School was held that day in La Crosse, Wis., but only in the morning. No classes were taught. Instead, students attended a program highlighting the sacrifices veterans had made for their country. Then the kids were dismissed. It was, after all, a national holiday, Armistice Day.
This was in 1940, and matters were unsettled, worldwide. Officially, the U.S. was on the sidelines of gathering war clouds in Europe. Americans were long tired of conflict and of the remnants of the Great Depression. Yet the country could feel itself being dragged into war, dark and foreboding, and its prospects cast a pall over everything.
In La Crosse, Dick Bice, 16, and his pal La Vern Rieber, 18, drove from school to their homes and then to Brice Prairie, Wis., deciding to look for ducks on Lake Onalaska on the Mississippi River. At 4 miles wide, the “lake” is the widest spot in the big river, and though the weather was mild, with scant winds, the boys set out with anticipation, wooden decoys piled in their narrow skiff.
Meanwhile, Bice’s brother Jim, 17, also a duck hunter, stayed home. “The weather seemed too nice to hunt,” he recalled Monday.
Now 92 and still living in La Crosse, Jim Bice remembers Nov. 11, 1940, like it was yesterday.
“It didn’t start out like a duck hunting day,” he said.
In fact, that entire fall had been extraordinarily warm, with October and early November temperatures well above average.
Consequently, Mississippi River duck hunters hadn’t had much good shooting.
The big migration, they believed, was yet to come.
• • •
The boat Dick Bice and La Vern Rieber paddled onto the Mississippi was a homemade job, as most river hunting skiffs were at the time. With a flat plywood bottom and low freeboard, it could hold two hunters, maybe three. On this day, Rieber’s retrieving dog also was along.
Duck hunting was good sport back then. Minnesota had about 120,000 duck hunters in 1940 (out of a population of 2.79 million), compared with 80,000 today (out of 5.5 million residents). The duck harvest was much larger, too: 1.6 million in 1940, compared with 650,000 today.
Because Armistice Day — now Veterans Day — fell on a Monday in 1940, the Mississippi saw a high turnout of waterfowlers that day. With a rumored weather change pending, hunters believed the long-awaited migration might begin in earnest.
So it was that near Red Wing and Wabasha, and farther south to the Weaver Bottoms and to Winona and Lake Onalaska farther south still, hunters by the score paddled and in some cases motored into the river’s currents toward its backwaters.
Justifiably, they had high hopes. After a string of seasons only 45 days long, waterfowlers in 1940 were allowed 60 days in the field.
Shooting hours also were liberalized. Previously allowed only from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., shooting in 1940 could begin instead at sunrise. And while the daily duck limit remained unchanged at 10, a new rule in 1940 allowed hunters to possess double their daily limits for up to 20 days after the season’s close, rather than 10 days, as was previously the case.
• • •
The snow came first, beginning in early afternoon, with big flakes covering the ground. The wind — up to 80 miles an hour — and precipitous temperature drops of as much as 50 degrees followed thereafter.
Weather forecasting and communication 75 years ago weren’t what they are today, and by the time the ferocity and breadth — up to 1,000 miles wide — of the storm were realized, the fates of about 150 people were sealed.
Duck hunters on the Mississippi were particularly at risk. Most had dressed only for the fairest weather, with light jackets and pants.
Most also — at first — were delighted that the weather brought with it huge influxes of ducks. Mallards that typically circled and circled before landing instead dropped fearlessly into decoys. Divers — canvasbacks, bluebills, redheads — also materialized in droves from the maelstrom.
At first, Bice and Rieber relished the good shooting. But matters turned worse when Rieber, in the skiff, chased a downed duck and couldn’t paddle back to Bice. Instead he took refuge on a small, windswept island.
Seeing Rieber stranded, but unable to rescue him, a group of passing hunters gave him a tarp. Huddling beneath it, and beneath the skiff, alternately standing and sitting, he stayed awake all night.
Bice, meanwhile, continually ran in circles, with brief intermissions. He also huddled with Rieber’s dog.
• • •
Jim Bice on what happened after Dick and La Vern didn’t return home the night of Nov. 11:
“My dad and I, and La Vern’s dad, drove to the landing where Dick and La Vern launched their boat. We found their car. But there was no sign of them.
“All night we stayed right there, in our cars, running the engines to keep the heaters on.
“On an island in the river, we could see a campfire, and we could see men walking in front of the fire. That was Dick and La Vern, we figured.
“The next morning, the lake had frozen over, and we saw the two fellas get into their boat, and the wind blew the boat to our side. As they approached, we expected to see our boys. Instead, they were two guys we didn’t know.
“They told us they had heard shooting upriver of where they were.
“We waited hours until the ice got thicker, and when it did, my dad and the other men walked upriver until they found Dick and La Vern.
“La Vern had the skiff, which he used for shelter, and Dick had the dog. We got them to shore and to a hospital. They both checked out all right.”
Richard “Dick” Bice died in 2003.
La Vern Rieber died in 2011.
Said Jim Bice: “At 92, I’m the only one left. I don’t think too many of us who were on the river that day, Armistice Day, are still around.”