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In the spring of 1919, just six months after the end of the Great War in Europe, America was still in a celebratory mood. The United States’ entry into the war two years earlier had helped the allies defeat Germany, and even President Wilson had declared that this would be the “war to end all wars”.

Those, however, born in the spring of 1919, the men and women who would become part of “The Greatest Generation”, came to understand how misguided and optimistic those words had been. Many who were born that year would fight on the battlefields of Europe or on islands in the Pacific, some would work lonely hours in factories and on farms, while others toiled long hours in laboratories, all doing their part to win the war and reclaim a life of peace and prosperity.

George Mason was born that spring, in the town of Rocky Hill Connecticut, just outside Hartford. His father did actuarial work for the Travelers Insurance Company and his mother was home raising George and his sister Rhoda, five years his senior.

Growing up on the banks of the Connecticut River, exposed George to what would become a lifelong passion for boating and sailing. One of his most cherished childhood memories, however, was not on the water, but in the air.

The Day George Saw Lindbergh

In May of 1927, Charles Lindbergh made his historic non-stop flight from Roosevelt Field in Garden City, New York, to Le Bourget Field in Paris. The admiration Lindbergh received was unprecedented, and included parades across America celebrating his momentous accomplishment. In June of 1927, one of those parades was held in nearby Hartford and George was there with his father and sister.

It was on that day, after seeing Lindberg in the parade that George’s father, carried away in the moment, decided the three of them should experience flight firsthand; a truly rare event for that time.

“My father was full of enthusiasm for aviation and thought it was wonderful and so forth, so after the parade, we drove down to Brainard Field. There was a bunch of, what they called barn-stormers down there…so my father and I said ‘well let’s do it”. My father and sister and I were in the front cockpit and [the pilot] was in the back cockpit flying the plane and we take off, fly around and land and think we’re having a wonderful time. By the time we get back home, we’re dying to tell my mother what a wonderful adventure it was. When she heard what we had to say, she was ready to kill my father. She said, ‘You risked my children’s lives. Don’t ever do it again!”

George’s youth included winning the local spelling bee four times (they would not permit him to compete a fifth year) and playing viola and violin in the high school orchestra that included an opportunity to play at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. George likes to tell people, “I got to play at the Met but never made it to Carnegie Hall.”

At the age of eighteen, after a childhood filled with fun and adventure, George left Rocky Hill to study physics at the prestigious Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Upon graduation in 1941, the prospects of the United States entering the new war in Europe and Asia were undeniable. George thought this might be the perfect time for an adventure.

Setting Out On an Adventure

“I thought if I get a job I’m going to be drafted anyway so why the hell should I get a job. So I went on a hitchhiking tour [and] spent the summer of 1941 wandering around the U.S.”

In Detroit, George began to run out of money and plans to avoid employment were put on hold. He worked first as a machine operator and then a truck driver, eventually leading him to Jamestown, North Dakota. Hearing there was an opportunity to help with the wheat harvest west of there, he made his way to Conrad, Montana. Unfortunately, by the time he got there, the wheat had been harvested and he was once again, low on funds.

“I was really getting desperate so I thought I [have] to get back to Detroit and get me another [driving job]. So I went out on the road and hung out my thumb for a while and nothing happened. This was wartime, gas rationing… so I hopped on a railroad… There was a whole bunch of hobos, I was just one of many who had the same idea and we kind of huddled together to keep warm….Finally in Dickinson, North Dakota, where the railroad runs right beside the highway, I got off the train. God, I’d had enough of this; I’m going back on the road.”

George was able to get back on the road for a few more weeks, but during a stopover in Detroit, his father reached him with unexpected news. He had been accepted to Dartmouth College’s graduate program and would earn his master’s degree while teaching in their lab.

The War Years

During George’s two years at Dartmouth, the war on the high seas was heating up. The German “Wolfpacks” were harassing U.S. ship convoys loaded with supplies for Europe, while in the Pacific, it was the U.S. who was on the hunt. With a fleet of aging subs, some a quarter century old, America’s strategy in the Pacific would depend largely on building new submarines with the latest sonar technology. Armed with a new master’s degree in physics, George Mason was about to help the navy do just that, working first as a civilian contractor and then joining the Navy.

“People with physics degrees were very much in demand in those days. I got an offer from Washington, DC to work for the Navy. In 1943, I went to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory [where] they assigned me to the sonar division… Our concern was developing large flawless crystals for piezoelectric transducers. I pretty much went through the war doing that.”

Moving to Denver

With the conclusion of the war in 1945, George was ready to move on. A colleague of his mentioned that Denver might be a great place.

“He said, ‘you know, if you’re going to live somewhere you ought to go and have a look at Denver, cause it’s a really a dynamic, growing place.’ And boy was he right.”

After just a few months in the mile high city, a friend wanted to have a dinner in honor of George’s birthday and told George he knew a couple of girls to invite. On George’s 27th birthday, he met his future wife, Grace. The two would be together for the next sixty years.

