Oklahoma's Deadliest Tornado | HistoryNet

Oklahoma’s Deadliest Tornado

By Mike Coppock
2/13/2007 • American History Magazine

It came without warning, raining hell down upon everyone in its path. In a land accustomed to death descending from the sky, the Woodward tornado of April 9, 1947, still ranks as the deadliest ever to hit Oklahoma. In its wake were the bodies of 185 dead, more than 1,000 injured and a mystery that remains unsolved 60 years later: What happened to 4-year-old Joan Gay Croft, who was taken from the local hospital by two unidentified men in the aftermath of the horrendous storm?

A few days earlier, a warm Pacific low had come ashore and collided with a strong cold front near Amarillo, Texas. Winds just north of Amarillo were clocked at more than 100 mph. Six major tornadoes dropped out of a storm many described as resembling an atomic mushroom cloud. The twister that ravaged Woodward first touched ground near Canadian, Texas. Its base measured 2 miles across, and it retained that killer dimension for six hours as it traveled for 100 miles at speeds reaching 50 mph.

At 7 p.m. it hit Glazier, Texas, some 14 miles from Canadian, killing 16 people and destroying 25 structures. In nearby Higgins, the tornado destroyed all but three buildings. A woman who had crawled under herbed for safety was sucked up into the wire bedsprings when the tornado passed directly over her house. She was one of 45 people killed in the town.

Though Glazier and Higgins were devastated, no word of the approaching disaster reached the Oklahoma towns just across the border from the Texas Panhandle. It was the third day of a national telephone strike, and only emergency operators were running the switchboards across the country. Grace Nix and Bertha Wiggins were the operators on duty in Woodward when they received their first warning. The operator in Shattuck, Okla., fewer than 20 miles from Higgins, called to ask if they were all right. From Shattuck the operator was watching a massive black cloud make its way toward Woodward. A few minutes later, a second call came in from the small town of Cestos to the south. “There’s a dark cloud over Woodward,” the Cestos operator told the two women. “It looks terrible!”

The time of the call was 8 p.m. At 8:15 the tornado leveled the small farming town of Gage, 21 miles southwest of Woodward. The 2-mile-wide funnel rapidly churned through the sagebrush of western Oklahoma, chewing up 60 farmhouses and killing eight people as it raced northeast toward Woodward.

As the distinct funnel form came upon Fargo, the next farming town, 8-year-old Leroy Fennimore ran up Main Street shouting: “We’re going to have a tornado! Yippee!” He had heard about tornadoes but had never seen one. Seconds later Fargo was leveled. Woodward was only 12 minutes away.

Many in the community of 5,000 had remarked on just how muggy the air was that night. Otherwise, it was an ordinary Wednesday evening. Churches held services and other activities. The two downtown movie theaters were filled with high school students. Ingrid Bergman was starring in Rage in Heaven at the Woodward Theater while the Terry Theater was showing The Devil on Wheels. Down the street a few blocks, the local pool hall had its usual patrons. The high school band had just finished practicing for its trip to Alva, Okla., the next day. Two students stayed behind to practice a little more as Paul Nelson got on his bicycle and headed home.

Dr. Joe Duer, head physician at the 28-bed Woodward Hospital, was walking into Gill’s Cafe for his ritual cup of coffee as Erwin Walker drove past on his way to work at the power plant on the north side of town.

The wind was blowing hard now. Large raindrops spattered the sidewalks, followed by hail. Paul Nelson was getting soaked as he peddled harder against the wind, the hailstones striking his back. As the tornado passed over Experimental Lake on the west side of town, it sucked up water colored red by the clay soil typical of Oklahoma. The level of the lake dropped by a foot. The time was 8:42 p.m.

At the power plant, Walker saw the funnel coming directly at him. Live electric lines were snapping all across Woodward. Walker threw the master switch, cutting off the town’s power, just as the tornado struck the building dead center. Walker was killed, but his act was credited later for saving countless lives.

George MacLaren usually stayed at the pool hall until 11 p.m. But as he was about to walk inside, he noticed the fully grown trees in the nearby park bending all the way to the ground. He flagged a taxi and headed for home.

At his cafe, Gill Gillard had just refilled a customer’s cup. The rat-tat-tat of falling hail got everyone’s attention. Gillard turned to look at the barometer hanging on the wall — it had bottomed out. Then the lights went out, and Woodward fell into pitch black save for the violent electrical storm directly overhead flashing brief images all around like massive strobe lights.

