March 9, 2017

Bombs over the Yellowstone! Or, How Custer County Breaks up Ice Jams

by Zoe Ann Stoltz, Reference Historian

Initially, the weekend of March 17 & 18, 1944 was typical.  Many of Miles City’s residents enjoyed the popular music featured by radio station KRJF. Syndicated radio programs “Pioneer Women of Montana” and “Sports Roundup” were also popular with locals.[1] Many attended the Montana Theater which was running Grace McDonald’s light-hearted musical romance, “She’s for Me,”” or the musical, “Always a Bridesmaid” featuring the Andrews Sisters at the Liberty Theater. The upcoming High School Basketball tournament, to be held next weekend in Great Falls, was a primary conversation topic. However, by late Sunday evening, the weekend’s tone had changed. Within hours, Yellowstone flood waters forced hundreds of citizens from their homes. They would not return until after a B-17 dropped several tons of bombs on the Yellowstone.  

Earlier in the weekend, ice flows from the rising Tongue River joined those already accumulating in the Yellowstone. The resulting ice jam caused a rapid rise in river water. By late Sunday evening, residents on the north side of the city were warned to evacuate. Sheriff, police, and fire department personnel worked all night while KRJF ran well into the morning hours with constant updates.[2]
Monday morning, with the water too deep to wade through, men and boats continued to rescue marooned families. Water inundated Hubble Street, effectively cutting off the road to Jordan. Twenty miles south and upstream from town, high waters were forcing ice flows over a Tongue River Dam.[3]


Miles City Daily Star
March 23, 1944

In desperation, local, county, and state leaders contrived a plan to “dynamite” the Yellowstone’s ice jam.  On Monday, March 20, Mayor Leighton Keye called the Rapid City Army Air Base to request help. He was informed that thick fog prevented the takeoff of any aircraft in the Black Hills area. With assistance from Colstrip explosives experts and permission from the Civil Aeronautics Administration, the mayor enlisted local pilots Brud Foster, Fred Cook and Ted Filbrandt for the job.[4] According to one newspaper report, after flying reconnaissance flights over the river, the men fused and dropped close to 12 boxes, or 1500 pounds, of dynamite. The “shuddering blasts” created by the detonations were only partly successful in clearing the ice flows.[5]

Finally, Tuesday afternoon, residents were treated to the sight of a low flying B-17, or “Flying Fortress” in the skies over Miles City. The plane, piloted by Rapid City Air Base’s director of flying Major Richard Ezzard, carried a crew of 10 others. By 7:30 that evening, Ezzard and his crew began their attack on the Yellowstone ice. Forced to fly at just 2,600 feet rather than the previously planned 10,000 feet by a gathering storm system to the northwest, Ezzard dropped the first bomb just downstream from the 7th Street Bridge. During four runs, the crew dropped over fifteen 250 pound bombs into the ice packed Yellowstone.[6]

Immediately following the bombing, the Yellowstone’s waters began receding, preventing further danger and flood damage. Although crowds were kept as much as a mile away from the drop zone, locals saw the plane “circling and banking” as it approached the river. All agreed with Mayor Keyes’s description of the mission as “perfect and in accordance with the best traditions” of the U. S. Military.[7]


Miles City Star
March 23, 1944

Thanks to the heroic efforts of both locals as well as imported experts not a single human life was lost to the flood, and livestock losses were believed to be minimal.[8] By the end of the week, life in Miles City was returning to normal. After a brief stay to determine the success of their mission, Maj. Ezzard and his crew bid Miles City farewell with a late Wednesday afternoon flyover over.[9] City crews successfully pumped out a good share of the basements of between 300-500 evacuated residents.[10] Approximately one hundred evacuees attended clinics to discuss health concerns created by contaminated wells and needed repairs before returning home.[11] Weekend movie options included the moralistic  “Edge of Darkness” with Errol Flynn or the musical “Sing a Jingle.”[12] Sadly, the Miles City Cowboys failed to place in the Basketball Championship after losing to Stanford 51-48.[13] That was the tragedy!


[1] See “Air Log” pg. 3 & movie advertisements pg. 5, 18 March 1944, Miles City Daily Star
[2] “Flood Waters Reach Into City,” 21 March 1944, Miles City Daily Star, p.3
[3] Ibid.,  1 & 3.
[4] Ibid., 3 and “Home Made Bombs Used Preliminarily to Break Ice Jams,” 24 March 1944 Miles City Daily Star, p. 8.
[5] “Yellowstone, Tongue Floods Recede; Storm Prevents Bombers from Helping to Break Up Blocks of Ice,” 21 March 1944, The Independent Record, p. 3.[6] “Bombing of Yellowstone Is Effective,” 23 March 1944,
[7] Ibid., p. 3.
[8] “Flood Waters Reach Into City,”  21 March 1944, Miles City Daily Star, p.3
[9] “Flying Fortress Crew Departs Wednesday for Rapid City Base,” 25 March 1944, p. 3.
[10] “Scene of Flooded Area Covering the Island, Part of the Residential Section of North Side the City,” 21 March 1944, Miles City Daily Star, p.1.
[11] “Families Instructed Regarding Going Back Into Their Homes,” 23 March 1944, Miles City Daily Star??
[12] See Movie advertisements, 23 Friday 1944, Miles City Daily Star, p. 5.
[13] “Cowboys Put Up Great Game,” 26 March 1944, Miles City Daily Star, p. 9.



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