The March 16, 1942 Tornado Outbreak

| March 15, 2009 @ 9:51 pm | 4 Replies

War news dominated the headlines on March 16, 1942. Australia was bracing for an all out assault by the Japanese, who were overrunning the Pacific in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Japanese raiders were slashing at Darwin. Allied troops and supplies were steaming toward the Australian continent. Radio broadcasts late in the day would herald the announcement that General Douglas McArthur was assuming control of the Allied war effort in Australia. Reports were that Allied bombers would soon use India as a base to bomb Japan. American Navy ships sunk two Japanese ships. A draft lottery was planned for that night. Nine million American men were slated to be drafted. Those were scary times.

Just after midnight on Monday, March 16, 1942, an unseasonably warm and muggy airmass covered a wide area of the U.S. from the Plains states east into the South and Ohio Valley. In the pre-dawn hours that morning, temperatures were in the 70s with dewpoints in the 60s as far north of Fort Smith, Memphis and Birmingham. At midnight in Birmingham, it was 71/67, warmer than the average high. The high on the 16th in the Magic City was 79 toasty degrees. The low that humid morning was 69F. On the weather maps, a strong surface low was in eastern Oklahoma. A warm front was surging north into Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. It would produce a late morning F4 tornado in Illinois that killed eleven.

This tornado would signal the beginning of one of the worst tornado outbreaks in U.S. history. Before it was over, 26 significant tornadoes, including five violent ones and 18 killers would cause 148 fatalities from Illinois and Indiana, through Kentucky and Tennessee into Mississippi and Alabama. The Delta towns of Itta Bena and Greenwood were hit around 3 p.m. by a family of twisters that killed 63 people. Five automobiles were hurled into the Tallahatchie River near Greenwood, killing six. Two school buses were hit. The hospital at Grenada was missed by just 20 yards, even as doctors and nurses worked on patients from the first big tornado.

Just after 5 p.m., a powerful tornado struck the northern part of Baldwyn, Mississippi, north of Tupelo. The F4 tornado killed five people. Even as rescuers were digging through the rubble of over 50 destroyed homes, a second tornado roared into the town a scant one half hour later. No one died in the second tornado, although it destroyed twenty five percent of the business district. The twin tornadoes that struck Baldwyn were the subject of tornado legend for many years.

In Alabama, a tornado killed a couple at Waterloo in Lauderdale County around 6 p.m. Their bodies were blown over 200 yards.

– Bill Murray
Follow my weather history tweets on Twitter. I am wxhistorian.

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Bill Murray is the President of The Weather Factory. He is the site's official weather historian and a weekend forecaster. He also anchors the site's severe weather coverage. Bill Murray is the proud holder of National Weather Association Digital Seal #0001 @wxhistorian

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