My parents and older brother talked about the F5 tornado that ripped through Antlers, Oklahoma at 5:30 p.m., April 12th, 1945. Newspapers and radio stations were still saturating air waves with news of President Roosevelt’s death. The coverage of President Roosevelt’s death was so extensive that news of the tornado was neglected. I heard stories from relatives about the devastation as I grew up and I assumed the stories were exaggerated because all written accounts did not match the oral history. For that reason the following version of the Antlers tornado story was written and I combined news stories with memories.
The sky turned black and green as the clouds piled up and slowly began circulating. Mom called out, “Jerry, help me cover the flowers. I think it’s going to hail and I don’t want my flowers ruined.” Quickly the flowers were covered with burlap and everyone waited on the porch, watching the clouds roll forward with gathering intensity. A lightning bolt shattered the sky followed seconds later by a loud peal of thunder. Another flash and we counted, one thousand one, one thousand two, and the boom rocked the house. “It’s time to get inside,” Dad said. We were inside the living room when the sky broke loose, alternating wild flashes of light with tremendous booms. A steady roar could be heard just as hail bounced on the roof and across the yard. When the hail and rain subsided we could still hear a roar. As the thunder faded away we attributed the diminishing roar to be thunder in the background.
As quickly as it came the storm passed. We stood again on the porch watching wisps of cloud dissipate. A man raced up the hill to our house. He was panting heavily as he said, “Curtis, don’t you have relatives in Antlers? Did you hear that the town was blown away?” Dad grabbed his coat and jumped into his pickup. The man leaped in the other side and they raced away.
Dad went to his brother’s house and found out his brother and his family were unharmed. Grandmother, who was staying with them, was also unscathed. The house was almost intact. Only the back porch was ruined, crushed by a giant oak tree.
Dad drove around inspecting the damage. The tornado had roared across town, touching down just past my uncle’s house. Howling winds carrying debris had swept a wide swath through town, catching people unprepared, shredding buildings, trees, and anything in its path. Churches were destroyed, the drive-in theater which was showing “Gone With the Wind” was blown away, and few recognizable buildings were left.
Dad worked a few hours before returning home. Dad told all of us to get in the pickup and we were brought to Antlers and left at our uncle’s house. Dad took Jerry with him, and they worked through the night and into the morning.
Jerry later told me he was horrified as they pulled body after body from the wreckage. One body was impaled with a two by four, while others were crushed by bricks and boards. The bakery, a shelter for some who were escaping the hail, had collapsed killing several, including two paper delivery boys. Across town several families were wiped out. There was carnage everywhere.
Dad and Jerry worked alongside the State National Guard with other volunteers. Bodies were laid in rows and they counted them row after row. Both Dad and Jerry reported there were over one hundred twenty killed and hundreds injured. Ambulances wailed all through the night as they took victims to hospitals in the larger towns, while less fortunate victims were taken to funeral homes in small towns in both Oklahoma and Texas. There was little good news. One of the exceptions was news about a young child found unharmed two miles away from her home.
When I was older I checked newspaper records. Newspapers from Antlers, Hugo, and Atoka listed 64 killed, 343 injured. There was a discrepancy between oral and written accounts. The media death count was not close to the number Dad and my brother had reported. I questioned them again about their accuracy. They were adamant in spite of the records.
As strange as it might seem, truth has a way of adjusting over time. Thirty years later I attended a writer’s group in Yuba City, California. As the group shared stories, one man, Bob, pulled out some newspaper clippings about the tornado in Antlers, Oklahoma. The headlines proclaimed, “102 killed in Antlers tornado”, and then listed those killed. Bob kept the article and used it to back one of his stories. To my dismay I forgot to make copies of the newspaper article.
Bob had been in the National Guard unit which had been sent to Antlers. He remembered pulling bodies out of the wreckage and putting them in rows. He said people were sent to hospitals or to morgues in Paris, Texas, and Hugo, Oklahoma, as well as to other towns. In the confusion not everyone was reported. In addition many small children had not been recorded at birth and now there was no way to verify their existence. Many hospitals and funeral homes only accepted whites and people of color were not admitted. Bob believed that non whites were not even counted.
Eventually the official death toll increased as other deaths were reported and verified. As some of the injured died, the death toll continued to be recalculated. Currently some records list 84 deaths. But the discrepancy continues. How many people really died? How many were not counted? How many were never found? I’ve read other accounts and they all seem to weave together, telling a story about a forgotten town, one that was scarred by the tornado for decades, a town that was overshadowed by the death of a president. The stories of the counted and the missing victims are aching to be told. The full impact of this disaster should not be lost. History will not be complete unless all are remembered and honored.