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George and Grace Mason celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in 1996.

 

While his initial job in Denver, working for the Gates Rubber Company, lasted only three years, his next career move would prove significant. George began working for the original University of Denver Research Institute. The institute, at that time, carried out research for various government projects and George began working on incendiary ammunition for the U.S. Air Force. It wasn’t long, however, until world events would involve George in a legendary project, known as Operation Ivy.

Operation Ivy

In 1949, President Truman announced that the Soviets had conducted their first tests of a nuclear device. There was much debate at the time among leading scholars and politicians on how the U.S. should respond. Many scientists questioned the development of the much more powerful hydrogen bomb, believing it could trigger an explosion of unlimited magnitude.

Refusing to let the Soviets get ahead of the U.S., on March 10, 1950, President Truman directed the Atomic Energy Commission to pursue development of what was called, the “Super Bomb”.

“For [one] phase of this operation…they had hired a bunch of engineers from the Denver University, and I was one of those…We went to Boston for training in cryogenics for a while at MIT. After three months of training in Boston…we came to Boulder for another three months or so, [to get experience using the] hydrogen liquefier at the Bureau of Standards.”

“In August of 1952, we went overseas with this group to Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands….We lived on the main Eniwetok Island and we had a Butler hut type thing, aluminum housing, no windows, it was always warm…My particular job was tending to the liquid nitrogen supply in the [ H-bomb] device.“

“I was evacuated from Eniwetok a day or two before the [scheduled detonation of the device] on a ship called the Glenn Curtiss. They told us we were 35-36 miles from the explosion [and] ‘Do not look at this thing without the dark glasses.’ We heard two different sounds. We heard the direct sound coming to us and then there was another refracted sound… [producing] two distinct booms. The heat was basically like a huge blast furnace in your face.”

“It was a very impressive thing and I went away from there thinking, God I hope they never use this.”


The video above, produced by the government, describes Operation Ivy, including the cryogenic portion of the operation.

Research for the Space Program

After Operation Ivy, George returned to the Denver Research Institute and eventually began working on projects that were directly related to the space program. At the time, there was considerable interest in the effects of the solar wind on the Earth’s magnetic field, and it was imperative to learn as much as possible during the lead up and commencement of manned space flight.

“[I] eventually went to work on a fairly long term project, geomagnetic micropulsations. The Earth’s magnetic field is not static, it varies from time to time, and the Air Force was thinking, where is this taking place, what’s causing it, and all that sort of thing.”

“We had recording stations in Huancayo, Peru …Point Barrow, Alaska…and then we had a station on Mount Evans. So we had high latitude, mid latitude and equatorial. There was nothing much going on at the equator, a little going on in Denver and a lot going on at Point Barrow.”

Today, there is great concern about the effects of large solar flares on the earth and the research into geomagnetic micropulsations continues. The important research carried out by George Mason and the rest of the team years ago continues to be relevant today, as evidenced by a recent citation of George’s work in a study done in 2007.

Looking for New Opportunities

As with any government funded project, priorities change and budgets are cut. In 1974, at the age of 55, George was out of work and looking for new opportunities. Although he had worked on some of the nation’s most important projects, he faced the same difficulty finding work at that age as many of his contemporaries.

“If you want to feel frustration, try hunting for a job when you’re 55.”

Eventually, George went to work as a manufacture’s representative selling electronic components and computer peripherals throughout the Rocky Mountain region. He continued selling until his retirement in 1980. Now it was time to have fun!

Retirement At Last!

“Then in 1980, my wife and I decided we wanted to go to California…we bought a place in Carlsbad and we lived there for 25 years. The thing I liked about where we were in California is it had the maritime climate, the ocean, mild climate all year long and I could live a mile or two inland, keep a sailboat at Oceanside Harbor and garden and get stuff to eat from the yard year round…what could be better!”

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George aboard his sailboat at Oceanside Harbor (2000)

 

“Any afternoon I wanted to, I could go sailing…I was mostly a day sailor, never did much overnight sailing but we sailed up to Dana Point a few times and down to San Diego a few times…Most of my activity on the water was with the Coast Guard Auxiliary. I taught [several] boat safety and navigation classes…”

When asked if he pretty much spent retirement doing what he loved, George replied,“Doing pretty much what I damn pleased. That, after all is what I had been working for. I’m saying to myself, I got to go through this now, but later on I’m going to do what I want to do.”

In 2005, George lost his beloved wife Grace and decided to return to Colorado to be close with his family. George and Grace had raised three children, daughter Georgia, and sons Allen and Robert. Each of his children went on to follow in their father’s footsteps, either teaching or working in very technical fields. George is also a proud grandfather of three.

Now that George is closing in on 96 years, he’s slowing down, but still keeps an active schedule visiting with family and friends, listening to jazz, watching DVDs and reading. On the top of his list of favorite books is, One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson.

What a wonderful summer 1927 was for George Mason!