[Editor’s Note: This is the second 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 and he hopes to return to there in 2018 to help DPAA officials locate and return two Air Force pilots he and his recon team tried to find in 1970. The pilots are among the 1,602 MIAs in Southeast Asia (SEA) today. In the eight-year secret war fought by SOG Green Berets during the Vietnam War across the fence in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam from 1964-1972, no mission was more dangerous than a Bright Light mission. Heavily-armed SOG recon teams were sent in to find downed pilots, relieve recon teams surrounded by enemy troops or to recover the dead and wounded. The Green Berets carried no food and only one canteen of water. The rest of their load consisted of weapons, ammunition, hand grenades, bandages and sometimes body bags.]
Two weeks after Shorten led a successful three-man SOG Bright Light mission into Laos to find and return a SOG Montagnard soldier killed in the line of duty, the first sergeant at the top-secret SOG compound in Kontum, Command and Control Central (CCC) asked the RT Delaware One-Zero if his team was ready for another Bright Light mission, this time in Cambodia to locate and return two Air Force F-4 Phantom jet pilots downed by enemy fire in Cambodia—code-named Salem House. Shorten remembers the first sergeant saying: “‘We have a jet crash. The Air Force is going in to try and recover the pilots, but they are not succeeding due to heavy enemy forces’” in the target area.
Within a short time, RT Delaware was packed up and flown to the CCC launch site at Dak To. In between Bright Light missions and intensive training with the team, Shorten added a new member to the team, Green Beret Homer “Pops” Hungerford, who had combat experience in WWII and the Korean War before joining Special Forces and volunteering for SOG duty—which brought him to Kontum. “Homer had extensive combat experience,” Shorten said. “Even though he was in his early 40s, I was willing to roll the dice with him because combat experience was an invaluable asset to any recon team when we went across the fence into Prairie Fire (Laos) or Salem House (Cambodia) targets… he turned out to be a fearless recon man and a great asset to our team.”
As soon as the team landed at Dak To, Shorten was briefed on the Bright Light mission: The Air Force F-4 crashed with two pilots in it, into a mountain while making a bombing run on a bridge in Cambodia that was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail Complex—a series of roads and paths, many hidden from aerial observation by clever use of vegetation in the triple-canopy jungle, where enemy soldiers and local forced labor personnel pulled branched together above the routes, sometimes hiding portions of the trail that were so wide, tanks could drive side by side down them.
1957 communist forces began reopening the Ho Chi Minh Trail that was used to bring supplies and troops south from Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor during the French Indochina War, which ended in May 1954 with the fall of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. While communist propagandists publicly lied saying the local Viet Cong were the only resistance rising up against the imperialist Yankee aggressors in S. Vietnam, by 1970 thousands of men and women were working to keep the trail open, always expanding its network of branches to assist the southern movement of more than 200,000 communist NVA troops that year, along with thousands of tons of supplies for them. In addition, there was an intense build-up of Russian- and China-made anti-aircraft weaponry including artillery that exploded in mid-air bursts, similar to the ack-ack German defensive units used during WWII to shoot down hundreds of American and British bombers.
Shorten was told that the first Air Force F-4, code-named Cobra 83, made a pass on the bridge. However, his bombs landed long, past the bridge, exploding on a nearby hillside. Cobra 84 then made a pass and was about drop its bombs when all of a sudden it dipped down and hit the hilltop. “We were told it skipped across two hilltops first before it crash landed on the side of a third hill,” Shorten told SOFREP. “The FAC reported that there was a huge ball of fire when it crashed into the hill. Due to the 500 to 1,000 enemy forces in the immediate crash-site area, the Air Force was unable to get in to evaluate the situation.” Shorten learned that the two-seater F-4 had two Air Force pilots in it.
[Part 3: Tomorrow Shorten and RT Delaware will run another Bright Light mission into the NVA stronghold on the mission that has haunted him since 1970.]
Featured image provided by Mr. Shorten.