[Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of exclusive SOFREP stories of what led to the MACV-SOG Bright Light mission that haunts SOG Green Beret SSG James H. Shorten (Jones) to this day. It has taken him back to Cambodia twice and he hopes to return to Cambodia in 2018 to help DPAA officials locate and return two Air Force pilots he and his recon team tried to find in 1970.
Read part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here.]
With 300-plus communist NVA troops driving toward RT Delaware, the weather closing in on the team and the tactical close air support units on station were running low on fuel, ammunition and rockets; One-Zero James H. Shorten (Jones) agonized as he looked toward the third hill where the Air Force F-4 jet came to rest. It was 300 meters away, and Shorten wanted to find the bodies of the two pilots who were in the fated jet before returning to base empty-handed.
Shorten reviewed his limited amount of options, realizing that if he decided to stay on the ground in Cambodia, it would only be a matter of time before the NVA troops overran his seven-man SOG RT Delaware team. To this day, Shorten remembers standing near the top of the second hill that the crashing F-4 jet had blazed across before hitting the third hill, looking toward the burnt framework of the twisted, supersonic Air Force jet: “I will never forget that sight,” Shorten told SOFREP.
As the One-Zero, team leader, “I had to think of my men first. I knew the pilots had either been captured or were dead and I was certain they would not still be in the jet, not with that many enemy troops around.” And he knew that those enemy troops and local, indigenous people conscripted into forced labor by the NVA, who harbored heightened hatred for the airmen due to the number of people and hootches destroyed by the crashing, burning Phantom aircraft.
In between air strikes, Shorten told Hungerford to take three Montagnard troops with him and go through the village to see if they could find any signs of the American airmen or any intelligence on the NVA troops at that location. As soon as Shorten observed Hungerford returning to his location, he called Covey asking for an extraction. The WWII veteran came back with enemy supplies, used bandages, empty medicine bottles, a shirt with a Viet Minh medal pinned to it, some pith helmets and an NVA officer’s belt. But nothing that offered any clues as to the whereabouts of the two missing airmen of Cobra 84.
As they reviewed the enemy materials, the first helicopter began descending toward RT Delaware. Simultaneously, NVA soldiers crashed through the bushes toward the seven-man team, yelling and screaming. The SOG recon men returned fire, including deadly accurate M-79 40 mm rounds. Shorten radioed Covey: “Have the runners shoot 360 around our perimeter. Then I need to have the Cobra gunships and A-1 Skyraiders strafing both sides of the helicopter, as it approaches our team.”
Again, the terrain and jungle had no open area large enough to handle a helicopter landing near the team, so the chopper crew chief rolled the aluminum ladder out of the chopper as the pilot brought it to a hover above the team. As soon as the ladder was within reach, Hungerford and two Montagnard team mates jumped onto the ladder and hooked themselves onto it, facing out toward the enemy in order to return hostile fire toward the NVA soldiers as the helicopter lifted them out of the jungle, as both door gunners on the Huey leaned out returning their M-60 machine guns into the massing NVA troops.
Relentlessly, the NVA soldiers pushed through the bushes, firing AK-47s, SKSs and B-40 Rocket-Propelled Grenades toward the remaining quartet of RT Delaware. As the team mowed down as many emerging NVA troops as possible, the Montagnards wisely concentrated heavy gunfire into the bushes where the heaviest enemy troop elements were gathering to rush the team. Before the next helicopter moved the team, Shorten directed danger-close gun runs by A-1 Skyraiders and Cobra gun ships. By now, Shorten and every fellow team member was bleeding from wounds as a result of flying debris from the close gun runs and shrapnel from the RPGs.
As the second helicopter approached the team’s location, with ladders hanging from each side of it, the chopper door gunners leaned out with their M-60s firing relentlessly into the NVA troops, while the quartet of RT Delaware recon men blasted away toward the enemy. Then the SOG recon men heard a loud, rapid BANG! BANG! This time it wasn’t gunfire — the helicopter’s blades hit a tree as it descended downward toward the team.
[Part 5: Shorten and the mission continues]
Featured image provided by James Shorten.