Bobby Kuzniar was preparing for an assault landing as part of a Marine Corps training exercise in San Diego, CA, when he was handed a telegram from the Red Cross on April 21, 1967.
“Family and home destroyed,” the message read.
Just 19 years old and his first time away from home, the young Marine from Oak Lawn was training for his deployment to Vietnam. Kuzniar thought the message was a joke, or at least he hoped that it was.
“I showed it to the officer in charge,” Kuzniar, 66, recalls. “He said I’d be hitting the beach the next morning, but he gave me a 30-day emergency leave.”
After learning that an EF5 tornado had swept through the village killing 37 people, Kuzniar tried calling home but couldn't reach his family. He took a non-stop flight to O’Hare, a rarity in those days since air travel was still beyond the means of most average Americans.
“When we landed in O’Hare, I took a cab all the way to Oak Lawn,” Kuzniar said, “but when I got to my street (55th Avenue) it was completely destroyed. I couldn’t find my family, so I went around the block to grandma’s and found them there.”
When he knocked on his grandmother’s back door, his father was blown over.
“What are you doing here,” Julius Kuzniar asked his son.
“I came home to help you,” Bobby said.
Walking through what was left of the family’s home at 9438 S. 55th Ave., Bobby asked Julius what happened to his mother’s chandelier that hung in the "formal dining room."
“My dad had spent first night in the house to keep people from looting,” Kuzniar recalled. “He had his .38 with him and a BB gun. He said he got bored during the night and shot the chandelier with the BB gun. He shot it all to hell.”
His father had been at work when the tornado struck. His mother, Delores, had sent his younger brother, Dan, to the Chinese restaurant on 95th Street to pick up dinner, even though the sky was starting to turn a “goofy colored green”
Dan had just beat the tornado home, banging on the back door in time for his sister, Barbara, to let him into the basement, when the house started coming apart.
“My brother doesn’t remember what he did with the Chinese food,” Kazniar said, “if he dropped it somewhere or tossed it.”
For the next 30 days, the young Marine bound for Vietnam helped his family sift through four feet of rubble that covered their back yard.
“I had a fiber barrel stored in the attic loaded with baseball cards and pictures of players from the 1950s but it was all gone,” Kuzniar said.
Also lost was his father’s brand new 1967 Buick that only had 127 miles on it, which was sitting in the garage. Kazniar did find his 1956 Lionel train set, which he still has today.
Kazniar documented the bulldozer and the clam bucket knocking down what remained of his family’s home and other neighbors' homes on an old Kodak camera, taking the 126 film to the drugstore to be developed. The snapshots, never before published, remained covered in plastic in photo albums, until recently, when Kazniar shared them on the 1967 Oak Lawn Tornado Facebook page.
The family would rebuild on another piece of property his father owned at 93rd Street and Major Avenue. For several months they lived in a tiny trailer home behind Christ Community Hospital, where temporary housing had been set up for the families wiped out by the Oak Lawn Tornado.
Before shipping out to Vietnam on Dec. 24, 29167, Kazniar visited Oak Lawn one last time, riding a bike through the neat rows of trailers, savoring his last carefree moments before going off to war.
Read more about the 1967 tornado: