Beef State: The Blizzard of '48 - 49


The Blizzard of 1948-49 staggers the imagination. Actually not a single storm, but a series of storms, it began in November 1948 and continued uninterrupted into February 1949. The snow stopped trains, buried houses, and threatened millions of head of cattle in four states.

This blizzard of a century, perhaps of a millennium, stands as “the Katrina” of the Great Plains. 

 The loss of life, of livestock, the stranding of thousands of families, the all-encompassing rescue effort, human ingenuity, the extraordinary acts of kindness, and the ways in which people came together to give generously of their time and resources to help one another are just a few of the ways in which this disaster, like Katrina, led to one of our finest hours.

In the vernacular of “war” in the post-war era “Operation Snowbound” cleared 34,000 miles of roads, and “Operation Haylift” dropped tons of hay to starving animals in a massive, perhaps desperate, effort to save livestock.

The last two weeks of January 1949 were very cold. From eight to eleven days with lows of zero or below were common throughout the blizzard area. Much of Nebraska was literally paralyzed by the storm.
By the fourth week in January, it was evident that some two million snowbound cattle and sheep in Nebraska, the Dakotas, and westward to Nevada were in jeopardy. To feed stranded livestock the Air Force launched Operation Hayride, better known as Operation Haylift, using C-45, C‑47, and C‑82 cargo planes. On the ground the Army used tracked vehicles called Weasels to bring supplies and assistance to stranded people.

In Lincoln, Governor Val Peterson learned that counties lacked the money and equipment to open roads; deep snow and drifts kept cattle from getting to feed; and, in some cases, long‑isolated rural people were exhausting food and fuel supplies.

He declared a state of emergency in all of twenty‑two counties and parts of seven counties in northern Nebraska. Under the direction of Brigadier General Guy N. Henninger, the Nebraska adjutant general, a command post for “Operation Snowbound” was set up in the basement of the capitol building.

The situation was critical. Estimates were that in the twenty‑nine counties wholly or partly in the storm emergency area, there were more than a million and a half cattle worth more than two hundred fifty million dollars (nearly two and one half billion in 2008 dollars). Civilian and military officials who made aerial inspections of the snowbound area were impressed with the seriousness of the situation. Governor Peterson got an amateur radio message from his home town of Elgin, in hard‑hit Antelope County: “My cow is hungry as hell. Please toss her a bale of hay when you go over.”

In early February, 250 Nebraska guardsmen formed eight-man “mercy teams” in several snowbound areas, and in Cherry and Thomas counties, guardsmen from Lincoln operating bulldozers and hay‑laden military trucks brought relief to some 150 ranchers, often leaving the roads or trails and following a guide on horseback.

Even before Operation Snowbound began, local and county leaders formed emergency teams to work with military and civilian agencies in directing bulldozers, deploying Weasels and aircraft, and assisting Operation Haylift flights.

Holt County, because of its large size and the severe impact of the winter, was a center of blizzard relief activity. At O’Neill, the county seat, sixty inches of snow had fallen since the November storm. Since November pilots in O’Neill and other Holt County towns had provided some links to the outside and had been transporting necessities, but increasing livestock losses were a growing worry. Around 3 A.M. on January 23, Kearney Air Force Base snowplows arrived to clear the airport road and the runway so a C-47 cargo plane could land. Winds and a plow breakdown hampered the work, but it was finished in the next few days.

As blizzard relief organizations were created in Garfield and Blaine counties, Burwell organizers arranged for airlifts of hay to ranches in neighboring Loup County. When Air Force Operation Haylift flights from Kearney Air Force Base began on January 26, local people were enlisted provided directions for C-47 (“Sky train”) and C-82 (“Flying Boxcar”) flights to drop hay.

In Blaine County, County Treasurer Dan Norris of Brewster, conducted a telephone survey, but to contact ranchers without phones he sought the aid of Herb Hardin, a North Platte pilot. Hardin flew over the ranches and dropped notes tied to lumps of coal, giving instructions how to signal if they needed hay. Some recipients did need Haylift drops. Norris said, “We saw much trouble from the air,” including seven cows lying dead near one ranch house.

The C‑47s carried a payload of 2.5 tons, the C‑82s, 4.5 tons. Along with the crew on each flight was a spotter, as well as Air Force and civilian “kickers”—four or five on the C-47s, and seven or eight on the C-82s—whose job it was to shove the hay out the open cargo doors of the aircraft. Kickers were kept from falling out by straps secured to a bulkhead. The spotter was a civilian familiar with the area, who guided the pilot to the ranch in need. At the sound of a buzzer from the cockpit, the kickers shoved out the bales of hay. Most broke apart on impact.

Civilians on Haylift missions had to sign a waiver freeing the government of any liability. The also had to designate next of kin. Nevertheless, the atmosphere aboard Haylift flights was cheerful. The Air Force personnel enjoyed the low‑level flights, and the civilians were thrilled by the novelty as well as feeling they were doing something useful. Obviously, there was some danger in these missions: two C-47’s—one from Kearney and the other from Lowry—were seriously damaged when hay bales struck their vertical stabilizers. Fortunately, both aircraft landed safely at Kearney Air Force Base.

Volunteers arranged fifty‑four drops totaling about 240 tons of hay. Each of the fifty‑four ranchers in Garfield, Loup, and Blaine counties received from 34 to 404 bales. The Haylift program coordinated by the Chadron Junior Chamber of Commerce dropped 1,854 bales to twenty‑nine local ranchers.

Blizzard relief work was a final big moment for the Kearney Air Force Base, which was soon to close. One C-47 sent from Kearney to North Platte on January 10, made seventy-eight or more drops to towns and ranches. Thirteen planes from Kearney’s 27th Fighter Group were used to search the countryside for distress signals. By the last week of January, eleven C-47s and ten C-82s from Kearney were available for Operation Haylift duty. The snowplows and their crews dispatched to O’Neill represented a peculiar contribution from Kearney Air Force Base.

Operation Snowbound

  1. 193,193 square miles in four states
  2. 4,011,184 cattle saved from starvation
  3. 243,780 snowbound people freed
  4. 115,138 miles of road cleared
  5. 1,600 pieces of heavy equipment brought to bear
  6. 6,000-man workforce
Even before the Haylift flights from Kearney Air Force Base, planes from Lowry Field in Denver had been carrying hay to stranded cattle and sheep in western Nebraska. Some hay was brought to Alliance for use by aircraft from Lowry, and some Haylift flights to the Sheridan County‑Pine Ridge Reservation area along the Nebraska‑South Dakota border came from Rapid City Air Force Base. According to the Strategic Aid Command, two Haylift missions were flown from Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha.

Not everyone was convinced the Haylift flights were useful. The vast number of cattle needing feed rendered Haylift impractical compared with the relief that could be supplied by ground‑based operations. Haylift crews tried to drop bales as close to livestock as possible, but even if it landed within a hundred yards, animals caught in ice‑crusted drifts might not be able to reach it. Sometimes cattle were frightened by the aircraft and bolted.

Dan Norris of Brewster, Nebraska, probably put Operation Haylift in proper perspective when he said, “No doubt the operation did a great deal of good in its way. It was a temporary measure, and kept cattle alive until they could be fed in the natural way.”