Sixty years ago this month, some of the worst winter storms in memory battered the great plains, dumping feet of snow across the country and bringing the region to a screeching halt. Just as residents would dig out from under one blizzard, another storm would arrive. Millions of people were trapped in their homes, as local governments struggled, and failed, to clear snow that drifted in some places to thirty feet in depth. Tens of millions of heads of cattle were left unattended, without food, in temperatures that frequently dipped to twenty below zero, Fahrenheit. It was a crisis the size and scale of which had never happened before – and, so far, has not again.
Sixty years ago this week, the U.S. Army and Air Force mobilized to rescue hundreds of thousands of people across Nebraska, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. The Air Force operation – dropping hay to stranded herds of cattle – was known as Hayride (and sometimes Haylift); the Army undertaking was Operation Snowbound.
Their efforts are mostly forgotten, today, but that need not be the case…
Thanks more to a fluke of luck than anything else, I was able to acquire a copy of the Fifth Army’s Operation Snowbound after-action report.
The operation kicked off on 29 January 1949, and would last until March. With no established operating plan for this sort of operation, the Army – literally – broke new ground as they hurried to save as many people, and animals, as possible. Initially, efforts concentrated on rescuing the highest-risk individuals – stranded travelers, for instance – and using a variety of means to remedy the gaping intelligence gap.
This was not, shall we say, a high-technology endeavor, as this list of communication and information-gathering methods shows:
Still, they eventually prevailed, in part by the time-honored Army tradition of “throwing resources at the problem”:
In the end, Operation Snowbound was an unmitigated success:
Six-thousand military and civilian personnel helped save, by the Army’s estimates, 4 million head of cattle, and almost a quarter-million people in the affected states.
The whole report is fascinating reading, and you can download a copy here (7.3MB PDF!). What strikes me as interesting, though, are the “lessons learned” from the event. The poor coordination and communication with local communities in the affected area was pointed to as a sign that the then-notional Office of Civil Defense was not just of value, but necessary. The unbelievably harsh winter weather we get in this part of the country was something of a surprise to the Army:
One of the Army’s few saving graces was the unbelievable usefulness of the M29 Weasel, a small tracked vehicle that was largely unhampered by the snow:
“There were no vehicles with the exception of the weasel that could travel cross country.”
In the event of another series of storms like those of sixty years ago, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that folks in the plains are on their own; if they have to rely on the Army for rescue, they’re probably screwed. HMMWVs cross-country in three or more feet of snow? I kind of doubt it. And don’t count on aviation assets to help:
Two pieces of equipment basically made the rescue effort possible: the Weasel, with its unparalleled cross-country mobility that was unhindered by any amount of snow, and the use of light, ski-equipped aircraft, which were able to operate even in fairly marginal conditions. Today’s Army has no analogues to those pieces of equipment. None.
It’s arguable whether the 1949 storms would produce a similar level of chaos today – snowplow technology, it seems, has advanced quite a ways in sixty years, meaning that roads can be better kept cleared. And, too, I suspect that modern advances in communications would mean that rescue efforts, if they happened, would be better-directed and more efficient than they were in ’49. Still, it happened once, and there’s no real reason it couldn’t happen again, if only on a smaller scale. Are we better prepared? Honestly, I’d guess that most people in the affected area – hell, most people anywhere in the country – are less-prepared for such a disaster than their predecessors of sixty years ago. The military, likewise, seems equally unprepared to respond to such a disaster – even supposing any were available stateside, I don’t think a fifteen-ton MRAP vehicle – which is basically the military transport vehicle of the immediate future – is going to do at all well in snow. (Has anyone ever even considered putting a plow blade on an MRAP? I kind of doubt it. They make one for the HMMWV, but it wouldn’t be of much use in a January 1949-style storm. For that matter, given our present, desert-centric approach to warfare, do MRAPs even have heaters? Did anyone think that far ahead?)
Operation Snowbound has mostly been forgotten in the intervening decades; Google nets less than two-hundred relevant hits at the moment, and the only military notice of the event comes courtesy of Bolling AFB. The sixtieth anniversary of the operation makes a fitting time to remember the bravery and heroism of those men and women who helped save an entire region of the country from disaster; it might also – I suspect – be a good opportunity to remember some of the lessons learned in the operation… particularly those which seem to have been forgotten in the intervening years.