MacLaren’s taxi was buffeted by the strong winds as it zigzagged down residential streets to avoid downed trees and power lines. But when MacLaren stepped out of the taxi, everything was calm. No wind, no hail, no rain. Then he noticed the leaves of the trees rushing straight up into the night sky. He ran across his back porch and into the house just as the porch enclosure was torn away.

MacLaren screamed for his children to get down as he ran into the living room. There was a thunderous roar, repeatedly described by survivors as sounding like a freight train coming down on them. MacLaren’s son, Gayner, watched the top of the room’s walls separate from the ceiling, fall back into place and then separate again before the windows imploded. He soon found himself lying in the front yard, rain hitting his face. His father was standing on the rubble that had been their home trying to find Gayner’s younger brother, Merrit, in the debris.

A chill filled the air as sleet and snow began falling. The T-shirt Gayner had put on for bed was now covered with his own blood. He walked over to his father to see if he could help. George MacLaren was pulling loose boards from the pile in a panic to find Merrit when he looked down at his bloodied son. “Are you all right?” George asked. Gayner nodded and his father replied: “Go find help! Hurry!” Gayner ran in the direction of the large fires illuminating downtown. It was now just before 9 p.m.

By this time, Paul Nelson, who had been pelted with red mud from Experimental Lake as he rode his bike home, had gotten into the bathtub to scrub the strange mud off when there was a sudden deafening roar. He looked up to find his house had been lifted away. All that was left was the floor and young Paul sitting naked in the bathtub in the reddish rain. The attached plumbing had prevented the bathtub from going with the house.

His friends who had stayed late to practice at the high school were not so lucky. Their bodies were found in the rubble a few days later.

What sounded like a roaring train could be heard inside both the Woodward and Terry theaters, as well as explosions and screams for help. People tried running out the front door but were stopped by theater staff. One man who made it out of the Terry Theater was picked up by the wind and hurled down the block to his death. Suddenly the building’s roof gave way, and people ducked under the theater seats, whose stiff metal backs kept the fallen ceiling from crushing them. A large, bulky air-conditioning unit broke through a rear door, enabling some to escape into the night.

Elsewhere, one mother heard the tornado coming and tried to go to her children’s bedroom. Without warning, a wall collapsed and pinned her over a lit heating stove. She could feel her back beginning to burn. Desperate, she grabbed at the curtains of a nearby window, yanking them down and stuffing them behind her to snuff out the fire.

Downtown was ablaze as factories, warehouses and the grocery store were in flames. Trees were torn out of the ground. Deadly debris filled the air, falling along with the hail, snow and reddish rain. Streets were blanketed by rubble, bodies, power lines and downed trees. Telephone poles and timber beams were driven into the walls of the Woodward County Courthouse. Above, the sky rippled with an unearthly lightning display.

The 2-mile-wide tornado leveled 100 city blocks with wind speeds ranging from 225 to 440 mph. It exited to the northeast, traveling close to 45 mph toward the Kansas border. There were no fatalities along its new route, but 36 more farmhouses were destroyed in the darkness and 30 more people were injured. Somewhere to the west of Alva, the Woodward tornado lifted back into the storm cloud that had generated it.

In Woodward, Dr. Duer took charge of the hospital that was filling with people — the majority of them children — many of whom had compound fractures. “It just broke your heart,” Duer said later, looking at the children and prioritizing who should be treated first. The Baker Hotel was quickly converted into a hospital for those with minor injuries. The hotel’s windows had been blown out by the storm, but the building was structurally sound, and eventually there were two patients for every bed. All the patients were covered with mud from Experimental Lake. There was no running water, however, to clean wounds, wash patients or flush toilets. One girl’s eyes were so heavily caked with mud that it pinched an optic nerve, and she was left blind for several weeks.

Duer held an infant covered with slivers of wood. “The child looked like a cocklebur,” he said of the baby who died soon afterward. Also he could do nothing for a badly injured young woman in a house across the street from the hospital. A 2×4 had impaled her near the pelvis. The front lawn of the hospital was transformed into a temporary morgue as trucks started going up and down residential streets to collect the dead.

Thelma Irwin was a young mother of two. When the tornado hit, her husband Raymond, who was taking a nap on the living room couch, grabbed their young son, Joe T., and held him to the floor. Thelma had just run into the bedroom where their baby girl, Jennifer, slept when the twister threw a delivery truck through the wall. The next thing Thelma knew, someone was washing her face off with milk as she lay on her front lawn. She closed her eyes for what she thought was a brief moment only to sense she was being lifted. When she opened them, she discovered that she was surrounded by unresponsive bodies lying beside and underneath her. She tried to scream but could not move her mouth. Then she lost consciousness.

