There will always be days when everyone remembers exactly what they were doing at a certain time because something momentous happened. 9-11 is one of those days. The day that John F. Kennedy was shot is another. And for those who were living in the Midwest in the fall of 1940, November 11, Armistice Day (now known as Veteran’s Day), was one they never forgot. Because that was when they were blindsided by the disastrous Armistice Day Blizzard.

My mother, Nina Ostrom, was one of them. Nina, then a 19-year-old college student living in St. Paul, Minnesota, would recall years later that the sun was bright that morning and temperatures had actually eked their way into the high 50s – amazing for that time of the year. She decided to use the holiday to squeeze in some extra studying at the college library, so she pulled on a skirt and blouse, bobby socks, saddle shoes and a calf-length wool coat – certainly a warm enough outfit for that kind of a day. The weather forecast, which the morning paper said was “cloudy, [with] occasional snow, and colder, much colder,” gave no hint of big trouble ahead.

Once Nina got to the library and settled in, she became so engrossed in her trigonometry problems that she barely noticed several hours had slipped by and rain had set in. By the time she looked up from her books, the rain had turned to heavy snow, ice was being hurled to and fro by howling, gale force winds, and the temperature had plummeted to well below freezing. When she cautiously opened the library door and peered outside, she was stunned by a blast of freezing wind and a mass of white, swirling snow that obscured virtually everything. A blizzard! Nina slammed the door and wondered what to do. There were no phones available, and even if she could contact her parents or her boyfriend Lyndon, it wouldn’t do her any good. Nobody had a car. Completely out of options, she decided to button up her coat, pull her books close to her chest, and brave the half-hour walk home straight through the blizzard.

Using the trees that lined the street to keep her on the straight and narrow, Nina slowly began to plow her way through the disorienting, blinding whiteness. Fighting against the driving wind quickly left her exhausted and she had trouble catching her breath, but there was nothing to do but forge ahead. It was certainly no half-hour walk home that day, and with her light clothes and no stockings, Nina was literally freezing. Finally, after what seemed like eternity, she thought she spotted her house up ahead, with the streetlight in the front yard barely glowing through the whiteness. Yes, there was her father, standing out on the front porch despite the high winds and subzero temperatures, anxiously looking up the street for his daughter. When he caught sight of Nina, he sprinted down the front steps and ran through the whirling snow, grabbing her and hustling her into the house. Later he would say, aghast, “There she was, walking through a blizzard with no stockings on!” But the relief he felt once his daughter was safely out of the storm was so extreme that he had to lie down for the rest of the evening.

At the time, no one realized how lucky Nina had been. The Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 ranks number two of the top five weather events in Minnesota during the 20th century. Cutting a 1,000 mile wide path across the Midwest, the blizzard killed 154 people. In Minnesota alone, 49 people died, many of them motorists who froze to death when huge snowdrifts left them stranded in their cars. In some areas, over two feet of snow fell in just 24 hours. It’s nothing short of a miracle that Nina didn’t get lost in the storm and that her bare legs weren’t frostbitten. Someone was definitely watching out for her that day.

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also enjoy my book If My Heart Had Wings: A World War II Love Story — the true story of the life and death of a WWII pilot and the tumultuous life of the young widow he left behind. Available on Amazon!

Buy the Book on Amazon.com

FLYING THE HUMP – A Deadly WWII Assignment

In early 1943, USAAF transport pilot Lyndon Raff, the hero of If My Heart Had Wings, finished his training and found himself whisked off to northern India. His assignment: flying the Hump, that is, piloting a slow clunky C-47 transport plane loaded to the max with gasoline, food supplies, ammunition and sometimes even bombs, straight over the Himalayas (the Hump) to China.

What was the point of this crazy, dangerous assignment? The year before, in 1942, Japan had successfully cut off every single supply route to China and was systematically starving the Chinese out. Once China fell, Japan was ready to scoop up Chinese wealth, natural resources and troops, which would make it almost impossible to beat in the war in the Pacific. Thus, a major Allied priority had become keeping China strong. Since the only remaining way to get supplies to the Chinese was by air, that task fell to the USAAF.

To this day, flying the Hump flying is considered the most dangerous assignment ever given to air transport personnel, and with good reason. Winds roared up and down the sides of the Himalayas at speeds of 100 – 200 mph, causing fierce turbulence that could shoot a plane straight upward one minute and down the next, or even flip it over.

Because radio and navigation tools didn’t work in mountainous areas, Hump pilots had to “eyeball” their way around the peaks, relying solely on landmarks. But when massive cloud formations settled in, which was often, the pilots were flying blind. Taking the plane above the clouds wasn’t an option because ice would form on the plane’s exterior that could cause sudden drops of 1,000 feet or more, or even worse, send the plane into a nose dive.

Another big problem was the sudden appearance of Japanese Zero fighter planes. The Zeros were twice as fast and much more agile than the clunky transports, so the Hump fliers’ only choice would be to duck into nearby cloud cover, if there was any, and hope they didn’t run into the side of a mountain.

For 42 straight months until the end of the war in August, 1945, USAAF transport crews braved the dangers of flying the Hump and almost single handedly saved China from falling to Japan. But victory came at a price. Some 700 Allied planes were lost and nearly 1,200 Allied airmen were killed while carrying out this perilous mission. The glittering remains of planes that didn’t make it lay atop the mountains all along the Hump route – a grim sight that the air crews nicknamed “The Aluminum Trail.”

As for Lyndon Raff, in spite of all of these challenges, he managed to fly his C-47 over the Hump and back again at least eighteen times. Eventually, he was transferred to another supposedly safer assignment. Unfortunately, it would seal his doom.

