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The Multi-Talented Jason Stone's One-of-a-Kind Vietnam War Tour of Duty

I can tell you exactly when the Vietnam War started,” said Jason Stone, looking meaningfully across a plate of enchiladas in a Tucson restaurant.

“It was February 7, 1965. I was in my barracks in Japan, listening to Armed Forces Radio, and the announcer came on and said that dependents were being evacuated after an officers' compound in Saigon was attacked. Up to that point, people actually wanted to be posted there—you could take your wife and kids, hire someone to cook and clean for fifteen bucks a month, live in a beautiful place. After that, no.”

At the time, Stone was a firefighter in the Air Force stationed at Misawa Air Force Base. He’d enlisted in 1963, a 17-year-old kid straight out of high school in Indiana. His older brother told him to take the opportunity to learn a trade in the service, so he asked to be trained as a jet aircraft mechanic.

“They said okay, and they wrote that down,” he said. “Then they said, ‘What else?’ ” Stone thought for a moment and replied, “ ‘A prop mechanic.’ That is all I wanted to be, a mechanic, though I didn’t even have a driver’s license. Then they said, ‘All right, but we’ve got to put a third choice down.’ I didn’t know what to say, so they wrote down firetruck driver. Next thing I know, after Basic, I’m in firefighter school in the middle of the summer in Mississippi.”

Which is how Jason Stone found himself stationed in Japan serving in a firefighting unit. He rotated back to the States after a couple of years, assigned to an Air National Guard base in Duluth, Minnesota. He trained in a new specialization, moving from crash rescue to air rescue, joining a small, elite force of airborne firefighters and medics who searched for downed airmen and took them to safety.

“I was about to get out,” Stone said. “I had a job lined up at Lockheed, working on a crash crew in Georgia. I had a girlfriend, and we were planning to get married. But then an officer called me in and said, ‘You’re in what we call a critical career field now.’ That meant they could add a year to my enlistment, some caveat on my contract about serving at the convenience of the government. They did, and the next thing I knew I was in Vietnam.”

Stone arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base just in time for the 1968 Tet Offensive. “It was pretty hairy,” he said. “We were losing four helicopters a day, and we chased around picking up a lot of downed pilots. So one day we were on a rescue mission where a South Vietnamese C-47 crashed. There were three survivors. There was room in the rescue chopper for them and a medic, but the rest of us had to wait on the ground until they could come back.

“It was not long before the VC arrived, and we got into a firefight. All of a sudden, these two Army gunships came tearing over the tree line, dropped down, shot the place up, and took us aboard. I asked one of the pilots who they were, and he said they were called the Razorbacks Armed Helicopters.”

A mobile attack unit, the Razorbacks specialized in lightning-fast strikes that involved no small amount of hairiness themselves. Stone came to know that all too well when he returned to air rescue headquarters and got on the radio to the Razorbacks to thank them. The man on the other end of the wire was the commanding officer, Chadwick Payne (1937–2008), a legendary warrior who invited Stone over for coffee the next morning.

“Chad was a major, I was an airman,” Stone said. “I was Air Force, he was Army. But we became friends, and on my days off I would go out on missions with them as an observer—and sometimes as an extra gunner. I would have been court-martialed if my bosses found out, but they didn’t. In that firefight, as I was lying in a rice paddy alongside a berm, the thought came to me that if I were killed, my parents wouldn’t get the insurance policy the Air Force had on me, since I was breaking regulations.”

On another mission, an Army gunship crashed in the middle of an NVA battalion. A second ship went down soon after. Then, with pilot Bill Stribling at the controls and Stone at the door, their Razorback ship, responding to a Mayday call from the first helicopter, was shot down as well.

“We set up a perimeter, and I was distracted by several upset bees flying around my head,” Stone wrote on razorbackgunships.com. “I said something to Bill, and he informed me that it wasn’t bees, but enemy bullets coming at us. They were so close to my ears that I could hear them buzzing as they went by.”

Payne came to the rescue, but not before another Army gunship went down as the stranded crew fired into the tree line. They got away, thanks to Payne and to the work of some Air Force F-100s from Bien Hoa Air Base, which pounded the site with napalm and 20mm cannon fire as Payne and Stribling’s rescued crew took off. They landed back at base, jumped into a fresh gunship, and went out on a night mission, all par for the course in that busiest of years.

Stone, working as an Air Force firefighter, at a crash site.

Memories Sitting Under The Bed  

In between Razorback missions, one of which saw a Huey gunship take thirty-seven hits, Stone spent time pursuing a hobby: photography. He’d bought a camera while in Japan and took hundreds of images of the Razorbacks in action, as well as the work of his own crew, which worked from a Kaman HH-43B Huskie rescue helicopter under the call sign Pedro.

“We were changing shifts one day, and we had a call come in that an Army Otter had landed in a minefield,” he said about one particularly striking photo he took. “It had engine difficulty and could not make it off the runway. A mine blew off part of the landing gear. The guys inside climbed on top, and I got a photo of our crew lifting them off. One guy is dangling from the hoist, and another guy is standing on top of the wing.”

“There’s something wonderful about saving lives,” Stone said. “But there’s something terrible about it too, the things you have to see while you’re doing it.”

After his tour ended, Jason Stone decided he wanted to do something very different, so he never did take that job at Lockheed. He married, unhappily—so much so that, after divorce, his ex-wife destroyed hundreds of photographs he had taken while in country.

He backpacked around India. Over the years, he worked construction, taught school in Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer, and started a contracting firm. Along the way, he made an hour-long documentary about the Razorbacks, The Shadows of Men, which can be seen on YouTube. He opened a bar near Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where he headed a country band that performed dozens of his own compositions, songs that he now records at a well-equipped film and audio studio that, while it is in his house in a remote corner of the desert, wouldn’t be out of place in Hollywood or Manhattan.

All the while, Stone kept up his interest in photography. One day, while working as a carpenter at Tucson’s Pima Community College, he happened to mention to a photography instructor that he still had thirty rolls of film from the Vietnam War that he had developed but never printed.

“She said, ‘Do you have contact sheets?’ ” Stone said. “I brought her contact sheets, and she said, ‘You know, you ought to do something like this,’ and she was picking pictures that I would never pick. She taught me that there was this unique perspective—she didn’t seem to think any picture was bad, and she had a certain eye.”

Stone built a home darkroom and made prints—and then put them away for a few years. “I had these all framed, and I didn’t know what to do with them,” he says. “I didn’t want those memories sitting under my bed.”

The instructor did not forget his work, though. She asked him to donate the prints to the college, and after he did, they went on display in a conference room used to counsel returning veterans.

“It wasn’t necessarily a good thing to have a reminder of horror sitting in the counseling room,” Stone said, so he suggested that they be taken down. As Covid waned, a curator at the college contacted Stone and asked him to exhibit his prints in a campus art gallery, a Welcome Home for the work at last.

“Jason Stone: Photography of the Vietnam War” premiered on September 27, and runs through January 26, 2024. More information can be found at: https://pima.edu/community/the-arts/news/index.html#desert-vista-art

A Razorback Armed Helicopter mission during Tet '68.




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