When she woke again, she found she was lying among the dead on the front lawn of the hospital still unable to make a sound. Somehow she caught the attention of a passing nurse who took her hand. “Come here, doctor,” Thelma remembered hearing the nurse say. “I don’t think this woman’s dead.”

Searchers found a confused Gayner MacLaren roaming the streets just before midnight and took him to the hospital as he cried: “My brother’s trapped! My brother’s trapped!” A nurse sedated him. He woke up around 3 a.m. on a cot with a reddish bandage around his head and a pool of drying blood beneath him. A person he knew in the cot next to his told him Merrit had been killed.

Scenes of gruesome death were everywhere. The pool hall where George MacLaren was going to spend the evening had been flattened. The five men inside were so badly mangled they could only be identified by their wristwatches. A Mrs. Chance, an elderly woman, had been sucked out of her home and was found in a field rolled in barbed wire. Her granddaughter, who had come to Woodward to visit her, was found in the house covered with planking held to her body by nails.

A Mrs. Boatmann was on her way to the hospital to volunteer when she saw a baby’s arm sticking up from out of the mud. When the little hand moved, she quickly dug the infant up and ran home. She sat the child in the sink to clean the mud away from its eyes, ears and mouth.

A naked little girl covered in red mud was brought to Wilma Nelson’s apartment. She wrapped the child in a blanket and tried to rock her to sleep. But now and then the girl would start screaming, and each time a boom of thunder came, she mumbled, “There goes a tattered wagon rolling down the hill.” When dawn came, Wilma decided to wash the mud off the little girl with dishwater that was still in the kitchen sink. That’s when she discovered the girl was covered with wooden splinters. She rushed her to the hospital only to be told by a nurse that there were more critical injuries to deal with.

Telephone wire chief L.L. Orel and Carl Brown traced down the lines south from Woodward for three miles before being able to flash word to Oklahoma City of the devastation. Eight striking telephone operators reported to work to help with the crisis; a week later, their union dismissed all eight.

As with all tornadoes, the Woodward storm left oddities in its wake. Besides Paul Nelson sitting naked in his bathtub with no house, hundreds of chickens were roaming around without feathers. A milk bottle sat upright and undisturbed at the top of the back steps to a house that was no longer there. The grown children of Sam and Jessie Smith picked their way through the debris field that had been downtown Woodward, bracing for the worst. The Smith home was at the center of the destruction, but they found it unscathed. Their elderly parents were just waking up, unaware the tornado had ever taken place.

Aid rushed in as 3 inches of snow blanketed Woodward. With telephone lines down, local Boy Scouts delivered messages around town on their bikes. Giant bulldozers moved the remains of what had been homes and businesses only 48 hours earlier. The closed Woodward Army Air Base was reopened for housing and was quickly dubbed “Tornado Town.” Barracks were divided into apartments. Families stood guard over rubble in order to prevent looting. One guilty party was caught, jailed for 18 hours and then driven 15 miles from town and told to start walking. The badly injured were flown to Oklahoma City, while the less serious cases were loaded onto freight cars and taken by train to the hospital in Alva.

The bodies of a 12-year-old blonde girl who chewed her fingernails and a 6-week-old baby girl were never identified. Some speculated that the powerful storm blew them in from Texas, even though the farthest a human body was known to have been carried by a tornado was a mile.

The biggest mystery in Woodward, however, was Joan Gay Croft, a little girl who simply vanished in the midst of so much chaos. The four-year old had a pencil-size splinter embedded deep in her left calf. Her mother, Cleta, a telephone operator, had been killed when the tornado struck their home. Her stepfather, Olen, was so badly injured that he was transported to Oklahoma City. Joan and her half-sister, Jerri, ended up in the Woodward hospital, where, after a frantic search, they were located by an aunt. Leaving them in the care of the staff, the girls’ aunt went to volunteer at the hospital in Moreland, 10 miles to the east, where more of the Woodward injured had been taken.

The night after the storm, two men dressed in khaki Army uniforms came into the hospital and asked for Joan. As they started to carry her out, Joan cried, “I don’t want to leave my sister!” One of the men was overheard telling her not to worry. They promised to come right back for the older girl.

