[Editor’s Note: This is the fifth 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 one here, part two here, part three here and part four here.]
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 emerging from nearby bushes – their numbers seemed to increase, despite killing so many of the charging, screaming NVA soldiers as they awaited the second chopper’s arrival to pull out the remainder of the team.
As the horrific firefight raged on, the men of RT Delaware heard a loud BANG! At first, RT Delaware One-Zero James H. Shorten (Jones) feared that an RPG had struck the helicopter. But, this time it wasn’t gunfire or rocket-propelled grenades that made the loud noise.
The helicopter’s main 24-foot-long rotor blades hit a tree, and it descended downward toward the team, breaking off a portion of the blades, showering the team with chopper debris along with branches, leaves and sticks from the jungle vegetation. No one on the ground gave it a second thought. They were too busy shooting into the bushes where enemy soldiers were firing at them and the helicopter. How that Huey continued to hover and maneuver was an aviation miracle — ends of the main rotor blades were chopped off and somehow the pilot managed to keep it flying.
Regardless, bloodied and running low on ammo, the wounded SOG recon men finally reached the ladder, hooked on to it and continued to fire at the relentless onslaught of communist soldiers. Shorten climbed up the ladder and into the chopper as it lifted away, where he told the pilot, “Look down to your left at eight o’clock. You can see the patterns on the ground where the hootches were that the jets wiped out.”
As the ladder finally cleared the jungle canopy, Shorten looked back to the crash site. He could see the jet lying on its side and the realization hit him hard. He had to accept the bitter fact that he had not been able to recover the remains of either pilot. Out of the 43 missions that he ran in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during 19 months in country with Special Forces, “this was the only mission that I did not complete,” Shorten said, “and it set pretty heavily in my heart.”
The heavily damaged helicopter was able to fly back to the Dak To launch site, where Shorten and the team washed away the blood and tended to their shrapnel wounds. After cleaning up a little bit, RT Delaware walked back to inspect the Huey that pulled Shorten and three Montagnards out of the deadly LZ and out of Cambodia. Besides the damaged rotor blades, there were seven bullet holes in the chopper. The bullet holes were mainly located in the “peter pilot’s” side of the aircraft. Fortunately, no one on the chopper crew was injured.
RT Delaware then flew back to Command and Control Central, the top-secret MACV-SOG compound in Kon Tum. One-One Homer Hungerford took the Montagnards to the indigenous mess hall for chow while Shorten walked to the debriefing room, where he met the two pilots from Cobra 83. The airmen were standing, waiting, hoping to hear a bit of good news — anything about the men of Cobra 84, because they knew RT Delaware was on the ground and had walked the scorched earth where that F-4’s last flight ended so ingloriously and so tragically.
“It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do,” Shorten said. “I had to tell those guys that I couldn’t find anything of their two buddies. I was pretty sure they had been either killed in the crash, or captured, or died of wounds … Nonetheless, our failure to get to that aircraft, when we were so close to it, haunted me from that day forward.”
A couple of days later, the recon company first sergeant stopped by RT Delaware’s team room with a new mission.
[Part 6: New duty for Shorten]
Featured image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, from another, similar Combat SAR operation in Southeast Asia at the time.