Combat Zone: Frank Gurney, Flying the Hump

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman June 15, 2011 13:32

By Chris Bateman

It was like one of those black-and-white movies from long ago: The Army Air Corps pilot, the hometown girl, and a chance meeting on a station platform, all amid the drama and danger of World War II.

But this encounter was real, and, in fact, led to a 65-year marriage. Were it not for the war, this romantic tale would never have unfolded.

Twenty-year-old Evelyn Dabadie would not have been at Stockton’s train station on that fall morning in 1944 to see a friend’s brother off to active duty.

Neither would Frank Gurney, 21, whose scheduled 10-day leave in Jamestown was cut short by an Army telegram: Report to Topeka for overseas assignment. Immediately.

Frank, who would soon be flying B-24s over “The Hump” – the perilous route from India over the Himalayas and to China to supply Allied troops – was there to catch a train east.  With a pilot’s trained eye, he spotted Evelyn, who had left Jamestown to take a wartime job at the Port of Stockton’s Army Supply Depot.

The two were hardly strangers. They had grown up as neighbors in Jamestown and for a time attended the tiny and now defunct Quartz School. As the war loomed, they were also at Sonora High School together.

“But we had nothing to do with each other,” laughs Evelyn. “Frank was two classes ahead of me and we had different friends.”

Seeing a familiar face from a shared hometown amid the tumult of war, however, changed everything. Be it chemistry, a latent attraction, or a sudden appreciation of what had been there all along, something clicked at the Stockton station that morning.

“We were together there for only 15 minutes,” says Evelyn, “but that was enough.”

The two began to write, exchanging dozens of letters between then and late 1945, when Frank returned to the states. But didn’t Evelyn know about The Hump – that treacherous mountain supply route that claimed so many pilots? Hadn’t she worried?

“We were young,” she says, thinking back on the invincibility shared by those in their early 20s. “I knew he’d be OK.”

And Frank? Wasn’t he anxious about crossing the world’s highest mountain range with 4,000-gallon loads of highly flammable aviation gasoline?

“After a while, flying a plane becomes kind of like driving a car,” he says. “You just don’t get concerned about things like that.”

As it was, Frank Gurney escaped unscathed after 19 round-trips over The Hump. “That cockpit could get pretty cold, though,” he recalls, conceding that the Flying Cobra bomber jacket he still has wasn’t enough to ward off the chill at 22,000 feet.

His closest call? “Well,” he muses, “I once flew with another pilot, and I was scared to death from the beginning of that trip to the end. I was smart enough not to fly with that guy again.”

Pressed on the perils of The Hump, which from April 1942 to November 1945 claimed the lives of 1,659 U.S. pilots and crew members, Gurney points out that the B-24 was capable of flying over the towering Himalayas rather than threading through its passes, the far more dangerous routes taken by less-powerful DC-3s and C-47s earlier assigned to the task.

“Besides,” he says, “I’m not the kind of guy to embellish anything I did over there.”

Evelyn and Frank

Frank Gurney graduated from Sonora High in 1940 and joined the Army Air Corps in the fall of 1942. His inspiration? “The draft,” he laughs, adding that he hoped to be an airplane mechanic.

But at mechanics school in Stockton, “They hardly ever let us get near a plane. Instead, we were doing odd jobs like pulling dandelions from a field.”

Dreaming of being fighter pilots, Frank and a buddy signed up to be aviation cadets. The route to his wings was circuitous, passing through bases in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Wyoming, where the new second lieutenant learned to fly the four-engine B-24 Liberator, Consolidated Aircraft’s flagship bomber.

Meanwhile, Evelyn had graduated from Sonora High and taken a job at the Army Supply Depot, shunting supplies from aisle to aisle in a cart for ultimate shipment overseas. “It paid pretty well,” says Evelyn, “and it felt good to be part of the war effort.”