Joan’s protests drew the attention of the hospital staff, who challenged the men. One of them said they were friends of the family and were simply taking Joan to another hospital where her family was waiting. The men were allowed to leave with the child. Joan Gay Croft was never seen again.

When he learned that Joan had been taken, Olen Croft, still not entirely recovered from his injuries, hurried back to Woodward. He and Joan’s grandfather, Raymond Goble, went from town to town posting fliers and placing missing persons ads on local radio stations. Goble died soon afterward, however, of a massive heart attack. For the next 40 years, Olen Croft scoured one small, dusty High Plains town after another, following up on a tip, a hunch, a rumor of where Joan might be. He died in 1986.

In 1994 the NBC TV series Unsolved Mysteries aired a story about Joan Croft. Within 48 hours, Joan’s aunt received more than 200 telephone calls with potential leads to her long-lost niece’s whereabouts. One was particularly intriguing: a woman living in Phoenix, Ariz., who had the same blood type as Joan and whose left leg was scarred in the same place where Joan had been injured on the night of the tornado. A Croft family member even stayed with the woman for two weeks and was convinced that almost 50 years of searching had finally come to an end. But DNA tests showed that the woman was not related to the Crofts.

The Croft family never speculated publicly as to the identities of the two men or why they took Joan. But local researchers K.P. Simpson, who interested Unsolved Mysteries in the story, and his son, Rick, developed a few theories of their own.

First, Olen Croft had some money. “He wasn’t what you would call wealthy,” said Rick Simpson. “But he was better off than most were in Woodward at the time.” Joan could have been kidnapped for ransom, but no ransom demand has ever surfaced.

The second theory is that Joan’s mother’s family might have taken her after learning that Cleta had been killed. “You have two men walking into the hospital and asking for her by name,” said Simpson. “How would they know her name? And why did the men ask for her by name and not her half-sister?” According to Simpson, Woodward authorities and Olen Croft himself questioned Cleta’s family. They found nothing to suggest that the family knew anything about Joan’s disappearance. To this day, Joan Gay Croft’s whereabouts are unknown.

This article was written by Mike Coppock and originally published in the April 2007 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!

36 Responses to Oklahoma’s Deadliest Tornado

  1. Ashley Miller says:

    I am a local here in Woodward, OK and I am facinated in this story. It was very well written and researched. Impressively so. Is there any other historical artifacts or Archives that have to do with the Original Woodward Hospital that I may be able to locate? The Building fascinates myself and numerous others in town and we are eager to learn more about the history of it. Thank you so much for the insight and information.

    • Everett W. Stewart Jr. says:

      I am not familiar with Mr.Coppock’s writings or his research skills, I would be interested in knowing more about how he collected his data. My sister ,Mary Joe Ann Stewart,was 13 years old at the time of the tornado and put together a massive scrapbook filled with pictures and articles from regional news papers. Clark Lawrence,with the Woodward Daily Press used her scrapbook in part to produce the 10 th anniversary issue of the paper depicting the storm. Unfortunately the scrapbook disappeared sometime over the years. I can not imagine someone destroying it.should anyone have any ideas as to it’s whereabouts I would hope it will be given to some historical source.

  2. Sallie Bryan says:

    I too am interested in this particular tornado. My grandmother’s
    niece (Helen Ruff Miller) and her 23 day old baby were killed in
    Higgins, TX in this tornado and are buried side by side at Goodwin/Emmons Cemetery outside of Shattuck, OK. I wonder if
    you happen to be related to the Miller Family from that area.
    Helen was married to Willard Mathew Miller.

  3. tpreder says:

    The woman from Phoenix that believed she was the missing child passed away on 03/21/09 in Springerville, AZ. She still maintained that she was Joan Croft. Although DNA didn’t match(especially in the early 90’s when it was still considered experimental), there were so many uncanny simularities. I knew this woman and can’t help believe she was who she believed she was. In seeing the picture of the child, it only confirmed my belief, as there were so many facial resemblances. What a sad, sad situation. Even sadder is that we may now never know the extent of the truth.

  4. William says:

    I wonder is it possible that the hospital staff accidentally killed her in a medical procedure and just made up the story of the abduction?

  5. Mark Nault says:

    The author statedd on page 3 “The 2-mile-wide tornado leveled 100 city blocks with wind speeds ranging from 225 to 440 mph.”. The National Weather Service (NWS) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration have officially state the highest wind recorded on Earth was 318 mph. That event occurred during the May 3, 1999 tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma. The 318 mph measurement has recently been lowered to 301 mph.

