[Editor’s Note: This is the third 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.]
Because darkness closed in quickly, RT Delaware’s launch into Cambodia was delayed until the following day. During the morning pre-mission briefing, Shorten was told that the first F-4, code-named Cobra-83, reported that Cobra-84 crashed into the first hill with a huge fireball and explosion; it skipped across a second hill and came to rest on the third hill. Armed with that information, One-Zero Shorten boarded the first Huey with three Montagnard team members, and the newly-minted One-One Homer Hungerford and two Montagnards, and they climbed into the second chopper and headed toward Cambodia. In the distance, the weather looked “a bit stormy” but the helicopters climbed to approximately 4,000 feet and headed toward the northern portion of Cambodia and the crash location.
During those long helicopter rides west over the beautiful, dark emerald-green jungle below, Shorten’s mind turned back to prior insertions when bullets began tearing through the thin, aluminum helicopter skin. “It’s a pretty scary situation,” he said years later, with the memories still etched deeply into his mind. “You don’t know if the helicopter’s going to explode or if the pilot’s going to take a round and lose control and crash. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
His reverie ended when the pilot told him, “Carrot, we’re descending. Get ready to unload.” Moments later, the Huey was approaching the LZ. As the chopper descended into Cambodia, Shorten could see the complex of trails that made up the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and within seconds he could see the bridge the Air Force jets were trying to bomb. The next visual jarred Shorten: “I could see the burned out path from where the jet hit the first hill.”
However, the chopper could not land. Helicopter crew members rolled out an aluminum ladder for Shorten and his three team members to climb down onto the target. They quickly discovered that there was soot everywhere. With soot getting into their eyes, the quartet of recon men move off to the side of the hill as the second chopper hovered, stirring up more soot and creating a swirl of ashes around the men on the ground, as well as those climbing down the ladder.
During such insertions, Shorten was aware of another personal, physical problem: his ears were somewhat clogged from the helicopters climbing to such a high altitude before descending quickly onto the target to avoid enemy gunfire. In addition, as he sat on the ground, sticks and debris fell on him and Shorten wasn’t sure if the noise he heard was from branches and sticks falling or if the noise was people walking around—in this case, it would be communist N. Vietnamese soldiers, or local indigenous people forced to work with the NVA.
Finally, Hungerford and the last two Montagnard team members were on the ground as much of the soot began to settle. As the choppers left, Shorten regrouped the team with hand signals while radioing Covey (the FAC) to ensure that the A-1 Skyraiders and Cobra gunships were standing by if needed. RT Delaware moved downhill, following the flight path on the first hill the damaged jet hit before bouncing on to a second and third hill. There was no sight of a jet or downed pilots—only burnt out jungle.
Running point, Shorten lead the team into the first saddle and about 25 meters in front of him he saw a huge building made of bamboo standing five feet off of the ground, in the traditional Montagnard custom. Next to it was a graveyard, approximately 25 by 25 feet and over the entrance was a big communist star. Next to the cemetery, Shorten spotted bunkers and quickly realized that RT Delaware had entered an enemy village and that “the jet crashed through it,” wreaking havoc and sudden devastation upon the village.
As RT Delaware began to ascend the next hill, Shorten looked to his right, where, with each step, it became clear that there was a large field, probably used for a truck parking area along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or an NVA parade ground. Within a few more steps, while still looking to his right, Shorten saw three enemy soldiers looking at him with their heads peering over some bushes. One had a weapon. Shorten couldn’t observe the other soldiers’ hands.
He quickly told his team, “Don’t shoot.” He figured that if these enemy soldiers were going to fire on his team, they would have done so already. Shorten signaled the team to continue to move forward up the second hill, where one of the RT Delaware Montagnards found a boot with a foot in it. It was a jungle boot which later turned out to be a foot of an NVA soldier, not an American. Shorten deduced: “When the jet crashed, it literally took out a few enemy soldiers with it.”
As the team cautiously moved up the second hill and Shorten began to worry that the NVA might be trying to hatch a plan to take the Americans as prisoners and simply kill off the RT Delaware Montagnards. As the team continued moving they began to find debris from the jet: parts of the fuselage, parts of the wings, parts of an ejection seat, or at least what Shorten thought appeared to be an ejection seat. When they arrived at the crest of the second hill, Shorten noticed 10 by 10 squares of cleared ground where the crashing jet had wiped out several enemy hootches. The enemy hootches that weren’t destroyed were empty. Outside of the jet’s crash path, Shorten marveled at how the enemy had woven bamboo and jungle vegetation to cover the surviving hootches, thus making them invisible from the air. As the team neared the top of the second hill, they could see the two jet engines from Cobra-84, which broke loose from the fuselage when the F-4 struck the first hill. The engines’ momentum carried them over the second hit as they traveled about 800 meters before coming to rest at the bottom of the third hill.
Then, just as Shorten heard what he thought might be enemy trucks moving on another branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail about 200 meters to his left, a Cobra gun ship roared over the team and let loose with 2.75 rockets and 20 mm fire into enemy armored cars, trucks and troops. Startled, he radioed Covey: “What the hell is going on!?”
“You’re being chased by a large number of enemy soldiers with trucks and armored cars. And be advised: the weather is closing in, we’ve got about 30 minutes of fuel left and we’re running out of ammo. We’ve got to get you out of there!” Covey estimated that approximately 150-250 NVA were heading straight for RT Delaware.
Frustrated with the unexpected turn of events, Shorten told Covey, “I can see the jet. It’s another 300 meters away. But I can’t get to it that fast!”
Covey responded quickly and with increased urgency in his voice, “If we don’t get you out of there, we’re going to have to leave you there and pick you up in the morning.”
[Part 4: Shorten and RT Delaware have hundreds of NVA moving and bad weather closing in on them and the third and final hill is 300-plus meters away.]
Image provided by James Shorten.