Gemma Jablonski’s Jungle Combat: A Combat Pilot’s Tape Recorded Transcripts from Vietnam, 1968-1969 (299 pp. $27.99), paper; $15.99, Kindle) is a Vietnam War time capsule. That’s because it is not based on memory, but consists of a series of edited transcripts of tapes recorded by John Astle during his Vietnam War tour of duty in 1968-69. Jablonski, a long-time friend of Astle, transcribed the audio tapes.
John “Ace” Astle went to Vietnam as a Marine aviator. During his year flying helicopters he kept an audio diary on a small tape recorder, sending the tapes home on a regular basis. He also regularly received tapes from home. He recorded many of the tapes while he was in the latrine, which is why he told his family not to “try to read anything into the tone of my voice.”
The entries are arranged chronologically, running from June 1968 to June 1969 where they appropriately, and abruptly, end with the last tape.
Astle was stationed at Marble Mountain, part of the Da Nang complex, where he flew large CH-46s. When the young lieutenant first arrived there he heard were rumors of impending attacks by the Viet Cong. On a recording he made on his second day in-country he said: “One thing I will say about Vietnam is that I don’t think I’m going to like it very much and will probably be happy to end my tour and get back to the States.” Hearing the sounds of artillery fire in the distance, he said that it wouldn’t be long before he would begin flying “out into bad guy land.”
After Astle’s first few flights he reported that he was “kind of disappointed” that he didn’t get shot at. Later, I read his accounts of several several life-and-death adventures, I couldn’t help wondering why he was “writing” about such things home to his mother. Most of the participants in the war I know tried to keep their families in the dark about the day-to-day dangers they faced. Astle, on the other hand, seemed to have no desire to hold anything back.
He talks about a rocket attack on the base, a mortar attack, and about sixteen men who were lost in a helicopter crash. He talks more than once of having been in “a shit sandwich.” One time a bullet came into the cockpit. Another mission ended with twelve holes in the helicopter. And he talks of mid-air collisions. I can’t help but wonder how much additional stress was put on his family as they listened week-by-week to so many hair-raising stories.
The transcribed tapes do, however, make for an interesting, immensely readable book. Every veteran has a story and each deserves to be heard. This book has an easy, consistent flow, and the credit for that goes to Jablonski.
One thing that puzzled me was the more than three dozen instances in which this Marine aviator referred to his helicopter as an airplane. There may have been pilots who did that, but I think it would have been extremely unusual.
The book’s website is authorgemma.com/jungle-combat