    Further, the NWS rated the Woodward tornado as an F5 (now termed as EF5) with winds 261-318 mph(ref. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/oun/?n=tornadodata-ok-deadliest) .

    Stating that the Woodward tornado developed winds from 225 to 440 mph is incorrect as has no scientific or factual basis.

    • Kendall Owens says:

      The highest wind speed recorded was a doppler “estimate” during the May 1999 Oklahoma City tornado. I am certainly no meteoroligical expert, but I am fascinated by tornadoes. I have been doing research, and most of the pictures I see, particularly of the more devastating tornadoes, show 2×4’s through trees, straw in telephone poles, and in the tri-state tornado, a 2×4 driven through a 2×6, and the 2×6 was still standing! It seems to me, that wind speeds are being underestimated by the scientific community. Can you imagine the force it takes to put a phonograph record into a telephone pole? I imagine the only way to truly determine wind damage, is to do testing. What kind of testing? I don’t know, perhaps use the jet wash of a jet airplane engine to generate different wind speeds, build a giant wall composed of different materials, such as brick, wood, etc. and drop debris into the jet wash. The amazing thing to me is that very fragile material can be imbedded into very hard material and not be shattered or destroyed.When I was 11 years old a tornado went through a community in Arkansas where I live. Years later I was painting a friends house on a street where that the tornado did damage. My friend told me he wanted to show me something. He took me out back of the house and showed me a huge tree. Toward the bottom of the tree, he pointed to a small piece of nylon string that had been imbedded into that tree. The diameter of that piece of string was about the size of kite string. He told me to grab hold of it and pull it. I pulled on it and it was thoroughly imbedded! The F rating system used today, in my opinion, is really just an educated guess. I will always have my doubts about it until someone can show evidence generated from actual wind speed testing.

    • Don Rhudy says:

      Category 5 tornadoes may not reach 440 mph but are classified up to that high. I was in that tornado, and I think you are nitpicking.

  6. Ashley Miller says:

    Sallie Bryan- No relation to the Shattuck area Millers. I am from Iowa originally and most of my family still lives up there. I am married to a Lookingbill; a lot of them still live in that area. I am a Realtor in the Woodward area. I dont know what it is about the Woodward Hospital that I am so facinated in, but even when I was a kid just moving into the area, I had to know more about it.

  7. Helen Harris says:

    I was born in Woodward’s hospital in 1945. My great grandmother lived there the last 2 years of her life as it was a senior citizen home, passing away on her 90th birthday. I t was eventually demolished. My mothers family, parents, 2 brothers, 1 sister and her grandparents lived thru the tornado of 1947. I heard their stories , it was hard for any of them to talk about. We were lucky they all survived when so many did not. In such a small town almost everyone knew each other and were greatly affected.

  8. Joe T. Irwin says:

    There are several things to consider regarding wind speed, damage, etc. True, we don’t have a lot of testing, but we do have many observations.
    GENERALLY, the wheat straw, grass, and phonograph records in telephone poles can be explained by the wind twisting the top of the pole and opening the grain of the wood such that OBJECTS can be trapped and pressed to remain there. However, there are examples of things that just sat harmlessly and untouched throughout the whole thing. I’m sure there are scientific reasons, but i have no idea how to formulate them. There is so much that we know and don’t understand and a lot more that we don’t know !

    • Rozann Hunter Taylor says:

      Thank you for sending this fascinating account of the tornado, Joe. I was five years old, and remember the night vividly….my sister and I were in the living room of our home. She was reading (I believe a Hardy Boys book)
      “The Vanishing Floor.” Later, to our horror, we looked up, and our roof had vanished!!! We heard the very loud sound of what seemed like a train…then.our Dad (Mom was at church) quickly placed us in a closet. I remember wanting my shoes, crying out for my shoes, then looking up and seeing stars in the sky instead of our ceiling. The tornado had demolished our house, but we felt relief that none of us were hurt. My brother was visiting friends nearby, and he was all right. Although our Mother had been pinned between the pews at Church, not one person in that service was seriously injured. I have had a lingering distaste of strong wind since this devastating event…the Woodward tornado of 1947!.

