[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.