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Boot Camp Blizzard


Boot Camp Blizzard

By Karl Priest (revised 1-24-16)

I arrived at United States Navy Recruit Training Command (Boot Camp—where the Navy wanted to break a bunch of bad boys and mold them into military men) at Great Lakes, Illinois on 2 January 1967 and, for the first three weeks, the Navy made us recruits miserable—then it got worse.

About 0500 26 January it started to snow. It wasn’t a typical picturesque snow. The storm was driven by fierce wind from the nearby Lake Michigan. When it stopped, 29 hours later, there was 23 inches of snow on the ground. The entire Chicago area was at an eerie standstill with thousands of people stranded and some school children stayed in their buildings overnight. Travelers couldn’t move for days. Boot camp training came to a halt and we were assigned to 24-hour snow shoveling details in two-hour shifts. Wind driven snow drifts reached as high as 10 feet! We shoveled piles at least five feet high and those piles went from one end of the huge training base to the other.

A second storm adding nearly three inches fell 29 January, four inches pelted down 1 February, and 11 more inches (in the suburbs of Chicago where I was) piled up on 6 February (40 plus inches total). It snowed on six of the first seven days of February. Much of the time the wind howled (gusts up to 53 mph) and dropped the wind-chill temperature to (I heard through scuttlebutt) minus 40F.

Nearby states sent dozens of huge pieces of snow removal equipment. During the initial deluge automobiles were completely buried and some city snow plow trucks were abandoned where they stopped. Fire fighters in Chicago had to get to fire scenes by foot. Helicopters flew emergency medical and food missions. Grocery store shelves were quickly emptied. Police battled with looters. There were 26 blizzard related deaths.

A mini-blizzard, with winds of 40 mph, piled up nearly 5 more inches on 23 February. That winter, the Chicago area had 68.4 inches of snow!

Some of the snow was piled into railroad cars and hauled south.

The ground was covered with snow for 42 consecutive days!

After a few days of shoveling snow, basic training continued with the added agony of the cold and bitter winds. An official low of minus 10F was registered, before the blizzard, on 18 January and the average temperature for the month of February was 22F.

We had to march with those (non-firing) rifles everywhere we went which made for some hazardous traveling when guys slipped and fell.

When we entered buildings (barracks, classrooms, chow-hall) there was the incessant odor of wet woolen uniforms.

For certain inspections, after standing for lengthy periods on "grinders" (large paved areas), we entered huge “hangars” and stood for an hour or more in formation. The silence was shattered by the constant sound of guys hitting the deck after passing out from a combination of exhaustion and stifling heat of the wool uniform, turtle-neck sweater, toboggan, gloves, and heavy pea-coat.

The Navy wanted to break us down and mold us into sailors. The Company Commanders (CCs—i.e. Drill Instructors) did their best to do that. I only have one picture that comes close to showing the way it was for us after the blizzard hit. The photo shows one of the Company Commanders, who probably ran out of the warmth of the battalion barracks building to pose for the camera, in his white hat. The severely cold weather compounded the normal grief of basic training for recruits and CCs alike!

I departed Great Lakes on a sunny day in early Spring and the memories of the misery that all recruits endure are dim in my mind, but to this day I have not completely thawed.

Over the years, there have been other snow strorms and the Bible has a message of comfort regarding them.  Dost thou know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of him which is perfect in knowledge?  How thy garments are warm, when he quieteth the earth by the south wind?”  (Job 37:16-17)

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The Chicago Tribune has a gallery of photos of the “Big Snow” of 1967. Here are some samples. Click on each picture for a larger image.

My next active duty station was the USS Wright.