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also enjoy my book If My Heart Had Wings: A World War II Love Story — the true story of the life and death of a WWII pilot and the tumultuous life of the young widow he left behind. Available on Amazon!

Buy the Book on Amazon.com
Rosie the Riveter

How Rosie the Riveter Changed Our World – Or Began the Process!

Rosie the Riveter was a tough yet feminine American poster character helping to win World War II by doing a “man’s work” in a factory. Her gorgeous face, well-developed biceps, and insistence that “We Can Do It!” perfectly blended femininity and male resolve. It wasn’t long before the idea of “working like a man” took hold among 1940s women nationwide.

Part of a government propaganda campaign, Rosie the Riveter was designed to encourage women to fill the huge labor gap left by American men off fighting World War II.  Jobs always been considered exclusively “male,” like driving trucks, welding, riveting, and working in factories and shipyards, were suddenly wide open, and it was essential to the war effort that women take them on.

Still a certain amount of resistance lingered on the part of both sexes. After all, wasn’t a woman’s place in the home? Someone had to get women to understand that setting aside 1940s gender roles and doing  a “man’s work” was not just okay but patriotic. The government’s Rosie the Riveter campaign filled the bill brilliantly. Between 1940 and 1945, some five million U.S. women joined the workforce, many of whom had never held a job before.

But when the war ended in 1945, returning U.S. soldiers wanted “normalcy.” They wanted their former jobs back, and wanted their wives to go back to traditional domestic roles: cleaning, cooking, and caring for the children.

Women who continued to work were pressured to give up their jobs in favor of men and quietly disappear into their homes Some even got an extra push when their employers fired them. Although females continued to make up about one-third of the post-war labor force, they certainly weren’t celebrated or encouraged.

As for Rosie the Riveter, because she was no longer necessary and promoted a message that ran contrary to male sentiments, she quickly faded into oblivion. But the genie she’d let out of the bottle would never completely return. Women had proven they could successfully handle a “man’s work,” and the breakdown of gender stereotypes had begun.

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also enjoy my book If My Heart Had Wings: A World War II Love Story — the true story of the life and death of a WWII pilot and the tumultuous life of the young widow he left behind. Available on Amazon!

Buy the Book on Amazon.com

RAMPING UP FOR WAR: How the U.S. Got Involved (Reluctantly) in World War II

In today’s Trumpian, divisive, go-for-the-throat-of-anybody-who-doesn’t-agree-with-you atmosphere, it’s pretty nigh impossible to imagine a time when everybody in the country was on the same side, pulling hard for the same desperately-desired goal. Yet this was certainly the case during World War II. Even though the war played out in areas nowhere near our shores, just about every young, able-bodied man in the country willingly signed up for the military and raced overseas, risking his life to fight the enemies of other countries. How in the world, you might ask, did everybody come together this way? And why? Contrary to popular belief, it didn’t happen overnight, even though our reaction to Pearl Harbor may have made it seem that way.

The truth is that for a long time the majority of Americans had absolutely no desire to jump into the fray.  Even as late as 1940, most people felt that the war was somebody else’s problem. At the time, the Nazi war machine was marching through Europe, using the Blitzkrieg strategy to lay claim to nearly every country it touched, including Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Sure, Americans were concerned as these countries fell, but they were finally enjoying good times they hadn’t seen in a decade. The Great Depression had loosened its grip on the American economy: farmers were reaping bumper crops, industrial production was soaring, and the banking industry was finally back on its feet. Most Americans even felt flush enough to go to the movies once a week! It was hard to believe that anything really bad was about to happen.

But by New Year’s Day, 1941, it seemed clear that tough times weren’t over after all. Germany relentlessly bombarded England from the skies, while trying to starve the Brits into submission by sinking Allied merchant ships in the Atlantic. In March, German forces blasted through Greece and Yugoslavia, and grabbed the strategically-important island of Crete in the Mediterranean.  Shortly afterward, they poured into Russia, where they fought countless bloody battles and captured hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers.

Yet, incredible as it must have seemed, Europe wasn’t the only hotbed of war and devastation. On the other side of the world, Japan, in its fourth year of a campaign to conquer China, now occupied huge chunks of that country. To capitalize on these victories and realize its dream of becoming a world power, Japan was about to invade Thailand, Burma, and several other countries in Southeast Asia. Chances were excellent that the Japanese would soon take over much, if not all, of Asia.

By August of 1941, most Americans had come down from cloud nine and become plenty worried about what was going on in the world. Their fierce anti-war stance, especially when it came to warring with Japan, was rapidly disintegrating: although less than 20 percent of Americans actually wanted the U.S. to go to war, almost 70 percent preferred to risk war with Japan rather than sit back and let Japanese expansion in the Pacific go unchecked.

President Roosevelt had long promised Americans that he wouldn’t plunge the country into war, but by the beginning of November, things had gotten so hot that it no longer made sense to look the other way. He ordered the Coast Guard put under control of the Navy, a clear preparation for war. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, the mood throughout the country had become unbearably tense.

Then, on December 7, the Japanese unleashed their infamous sneak attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, killing thousands of American sailors, soldiers, and airmen, and nearly wiping out the U.S. Pacific fleet. Suddenly, American resistance to the war simply vanished.

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also enjoy my book If My Heart Had Wings: A World War II Love Story — the true story of the life and death of a WWII pilot and the tumultuous life of the young widow he left behind. Available on Amazon!

Buy the Book on Amazon.com