  9. Melvin Baker says:

    On the night of the Woodward tornado I was still four months shy of my fifth birthday. However the events of that night will be forever lodged in my memory.
    I remember my grandmother waking me up and taking me to the front room of our home where she sat with me in her over stuffed chair and told me there was a bad storm outside but not to worry. I remember her either opening or the door blowing open and seeing things blowing through the air and the rain going sideways. When the storm had passed we went out in the back yard and saw our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs Geo. Scott and they were pointing towards the down town area which was lit up with fires. At this time I remember my grandmother becoming quite upset because my mother, Birdalee Baker, and my cousin, Alberta McMullen were working at Gills cafe in the down town area. Mr Scott put us in his car and we headed to the downtown area where he also had a egg business that needed to be checked on. Even though his building was destroyed, his truck with a load of eggs had little damage. I remember Mr. Scott pointing at a telephone pole besides his building that had a piece of straw or small stick in-bedded in it. We could not find my mother or cousin so we returned home where we found them. They had rode out the storm hunkered under the booths in the cafe, my mother always credited Gill Gilland for getting people under cover. We were extremely lucky that our home and all of our family were safe.

  10. Don Rhudy says:

    I was nine years old when the tornado struck. My mother and I were scraping paint for the floor of my bedroom, which we had just painted, when the windows blew in on us. She screamed, “It’s a clyclone, Don, let’s go to the basement!” We stopped in the kitchen so she could turn off the gas behind the stove, and started out onto the back porch to the stairs to the basement. Hundreds of bricks were flying into the back porch and slamming against a wall, and I knew we would die if we went out there. I grabbed her skirts and refused to go out there and she relented. We went in the living room and sat on the couch, praying aloud, until the tornado ceased. It was the loudest noise I have ever heard, including artillery shelling later in my life.

    As soon as the tornado ended we nailed blankets over all the windows, to keep out the rain that mother said would soon arrive. Then we gathered up a few clothes and walked to my Aunt’s house two blocks north on Thirteenth, one house from the corner of Thirteenth and Oklahoma. She had lost the roof on the front part of her house and we spent some time moving furniture back under the part of the house that had roofing. About ten-thirty my uncle Hurley Newcomb arrived, loaded my mother, Aunt, myself, and my two cousins up and took us to his home at Eighth and Oak, but not before we passed by his store (Newcomb & Frost Department Store) and Adams Grocery, where we saw people looting inside, illuminated by the fires in the city. We also went past the Memorial Hospital, where bodies were accumulating on the front yard, and walked among them looking for someone we thought would be there. When we reached the safety of his house, we all went inside. He left to go help with the volunteers. Sometime before dawn my father arrived from Alva, where he had been working as a salesman.

    There was another pool hall not mentioned in the story above, called Cattleman’s Cafe. My uncle Raymond Kysar, husband to my Aunt whose home we had gone to earlier, spent the tornado under a pool table.

    I had a number of school friends who were in the Woodward and Terry Theaters during the tornado, and they told me about walking through the brick-littered streets getting home. For seeks after the tornado we had my Aunt and Uncle and cousins living with us in our home, and two other families living in lour basement.

    I knew Gaynor McClaren and Mrs. Boatman mentioned in the story above, and a girl from my class, Betty Cooley, was killed in the tornado.

    Of course, most of the schools were damaged or destroyed, and the school year was suspended. When it began again in September we attended schools in church basements and other buildings, until barracks were delivered and set up and later, schools restored or built anew.

    Everyone from the school classes of 1953, 1954, 1955, and 1956 were especially united as a result of that tornado. I expect that was true of classes earlier than that.

  11. Rita (Fails) Walker says:

    I was born in Woodward at Memorial Hospital, I was 5 years old. My mother was playing bridge, and my dad was at work. I think that he was the only left alive in the building he was in and he crawled to the highway or road for help. My mother was in a house that was blown away and they had heard it coming and they went down to the room in the basement were people had the furnace. She jumped over live wire running home to see if me and my sister was ok. I remember that they baby setter put me & my sister in front of her and held on to the door facing, I thought a bad person was coming to get us with all the noise that was going on outside. I remember being really scared, Mother got there ok and when they took daddy to the hospital he would not stay and they flew him to Oklahoma City. He said it reminded him to much of WW2 there was so many people laying all over the lawn in front of the Hospital.