After his short, eventful California leave in 1944, Frank went from Topeka to Miami, where he boarded a converted Pan Am troop transport headed east, “but we had no idea where.” He ended up in Calcutta, where he was assigned to the 9th Bomber Squadron, nicknamed the Flying Cobras for India’s ubiquitous snakes.

By January 1945, stationed at a nearby B-24 base, he flew a bombing run to Rangoon, and with his crew took out a Japanese supply depot.  Lt. Gurney was then assigned to Barrakpur Air Base near Calcutta, where he flew cargo into Allied bases in embattled Burma. Among his loads: railroad locomotives, crated and broken into parts.

Next came Tezpur Air Base, carved into the jungle of India’s Assam Valley. From there Frank flew The Hump 19 times, crossing 16,000-foot ridges and landing at several Chinese bases on the far side of the Himalayas after one-way flights of nearly five hours.

The Chinese airstrips were challenging, to say the least. Some were mostly rock. One, Frank remembers, was trimmed with running lights – and for good reason: A sheer cliff lay just beyond. “We were told not to turn left,” says Frank. “The drop-off was 500 feet.”

The Hump was a valuable supply line for Chinese and Allied forces. Overall, the airlift’s pilots and their crews delivered more than 685,000 tons of fuel and supplies.

“After The Hump,” said Gen. William Tunner, the operation’s last commander, “those of us who had developed an expertise in air transportation knew that we could fly anything anywhere anytime.”

In Oct. 19, 1945, with the war over, Frank got the orders he was waiting for: It was time to go home. But there was a hitch:  He and his crew were to take a B-24, nicknamed Dangerous Dancer and decorated with a leggy model, back to Miami. Stops included Karachi, Abadan, Cairo, Tripoli, Marrakech, Dakar, Brazil, British Guiana, Puerto Rico and, on Nov. 1, 1945, Miami.

“We took our time,” says Frank. “I think we spent four days in Cairo, seeing the pyramids, the Sphinx and all. ‘When will we get here again?’ we figured. So we saw all the things tourists see.”

Next came a 56-day home leave, where his courtship with Evelyn flourished. Soon after reporting for duty at Sewart Air Base near Smyrna, Tenn., Frank and a couple of fellow airmen visited a jewelry store. The result: A $250 wedding ring for Evelyn.

After transfer to Chanute Air Base south of Chicago, the couple married on April 14, 1946, in Springfield, Ill., on the very spot where Evelyn’s ancestors had 100 years earlier boarded wagons for the tragic Donner Party expedition to California.

Frank was discharged as a first lieutenant, along with 23,000 other Army pilots, in November 1946. The couple returned to Jamestown, where both their families had been since the Gold Rush. Frank never flew again, and went to work for U.S. Lime, spending most of his career as the Sonora plant’s head electrician. Evelyn had her hands full as a housewife and mother of two.

Son Ralph Gurney served 17 months as an Army engineer, building roads in Vietnam, and now works in construction. Daughter Linda Gandolfo retired from the state corrections department. Both live just minutes from their parents’ home, which the Gurneys built in 1954 and ’55.

“We had a mason put up the walls, but we did everything else,” says Evelyn of their meticulously kept Fourth Avenue home.

Tezpur, India 1945: Frank is second from left.

Within its walls remains a wealth of memorabilia from Frank’s military service. His bomber jacket, with Flying Cobra emblem, still fits. Dog tags, wings, flight logs and photos all bring back these eventful years of flying.

For years, he was a member of the Hump Pilots Association, but the group disbanded six years ago “due to the advanced age of our members.” Now, at 88, he is among a dwindling but indeterminate number of fliers who risked their lives crossing the Himalayas at the height of World War II.

“I still have a lot of good memories from my time in the Army Air Corps,” says Frank. “I think we did make a contribution flying The Hump, we made a difference.”

And, yes, he still thanks the Army for canceling that leave back in 1944 and bringing him to Stockton to catch a train – and a wife.

© 2011 Friends and Neighbors


Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman June 15, 2011 13:32