The wind shrieked as lightning raked the evening sky and clouds turned a ghastly green.
The Mills Bros. Circus was entertaining a family crowd under the big top in Wadsworth when the giant tent shuddered beneath a heavy gust. The center pole snapped and the canvas drooped, spooking wild animals in the menagerie and sending a shiver of concern through the audience.
Circus attendants led spectators to safety before the tent collapsed. No one was hurt in the 8 p.m. mishap, but it signaled the start of a terrifying night on the homefront during World War II.
The April 27, 1943, tornado began its eastward crawl, traveling 20 miles over the next 60 minutes, and cutting a wide swath of destruction across the middle of Summit County.
Tallmadge resident Edward M. Bogard, 62, a lifelong resident of the area, had never heard of the disaster until 2008. He and his wife, Susan, were going through boxes of photos that belonged to his late mother-in-law when they found an old brown envelope stuffed with black-and-white pictures of splintered Akron buildings.
They were taken April 28, the day after the storm.
Bogard, who writes a blog about local history, researched the tornado and posted photos. The images — which can be viewed at http://mred-criminals-daycare.blogspot.com — reveal massive devastation.
The Akron tornado, one of at least five that hit Ohio that night, had estimated wind speeds of about 200 mph, which would probably put it around F3 on today’s Fujita scale.
The storm roared across Copley Township, disintegrating farmhouses, destroying barns and killing livestock. It smashed homes, toppled trees, cut power and tossed cars in Akron neighborhoods, halted production at war plants and shattered windows downtown.
The tornado traveled south of Copley Road and cut across Wooster Avenue, Main Street, Case Avenue and Massillon Road. Then it slammed into Mogadore before dissipating.
Although the storm occurred 70 years ago, it’s still a vivid memory for some.
Barbara Gazella, 73, of Stow, was not quite 4 years old when the tornado hit her family’s home, a one-story bungalow at Valdes Avenue and Little Street — one block south of Copley Road in West Akron.
“My mother grabbed me out of my bed, which was near a window, threw me in my sister’s bed and crawled in with us with the covers over our heads,” she said.
That was as far as they got.
“The windows blew out,” Gazella said.
The little house moaned and quaked, but by gosh, it stood. When the tornado passed, an eerie calm took hold.
“I remember kneeling on the sofa, looking out the front windows that were not broken and watching all the emergency vehicles going up and down the road,” she said.
The neighborhood was in shambles. Behind Gazella’s home, a two-story colonial had been lifted off its foundation and flipped upside-down.
A block over on Frederick Boulevard, the entire side of one house had fallen onto the ground without breaking any windows. In an upstairs bedroom rested an automobile.
“Our rickety old garage stood,” Gazella said. “Across the street, they had a brand-new garage. It took the garage, the doghouse and the dog. The dog came wandering back the next day. But sightseers hit the dog and killed it. So, that was sad. We all loved that dog.”
Her family had the only working phone in the neighborhood, “so we were kind of like ‘command central’ of people coming and going.”
The storm damaged B.F. Goodrich and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., and halted war production for a couple of days. Akron supplied tires, aircraft and other vital equipment for the U.S. military.
Gazella’s father was on the night shift at Goodrich when the tornado struck.
“He said sheet metal lifted up off the table and sat back down,” she said.
Jim Martin, 76, of Firestone Park, recalls being 6 years old when the storm hit his home on Lease Street near Crouse and Beaver streets. He was a first-grader at nearby Mason Elementary School.
He was at home that evening with his mother, three brothers and two sisters while his father worked at Goodyear. What he remembers most is the fluttering drapes, a set of curtains that Martin’s parents had hung up to separate first-floor rooms.
“We were going into the dining room into the kitchen,” Martin said. “As soon as we come through them drapes, the doggone dining room come apart. Everything went to hell.”
The tornado cracked open the house and sent debris flying. A board hit Martin in the head, but he had the presence of mind to rescue his sister, whose bed was in the room.
“I reached into the crib and grabbed my baby sister Sally and pulled her out of the crib by her feet,” he said.
When the house stopped shaking, Martin’s family tried to open the front door, but it was jammed. His older brothers, who rode out the tornado upstairs, broke open a window and the family crawled out.
With ruins everywhere, it was like stepping into a war zone. Martin ran into a buddy who believed that the Japanese had bombed Akron.
Richard F. Smith, 82, of Uniontown, grew up in a home on Idella Street in Mogadore. On the night of the tornado, he was 12 years old and getting ready for bed. He was wearing pajamas when his parents called him downstairs to wait out the approaching storm.
“The lightning was unreal,” Smith said. “It would just hang there and then it would kind of drop, you know?”
As the rain poured harder, the family heard an oncoming freight train, a common sound on the Mogadore tracks.
Smith remembers his father saying: “Boy, oh, boy, do I pity the engineer running a train in a storm like this.”
“He no more got the words out of his mouth and that sucker hit us,” Smith said.
The house rose, moved about 20 feet and slammed down hard. The wall split open and the front door hit Smith in the head, knocking him out.
“The front porch roof came into the living room, and that kind of protected us,” he said.
After Smith regained consciousness, his father picked him up and had him slide down the shingles. His mother and father followed him outside.
Their home was destroyed. The entire street was in bad shape, but miraculously, no one was seriously hurt.
Smith recalls that one man was frantically searching for his son in a neighbor’s cellar.
“What the dickens are you doing in my basement?” the neighbor asked.
Sure, enough, the boy was there — frightened but alive. The wind somehow had hurtled him to safety next door.
In all, the tornado caused more than $9 million damage (about $121 million today) in Summit County. Insurance companies estimated that 5,000 homes were damaged. At least 40 homes were destroyed.
Although more than 60 people were treated at local hospitals, no Akron fatalities were reported. (Two boys, 9 and 12, were killed when a barn collapsed near Medina, but that was a different vortex.)
Seventy years later, survivors still marvel at the storm.
“It was quite impressive, so it stuck in my mind,” Gazella said.
“After I got hit in the head with that board, somebody said I was never right since then,” Martin joked.
“If it gets stormy bad yet today, I get a twinge in my tummy,” Smith said. “The older I get, the less it gets. But, boy, it really left a mark.”
Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.