  12. Frank Walters says:

    My father was a construction worker on a project at Ft. Supply near Woodward. I was five and he took me and my mother and shoved us in a closet then brought the matteress from my bed, stuck it in the closet, shut the door and pulled it down on top of us. The tornado passed without hurting our house as we were in that portion of the town that was not destroyed. Just before we went into the closet, I remember blue balls of static electricy pouring out of the wall outlets near the floor. As the tornadoe passed, our place shook violently and it did sound like a train but as if one was right up next to the track. All my mother’s dishes were shaken out of the cabinets and everything in the house was moved about from the shaking. Afterwards, mom found some candles and lit them. Later, dad went out to see if he could help. When mom wasn’t watching, I snuck out to folow him and caught up as we came to the main North-South street. Across the street there was hardly anything standing. On our side, things were pretty normal. In the lightening strikes, I could see the destruction. Dad had a flashlight and I remember seeing a woman’s leg with the shoe and hose still on it. We saw her body later, minus the leg. As long as I live, I will never forget that night. It is one of my earliest and most vivid memories. My dad knew the man at the power plant and said he was a hero for shutting down the power and might have survived but for his unselfish act to save what was left of the town. We stayed for a while longer and then went back to Oklahoma City and were frightened by a tornado alert near our house there. The rental place in Woodward, where we stayed was still there 25 years later and my wife and children and I lived there briefly, when like my father, I was temporarily employed there. Now, I have seen so many OK tornadoes. I was on my cousin’s farm and saw the Tushka Tornado and my own house near Oklahoma City was narrowly missed by about 7 blocks last night. Thanks for the article. It brings back a lot of memories.

  13. Janet Welsch says:

    I was five and a half, mom was in the hospital after having my brother on the second of April, at that time women were kept at least a week after birth. Dad and I had gone to the hospital, after supper, for a visit. I remember the trees whipping in the wind, lighting flashing and the dark. Daddy walked downtown to Littles Drug store, the front window was out, he gathered all the flashlights and batteries he could find and returned to the hospital where he worked along side one of the doctors the rest of the night. Momma brought my little brother, George, into her room where she bedded the two of us on her bed until morning. As soon as he could daddy took us out the back door and down the stairs then out to my grandparents who lived near the Sharon ‘y’.
    The hallway was lined with people laying on the floor, head to toe waiting to be taken care of. One that still stands out in my mind was an elderly white haired man, his face looked like it had be pricked with a thousand pins. He had blue eyes that watched me as I walked between the two rows of bodies, with my folks. Later when we returned to town the house we lived in, next to the Presbyterian church, on Oklahoma, still stood. We took in a family to live with us. I do not remember how long they lived with us; but it was quite a while.
    It took years before the scars left by the storm disapeared.
    Years later someone told me they had watched the tornado, from the Sharon ‘Y’, as it traveled down Main Street. They described it as a large funnel with smaller funnels circulating around the outside. This type of tornado was not identified until many years later, in Kansas.

  14. Peggy M says:

    These are truly amazing stories. I too have heard stories about this tornado. My fathers family lived in Higgins, Tx when this occurred. My dad said for years him and his family lived in a military tent. My dad’s family wereall lucky enough to have survived the storm. Thank you everyone for posting your stories I have set here reading these in astonishment.

  15. Jody Hardy says:

    I had to laugh when I read about Leroy Fenimore. He is still alive and well in California now and he says he never said that, nor was he on main street at that time of night. Leroy is my mother’s baby brother and her name was Juanita. She died in 1986. My parents were at the Nazarene Church at 5th and Texas in Woodward when the tornado hit. My mom was a junior in high school and lived with the Charles Pappes and took care of their daughter (Kay Van Dorn). My parents married in July of 47. The tornado never hit the town of Fargo, but hit south of there. My grandparents drove to Woodward that night to see about my mother and it wasn’t easy to do. Where my mother was living was destroyed, but the closet with her clothes still in it were ok. My uncle told me someone had asked him about running down Fargo’s main street going we are having a tornado at a Fargo School Reunion, and he told me that was a crasy story that never ever happened. My uncle was born in 1937 and he was 9 at the time as well. I did enjoy reading the comments of others and the rest of your story.

  16. Larry says:

    We lived in the East end of Woodward. We (Mom, Dad, my 2 sisters and me (7 years old)) were out in the Shed in the back yard watching Daddy tinker with his tools. When all of a sudden it became “Deathly Quiet”; no birds, no wind, like a vacuum. Mom knew what was coming. (the front edge of the circling tornado winds literally creates a vaccum before the high speed winds hit. She rushed us into the house, retrieved some “stuff” and rushed us outside into the Cellar. Daddy barely had the Celler Door shut, when the freight-train soundind wind almost took the door out of his hand.
    The east end of Woodward was lucky. It cost us a new roof covering (shingles), and new stucco all over the home.

