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A Final Farewell: The Untold Story Behind Hursey Gate

U.S. Air Force Airman Second Class Roy Lee Hursey poses for an official photo circa 1961. Hursey lost his life in the line of duty after a KC-135 Stratotanker crashed into the guard post he was manning shortly after takeoff.  

(U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Airman Second Class Roy Lee Hursey poses for an official photo circa 1961. Hursey lost his life in the line of duty after a KC-135 Stratotanker crashed into the guard post he was manning shortly after takeoff. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Airmen commemorate the opening of Hursey Gate by rendering the appropriate customs and courtesies circa 1965 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Hursey Gate has gone through many upgrades in the following years, but the namesake has always remained.  

(U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Airmen commemorate the opening of Hursey Gate by rendering the appropriate customs and courtesies circa 1965 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Hursey Gate has gone through many upgrades in the following years, but the namesake has always remained. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

EIELSON AIR FOCE BASE, Alas. -- Having recently arrived on Eielson Air Force Base, I was curious about the story behind Hursey Gate. I drive in and out of this gate every morning, but I knew only scant details about its namesake. I wanted to know more.

After speaking to the Airmen who were there 54 years ago, as well as researching decades-old newspaper accounts, what follows is a faithful retelling of the events that transpired on that tragic night.

February 27, 1963, seven o’clock in the evening

Airman Third Class Frank Abernathy was navigating his black and white ’57 Chevrolet on the snow-slicked roads of Eielson. He was making his way to Fairbanks to buy supplies for the 4,700 mile journey back to his home in North Carolina.

It was winter and dark, 15 degrees below zero, but as Abernathy neared the guard hut he was able to spot his friend, Airman Second Class Roy Lee Hursey, manning the post and checking identification cards.

He stopped the car and got out to say farewell.

Abernathy and Hursey, both from North Carolina, grew up in towns only three miles apart, but they didn’t become acquainted until they were stationed at Eielson in 1962.

Abernathy teased Hursey, joking with him about a waitress who worked at the North Pole Diner they frequented. Hursey had been nursing a crush for some time, and would tip the waitress the cost of the entire meal in the futile hope of getting a date.

Hursey, not taking kindly to Abernathy’s playfulness, popped him on the shoulder in a jocular manner, like young men often do. Abernathy got the message and eased up on his friend.

They conversed for a little while longer before saying goodbye.
Before leaving, Hursey asked Abernathy to deliver a message for him: “Tell everyone back home hello for me and that I’ll be seeing them soon.”

“Sure thing,” Abernathy said.

The two men hugged, and as Abernathy drove away he saw Hursey smiling at him in his rear view mirror, waving goodbye.

This would be the last time they spoke.

February 27, 1963, eight o’clock in the evening

A KC-135A Stratotanker roared down the runway for takeoff. Almost immediately, everyone working on the flightline knew something was amiss.

Airman 1st Class William Elliot was one of those Airmen. Elliot noticed the KC-135’s wingtip through his shop’s windows, and became “sick to his stomach,” because aircraft were normally well airborne by then. The KC-135A lost an engine after takeoff, and moments later Elliot heard the crash. The phones rang immediately.

Abernathy, who was driving through North Pole, remembers the details vividly.

“It lit the sky completely up, a giant fireball. It was scary and I didn’t realize a plane had crashed until I got back to Eielson.” The chaos and confusion only multiplied when Abernathy arrived back on base, where they’d already diverted traffic on the highway. “People were screaming and going crazy. There were airplane parts everywhere.”

Back on the flightline, Elliot was told to deliver portable lights and heaters to the crash site, and he quickly responded, arriving at the wreckage soon thereafter.

All Elliot could see was debris, “an engine and a large piece of a wing section.” And then he walked over to the main gate and noticed the “red brick, wood and glass structure was gone.” This was the same guard hut that Hursey was manning when he said his unknowing goodbye to Abernathy over an hour ago. The only thing remaining was, “a foot tall stump of a wooden telephone pole.” Everything else was gone, including Hursey.

Hursey’s hometown of Star, North Carolina, a town of around 750 people, was shocked when they heard about his passing.

“There were a lot of folks from his school that weren’t even in his grade that showed up to the funeral,” said Gary Mabe, a Star resident who went to high school a few years behind Hursey. “We were astonished to find he had been killed while he was on guard duty.”

Mabe shared more details about Hursey’s life before the Air Force, filling in the otherwise scant details about the type of person he was.

“Roy Lee walked two miles to and from school every day, but sometimes my father and I would stop and give him a lift.” Hursey was also an athlete who was known for staying out of trouble. “He was an excellent baseball player. He played infield in high school and was a good hitter, and I don’t ever recall hearing anything negative in regards to Roy Lee. He was someone who I looked up to growing up.”

In the days following the mishap, the Airmen of Eielson scoured the frozen ground, searching for any human remains of the departed. But there was nothing to be found because of the wintery conditions.

It wasn’t until springtime that the majority of the remains were found. The snow had melted by then and the Airmen were told “to look where the large black raven birds were scavenging.”

All told, nine Airmen lost their lives that night. All seven of the flight crew perished and two Airmen on the ground, to include Airman Second Class Martin Jones who was struck by aircraft debris while driving his vehicle.

We have the time-honored tradition of naming our installations, forward operating bases, and gates after memorable Airmen, many of whom lost their lives in the line of duty. The only way to keep the flame of their memories alive, lest they be extinguished for eternity, is to learn about them.

And now, whenever I drive out the front gate in the evening, I can picture Hursey and Abernathy standing outside on that frosty night all those decades ago, their smoky breaths puffing towards the still sky like two stovepipes. Men in their early 20’s with their whole lives ahead of them, only for one to be lost too soon.