Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Memories of the June 13, 1968, Tracy tornado: “Pain, anguish and blood…” June 12, 2013

HE DOESN’T RECALL the details like it was yesterday.

Yesterday, after all, was 45 years ago.

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo.

Eric Lantz, then 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town on the evening of June 13, 1968. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo. Copyrighted photo courtesy of Scott Thoma with original copyright retained by Eric Lantz.

But for Mankato resident Steve Ulmen, certain memories of the aftermath of the deadly Tracy tornado of June 13, 1968, stick with him.

He was only 22 then, a college student and a senior member of the Mankato Civil Air Patrol squadron dispatched on a search and rescue mission to Tracy 90 miles away in southwestern Minnesota. They were the first responders, handling crisis management until other local and state officials arrived.

A residential street, once covered in branches and debris, had to be plowed to allow vehicles to pass. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma, Tracy native and author of Out of the Blue, a book about the Tracy tornado.

A residential street, once covered in branches and debris, had to be plowed to allow vehicles to pass. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma, Tracy native and author of Out of the Blue, a book about the Tracy tornado.

Ulmen remembers entering Tracy, feeling overcome by the sheer devastation. The F5 tornado, with wind speeds surpassing 300 mph, killed nine and injured 125. Destruction was massive.

“It looked like we were driving into a dump site, or a burned out slum, or what I would imagine a bombed out city would have looked like after World War II,” Ulmen recalls.

With experience as a hospital orderly, he was assigned to the emergency room at the Tracy hospital—removing victims from ambulances and placing them on gurneys and moving others around.

Some of the injured at the Tracy Hospital. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

Some of the injured at the Tracy Hospital. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

“There were victims coming in and lying on stretchers even in the hallways, as it was a small hospital,” Ulmen remembers. “Some were suffering from fractures, some from cuts and scratches. All were in one degree of shock or another and needed assistance and someone to talk to them and try and calm them down.

“There was pain, anguish, and blood, that I remember. As long as casualties kept coming in, we stayed on duty.”

The CAP squadron, comprised of cadets (high school age, 18 and under) to supervising senior members, volunteered for several days in the ravaged community. Among other duties, the patrol established a communications system based out of “an old military surplus deuce and a half 4-wheel drive vehicle” equipped with “radios of every description.”

Surveying the destruction at Tracy Elementary School, which was destroyed. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

Surveying the destruction at Tracy Elementary School, which was destroyed. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

Ulmen remembers the satisfaction he felt in helping those in distress.

Among his memories, Ulmen recalls a particular incident, one he still wonders about now 45 years later. “I was driving either my vehicle or an emergency vehicle, I forget which, and I went through an intersection. The stop sign was bent and twisted from the tornado and wasn’t pointing at the street I was on; it looked like it was pointed at another street. Nevertheless, the local cop saw me run the stop sign, pulled me over, and gave me a ticket,” Ulmen says. “Some thanks for coming all the way from Mankato and volunteering my service to a community in distress. My superiors were not impressed with this either, but I ended up having to pay the ticket as I recall.

“It is funny what you remember from 45 years ago.”

FYI: The community of Tracy is marking the 45-year anniversary of the deadly tornado with special events on Thursday, June 13. Click here to learn more in a post published here several days ago.

To learn more about Steve Ulmen, who served with the CAP for 17 years until he was about 27, click here. Ulmen, who is retired after 34 years of working in the corrections field, is also a published writer. He’s written a western screenplay, later rewritten and published as his first western novel, Toby Ryker. He then published a sequel, Deadwood Days. His most recent works include a book of historical fiction, Blood on the Prairie—A Novel of the Sioux Uprising (actually the first book in the Toby Ryker trilogy), and Bad Moon Arising, a fictional story based on his experiences as the first probation officer in LeSueur County beginning in 1969.

Ulmen and his wife of 42 years, Ida Mae, live in Mankato, his hometown.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

17 Responses to “Memories of the June 13, 1968, Tracy tornado: “Pain, anguish and blood…””

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    Wow—those pictures are incredible. What a story you told here—–certainly a day that is remembered by anyone who lived through this disaster.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I agree about the images. The one of the street bordered by the trees really strikes me. Well, they all do. No wonder I’m afraid of tornadoes. I saw this destruction. Interesting, though, that I cannot recall specifics.

  2. Steven Ulmen Says:

    Awesome writeup, Audrey. You captured the substance of the perspective of this 22 year old Civil Air Patrol responder perfectly. Thank you. Steve

  3. hotlyspiced Says:

    They say ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ and these images certainly do just that. The devastation is unbelievable. We had a ‘Cyclone Tracey’ in 1974. It came to the city of Darwin on Christmas Eve and ripped apart the entire town. The fact that it was Christmas Day seemed to make the impact of it, all the more severe xx

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      The photos are incredible, aren’t they? No wonder I’m afraid of tornadoes. Interesting that you had a cyclone names Tracey and it caused the same type of destruction.

  4. ryanware Says:

    I grew up about 20 miles from Tracy. I remember the stories of the tornado and know that some folks from my home town and I’m sure every other nearby town went to help the victims of the devastation.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Excellent point, Ryan, that many from neighboring communities came to assist. If any of you readers were among them, or heard stories from family/friends who were, please comment and share.

  5. Thanks for sharing! I still remember my co-worker telling me that her brother landed a job as a New York firefighter and then tradegy struck when he was called to help for his very 1st assignment on 9/11. He was grateful to be of assistance, but it was very emotional too, especially for a 21-year old.

  6. The Out of the Blue author will be speaking here in Worthington in mid-July…unfortunately, I’ll be gone! I was so disappointed when I realized the date that he’ll be here.

  7. Hilary - Dangled Carat Says:

    those pictures are amazing.. and after living through hurricane sandy, I know how you can never forget…

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      And I wasn’t even in this tornado, only an observer afterward. I hope that recovery is progressing for you personally, Hilary.


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