    Apparently the caretaker of the Electric Company’s distribution property was able to shut off power before the tornado blew the structure away, killing him.

    My older sister created a Scrapbook of the tornado with many Newspaper cutouts and stories about it.

  17. Rhonda says:

    Your stories are so amazing. I have lived in OK my whole life, and thank goodness I haven’t been through a tornado. Unfortunately, this morning, another tornado ripped through Woodward, OK, and so far 5 have been confirmed dead. So sorry for all the families & friends of those who have been through this horrible ordeal, both past and present.

  18. jim nelson says:

    wilma nelson was my grandmother. i remembee visting woodward as a young child in the 70s and seeing a section if asphalt brige sitting on top of a railroad car. my dad told me it was from a huge tornado that hit woodeard many years ago. it was interteresting to hear about my grandmother also…

  19. jim nelson says:

    wilma nelson was my grandfathers sister and paul nelson were also part of my family. as a young child we went to woodward in the 70s and i remember seeing a large asphalt brige section resting on top of a railroad car. my dad told me it was from a huge tornado that came thru when he was 2 yrs old. i found this story very interesting and was surprised to see some of my relatives talked about…..

  20. Mike Caraway says:

    My grandparents lived in woodward and lived thru the tornado.Their names are Fred and Ailene Graves.He was a lawman at the time.I remember visiting them in the early 60’s.I was quite young then.I would say 5-6 years old.They lived in a house that was built underground.The top half of their house had been blown away in thye tornado.My grandpa told us stories about when the storm was over he had come outside to look around and said there were several bodies strewn about,some tangled in the barbed wire fences.I remember trying to imagine what it must have been like to have lived thru someting as terrible as that.It has stuck with me all these years

  21. James R Alexander says:

    My grandparents lived in Woodward when the tornado struck in 1947. My grandfather was Charles R Alexander, who was mayor of Woodward, I believe before this time. I have a few pictures that my grandmother, Ethel, probably took the next day and I also have some other items that I acquired from her through my father that are noted, “damaged by the tornado”, I also have some newspaper clippings from the newspaper about the tornado, (my grandmother kept a lot of things like this and made very good notes for them).

  22. […] 1999 tornadoes were, with 46 deaths across two states, the toll was far short of one that struck on April 9, 1947. It was an F-5 that did most of its damage about 140 miles northwest of the capital, in the town of […]

  23. […] in later years and thankfully didn’t have to visit it often, but the history of the Woodward tornado from 1947 that left 185 dead was a reminder that it had happened before and it could happen again. In […]

  24. LOIS WATT-HARRIS says:


  25. Jody Hardy says:

    I was reading this site again. Thought I would add that since I posted this, my own home was destroyed in the April 15, 2012, tornado. We had no warning. I was awake, but my husband slept through it. We rebuilt & moved in on Sept 2013. Was the second worse thing to happen to us. First was loosing our daughter to cancer.

  26. Tess Hoff says:

    In reading this article, I noted that the author states the small towns of Gage and Fargo were \leveled\ in this tornado – that is not factual.

    The tornado passed Southeast of Shattuck, Gage and Fargo and did not hit any of these towns. It did, however, destroy approx. 60 farms and ranches in it’s destructive path.

  27. Kieth McLain says:

    i was about 7 1/2 years old and remember stories that my older brothers told about this disaster. They went out early the following morning to deliver the Wichita \Eagle & News\ and found there was no place to deliver their papers. I was not allowed to go out but I do remember the sirens & ambulances going east toward Mooreland and Enid. The one thing that I remember was about the snow covering the ground with crocus flowers poking their heads through the snow.

  28. karesa says:

    I was in Arnett Oklahoma for the 2012 tornado. I remember not having any warnings. It hit right outside of town. I went to school with the guy whom died and also lost his two baby girls. Frank Hobby A.K.A. Skip. That was a sad night. Prayers for everyone in all these tornadoes. So sad when lives, and homes are taken.

  29. […] during the night, two unidentified men dressed in khaki army uniforms entered the basement and grabbed Joan. When Joan protested that she […]

  30. […] in the basement, which was being used as a shelter for refugees. Sometime during the night, two unidentified men dressed in khaki army uniforms entered the basement and grabbed Joan. When Joan protested that […]

  31. […] stay in the basement, which was being used as a shelter for refugees. Sometime during the night, two unidentified men dressed in khaki army uniforms entered the basement and grabbed Joan. When Joan protested that she […]

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