, etc., with Mr. Mitchell of Des Moines, a hunter in a cabin there, and members of the C. M. Omer family, who also heard the crash. They then called Coroner B. W. Jones, who was in Milford, Sheriff McQuirk, and Deputy Jack Daughterty, to the scene and the officers immediately started a search for the plane even though there was no positive proof that a plane had fallen into the lake. Dr. Jones and Seth Shepard of the state conservation crew at the fish hatchery went out onto the lake and continued a search there until approximately 9:30 Sunday evening when they returned to Sand Bar.

Earl Miller, who lives at the Bernard Miller farm, about a mile and a half southeast of Sand Bar, further verified the report of the crash when he came to Sand Bar with the story that he had distinctly heard the crash of the plane and had checked his watch at the time. The stories of those hearing the crash indicated that the plane fell somewhere northwesterly of Stony Point. Later Harsell Rohr of Arnolds Park reported he had seen the plane flying overhead when he was near Pleasant Lake, east of Spirit lake. He said that then the speed of the motor had been cut and the pilot appeared at that time to be looking for a place to land.

Shortly before 10 o’clock Sunday evening word came to Dr. Jones in a telephone conversation with a Sioux City newspaper that an army plane was reported missing and the search was continued until after midnight by crews from the fish hatchery. By this time a howling blizzard was raging and it was impossible to continue the search. Dr. Jones received word at 11 o’clock Sunday evening from the Captain of the Air Corps at Ft. Crook that one of their planes with three men was missing.

Dr. Jones, Sheriff McQuirk and Deputy Daugherty and fish hatchery crews resumed the search at 7 o’clock Monday morning but were forced to give up when the blizzard reached such proportions that staying out in the open was next to impossible.

Officers attempted to go out early Tuesday morning, but were not able to get to Orleans due to the blocked roads. They reached the scene shortly after the body of Lieut. Prange had been found by the men, who were visiting at Orleans. High waves and steam rising from the lake, caused by the sudden cold, further handicapped the men Tuesday in their search for the wreckage. An army plane from Fort Crook attempted to sight the wreckage from air Tuesday noon but returned to its post after dropping a note saying it was impossible to locate the plane.

Both Smith’s father and Cerrato’s brother got in touch with local officials after they heard radio reports of the accident and the men who were missing. They later were notified of the accident by army sources after the body of Prange was found in the lake.

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Date Wednesday, 11 November 2020
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Michael Ehret
  DICKINSON COUNTY
  EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT COORDINATOR
Dickinson County Courthouse
1802 Hill Ave, Ste B103
  Spirit Lake, IA 51360
712-336-3987
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