Stephen F. Mason was quintessentially American.
The son of a World War II veteran, he was born in Peoria, Illinois in 1946 and had a typical upbringing of his time and place.
An avid churchgoer with his parents and younger sister, Mindy, he graduated college with high honors, began his dream job as a school teacher, and intended to eventually go to graduate school.
It was 1969, and nearly 500,000 of Mason’s countrymen were fighting half a world away in Vietnam. Unlike his father’s war, Vietnam was already a lengthier conflict waged in more nebulous circumstances, all while a polarized civilian population at home watched on television. Nonetheless, Mason enlisted.
“His draft number was seven,” recalled Mindy Mason. “He felt like he had to enlist to do what he wanted to do.”
What he wanted to do was study meteorology, and in May 1970 now-Spc. Mason arrived at Yuma Proving Ground. Though civilian workers outnumbered uniformed personnel then, they did not do so at the dramatic rate they do today. In those days, the majority of the test officers were company-grade officers and the crew chiefs were non-commissioned officers. Since military conscription didn’t cease until 1973, many of the troops at the proving ground during Mason’s tour here were draftees. As such, the post closely resembled a typical Army garrison, albeit on a smaller scale. At that time, YPG had a 15 bed hospital staffed with four uniformed physicians, including cardiac and internal medicine specialists, as well as a surgeon. The post dentist held the rank of lieutenant colonel, and the post meteorology team was comprised of dozens of uniformed personnel using mechanical or analog equipment.
Even then, YPG’s primary mission was the test and evaluation of artillery. However, the proving ground was just beginning another major activity, testing and integrating weapon systems into helicopters. The AH-56 Cheyenne was the Army’s first attempt to build a dedicated attack helicopter, a need that was ultimately filled by the iconic Apache.
Though the Cheyenne was never fielded, its testing at YPG resulted in a significant influx of aviation testers from Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground and the construction of expensive and sophisticated infrastructure like runways, and laser and optical tracking sites that in upgraded form continue to support manned and unmanned aviation testing to this day. The Cheyenne test drew a number of high profile visitors, including astronaut Neil Armstrong in 1971.
It was in this environment that Mason worked, and he quickly made a mark on the tight-knit post. After duty hours he was a Sunday School teacher at the post chapel and taught part-time at James D. Price Elementary School.
“He liked being outside and he liked being a teacher, passing on whatever knowledge he had,” recalled Mindy Mason. “He was very ethical and always interested in the community and civic-minded things.”
With his buddy Paul Stone he also served as an assistant Boy Scout troop leader.
“He and my brother were good friends who met here,” said Mason. “They took some boys from the scout troop here to the High Sierras outside Bishop, Calif.”
That was in the summer of 1971. By fall, scientists from several California colleges and universities involved in Operation Foggy Cloud, an effort that tested fog-dispersing measures to help aircraft land safely, were conducting experiments at an airport near Humboldt State University. Soliciting meteorology team help from YPG, Mason took on the challenge and spent several weeks on temporary duty there. On November 1st, Mason and another test worker were holding a tethered weather balloon when an unexpected wind gust carried the balloon a mile downwind into a high voltage power line. Mason’s metallic tether electrocuted him. He was 24 years old.
Mason was so highly regarded among the youth of the post that the following summer YPG’s command allowed the local Boy and Girl Scouts to build a park on the installation and name it in Mason’s memory. YPG commander Col. Norman Robertson and other local dignitaries joined the youngsters in hosting the Mason family for a dedication on August 10, 1972. Mason’s parents, sister, and aunts were in attendance.
“It was a really nice dedication,” recalled Mason. “The Scouts were here and the commander spoke. It was an honor to get a tour and meet the commander.”
Mindy Mason was 16 years old at the time, and hadn’t returned to YPG since until recent years, when she paid a reflective visit to the park on Howard Cantonment Area named for her late brother so many years ago. She also toured YPG’s Heritage Center and the offices of YPG’s Meteorology Team, which have been located in the same building since the 1950s.