[Editor’s Note: This is the sixth 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 after the F-4D crashed May 14, 1970.
Read here: part one, part two, part three, part four and part five.]
Normally, when the First Sergeant of the top-secret MACV-SOG compound in Kontum stopped by to chat with SOG Recon Team Delaware One-Zero Shorten, it was work related, either telling him to report to S-3 for a new mission, a Bright Light, or some base security issues. He never stopped by to simply chat. So when the First Sergeant walked in, Shorten braced himself for another assignment.
Instead, the First Sergeant started the conversation with a question: “Do you like to teach?” Being a true Special Forces trooper, Shorten quickly answered “yes.” He didn’t hesitate. Then the First Sergeant got to the point quickly: “Would you like to teach (special operations) tactics at B-53,” at what was called The One-Zero School. During 1968, SOG Recon Teams had taken such a beating in missions across the fence into Laos and Cambodia that SOG brass put together The One-Zero School concept in an effort to provide special training for the Special Forces men assigned to SOG; SOG missions were like no other SF missions in Green Beret history. Shorten didn’t hesitate. He took his recon experience to Long Thành and trained SOG SF personnel in map reading, infiltration and extraction methods, while sharing hard-learned lessons with students who asked questions about survival in the deadly Nickel Steel (N. Vietnam), Prairie Fire (Laos), and Daniel Boone (Cambodia) Areas of Operation – target areas that would make SOG the highest casualty rate of the Vietnam War, exceeding 100 percent casualties resulting from Green Berets killed in action, captured and/or wounded in action more than once.
His tour of duty in S. Vietnam ended in January 1971. Shorten returned to the U.S., got married, joined the 12th Special Forces Group (Reserve) and worked in law enforcement. Divorced and bored, Shorten got an inter-service transfer to the Air Force, where he successfully completed Pararescue (PJ) training in both conventional and unconventional combat rescue operations where they work as independent teams or alongside other U.S. Special Operations troops. “I loved being a PJ,” Shorten said. “The jump missions were the best. We had one mission where we flew for 1,200 miles. They had to refuel three times one way. We parachuted down into the Pacific Ocean, aided and prepared the sick seaman. Then we hoisted him up to our chopper, where I prepped him for surgery when we landed … I received compliments from the surgeon on my pre-surgery prep.”
By 1984, Shorten had chalked up 20 years of military service between the Navy, Special Forces and the Air Force. An injury essentially ended his tenure in the U.S. military and he went to college first pursing a chiropractic degree, before spending three years in a Residency for Radiology. There, he found a knack for reading x-rays. All of that lead to him building an MRI and Diagnostic center in Arizona while building a reputation as a doctor who could be trusted to provide accurate reports on x-ray findings.
Yet, through all those years, Shorten was “haunted” by the memory of the May 1970 Bright Light mission into Cambodia to find, identify and recover the two Air Force officers from the F-4D Phantom jet, code-named Cobra 84, that crashed in northern Cambodia. “It stuck with me over all those years because we failed to complete our mission, plain and simple,” Shorten said.
By 2002, 32 years later, Shorten was bored and decided to take an initiative with his own time and money — $35,000 to be exact — to “go back to Cambodia and walk through the jungle and look for Cobra 84’s crew members: Air Force 1st Lt. Eric James Huberth and Capt. Alan Robert Trent.”
On Feb. 20, 2002, Shorten landed in Phnom Penh, met with Matthew Short and his father Harlow, a former teammate of Shorten’s at ODA-502, 5th Special Forces Group, Vietnam. They had served together before Shorten volunteered to run recon at CCC in Kontum. The following day, they met with JTF-FA joint recovery teams for briefings on attempts to locate Cobra 84. The first time the U.S. recovery teams were on the ground in Cambodia they were “shot out of the area” by heavily armed bandits or Vietnamese rebels. In 1993, the joint recovery team went back to the crash site and recovered crew-related items, but found no trace of their bodies. The recovery team told Shorten that they had conducted a thorough investigation, digging a few inches down through the surface, in a 200-meter circle entering on the resting place of Cobra 84. One day, the recovery team was on the ground for 10 hours. Shorten was impressed with the recovery team’s efforts and dedication to the mission.
Thus, Shorten hoped to get to the site and search beyond the 200-meter circle and along the side of the hill leading to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an area he was intimately familiar with from his time on the ground there with RT Delaware. Over the next few days, Shorten met a Cambodian Ranger, who told him that the crash site area and some of the trails between Ban Lung, Cambodia and the crash site, were still populated by armed and dangerous men. Then the Ranger told Shorten the harsh facts of attempting this mission: the crash site was approximately 64 miles away as the crow flies, through heavy, mountainous terrain that had many patches of thick bamboo which further impeded traveling in that area.
After a false start, he hired five other Rangers and moved out. They spent 23 days hiking approximately 100 miles to the crash site. On the last day, Shorten’s crew of men were walking on a road that turned out to be a portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail – the part of the trail where, 32 years earlier, NVA soldiers arrived in armored cars and trucks hunting for RT Delaware. Shorten found remnants of the bridge that Cobra 84 was seeking to destroy. As Shorten explored the area, he found a communications bunker that still had commo wires and a few antennae inside, minus any radios.
As he explored the area that he thought was a truck park in 1970, he determined that it was actually a parade field for enemy soldiers receiving awards and decorations and for regrouping the troops for manhunts, like the NVA conducted against RT Delaware.
“I had a metal detector with us, but it went off constantly due to the rounds of ammo and shell casings in the area from the heavy firefight we (RT Delaware) had with the NVA and the debris from the jet,” Shorten said. They searched the entire hill and all around the top of it, as well as the enemy encampment, which was a Binh Tram – an enemy communications site, often commanded by a full colonel. Each Binh Tram was a specially tailored regiment assigned to specific lengths of the Ho Chi Minh trail, usually 15- to 20-mile segments. Binh Tram teams, often using conscripted indigenous personnel, repaired trail damage and worked hard to keep trucks, supplies and armed soldiers moving south. Each Binh Tram also provided temporary shelters for troops passing through their base camps and hospitals. They maintained a 500-man infantry battalion to combat SOG recon teams and hatchet forces. By 1968, the NVA also had sapper teams trained for one mission along the Ho Chi Minh Trail: kill the SOG Green Berets who ran missions in Laos and Cambodia. All totaled, U.S. intelligence estimated that there were 12-15 Binh Trams operating along the trail.
Shorten and his small team also learned first hand about how the jungle decayed and mulched. Everything they found was underneath five to six inches of surface vegetation, plants and vine growth, which increased the difficulty in digging for any evidence of the crash or clues that might lead them to the pilots’ remains.
On the second day, Shorten’s team found the jet location. It was obvious that scroungers and those salvaging metal had come from Vietnam and picked up the metal from any crashed jet or helicopter. There wasn’t much left of the jet, just a few extremely heavy pieces of metal that were not of much value, either monetarily or evidentiary.
On the second night, a team of renegade police/army groups came down to the site and held everyone at gunpoint. They wanted to know why Shorten and his team of Cambodian Rangers were there. Fortunately for Shorten, the Ranger he had hired – who must remain unnamed for his safety, was the son of one of the province chiefs in that area. After some heated discussions, the renegades backed down, but told Shorten and his team: Get out, or die. For a few seconds, Shorten wished he had RT Delaware with him, instead of Cambodian Rangers and the unarmed Matt Short. RT Delaware would have conducted gene pool cleansing by wiping out those bandits in a few blinding seconds.
Instead, Shorten and his Rangers left the target area the next day, eventually returning to Ban Lung, and the former RT Delaware One-Zero returned from his follow-up Bright Light mission again empty-handed, with the exception of small pieces of the F-4D jet that were presented to the families to help with their closure.
He was extremely frustrated and $35,000 poorer, spent from his own personal funds to bankroll this mission. He felt no closure. “At times, it seems like it was all a dream, but the images of the crash site and flashbacks from the horrific firefight with NVA troops constantly visited my mind. Many nights I’m still in the battle, seeing the enemy coming through the bushes to killed us. I still see the F-4D jet sitting on its side in the jungle as I flew from that battle, dangling perilously from ropes hanging under the Huey helicopters that extracted RT Delaware from hell’s fury in the Daniel Boone target area.”
Years later, those images still haunt Shorten because, in his mind, the Bright Light mission is still incomplete. “First Lieutenant Eric James Huberth and Capt. Alan Robert Trent are still not home and are still listed as ‘missing in action.’ The chances of finding their remains or what happened to them are key facts to this emotional puzzle locked in the minds of the NVA troops who were there at the site in May 1970. Are any of them still alive? If I could find someone who was there, someone who knew the story of the pilots’ fate, only then will the mission come to an end,” Shorten told himself while flying back to the quiet and comparatively safe United States of America.
But, again, Shorten had one thought: “I felt as though I’ve failed the crew of Cobra 84 and their families.”
[Part 7: One more chance]
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.