A CIA Evacuation from Vietnam: Suicides, Executions & Risk
A CIA Evacuation from Vietnam: Suicides, Executions & Risk
By Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- When the U.S.-Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975, a Central Intelligence Agency officer's two best military sources committed suicide and an American diplomat endangered the lives of escaping staff and CIA personnel, according to James Parker the last CIA officer to evacuate Vietnam.
Earlier, off the coast of Danang, South Vietnamese who evacuated onto a U.S. ship shot, stabbed, raped, trampled and executed each other during onboard revenge attacks and panic, Mr. Parker, 73, said.
"As for my experiences back in Vietnam at the end, the absolute chickenshit character of the men in the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, how they were so petty and self-indulgent, so pedantic and so distant from the fighting," contributed to the U.S. war's failure and chaotic end, Mr. Parker said in an interview.
"Their pusillanimity disrespected the men, American and Asian, I had known who died fighting the good fight. "I'm speaking about all the Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, though this does not include the Americans from the CIA that had retreated from positions in the northern provinces [of South Vietnam] down to the embassy, as the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) moved south.
"The State Department people were not folks to look up to in a combat zone." Mr. Parker now lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, after working at the CIA for 32 years, starting in 1970.
He authored several books about his CIA combat experiences here in Southeast Asia, including his newest volume published in 2016 titled, "The Vietnam War: Its Ownself".
The 706-page book includes biographical and often bloody details. It displays photographs of CIA officers, Hmong and Vietnamese soldiers, maps, bomb sites, dead bodies and one nude Lao bar girl. On April 23, 1975, one week before communist North Vietnam achieved victory over U.S.-backed South Vietnam, the "evacuation plan for the consulate" in Can Tho city where Mr. Parker was based, degenerated into chaos.
"Jim D., a career Central Intelligence Operations officer and chief of the CIA base in the Delta of South Vietnam" insisted the safest, most reliable evacuation would be in helicopters, Mr. Parker said in the interview, declining to reveal Jim D.'s surname.
But Can Tho Consul-General Terry McNamara demanded: "This consulate goes out by boat down the Bassac River. Period. End of discussion."
Mr. McNamara did not trust the CIA's reliable battle-hardened Air America pilots would fly them to a waiting U.S. Navy ship.
"They could leave us all here. They are wild, uncontrollable animals, the Air America people. We control our own destiny if we go out by boat" on the 60-mile river route to the South China Sea, Mr. McNamara yelled.
Jim D. rebelled and replied: "I have my people to protect, and I have [Air America] helicopters. My people go out by helicopter."
Mr. Parker's and his CIA colleagues' escape was also "at extreme risk with McNamara's plan," he said in the interview.
During his CIA paramilitary experience in Laos and South Vietnam, Mr. Parker enjoyed extensive links with Air America. "Mr. McNamara's plan did not provide for the safety of the CIA officers," he wrote.
"We had no cover. If we were captured by the North Vietnamese, as was entirely possible, McNamara suggested we tell them that we were USAID engineers, which would not have held up during any type of serious interrogation."
"Everyone in the consulate knew that McNamara had facilitated the evacuation of his Cambodian in-laws, plus cooks and drivers and others of questionable eligibility through Tan Son Nhut (Saigon's international airport) while refusing to allow the base to evacuate its more vulnerable KIP," Mr. Parker said, referring to the CIA's Key Indigenous Personnel.
Mr. McNamara, his diplomatic staff and some South Vietnamese went on boats down the "extremely dangerous" river.
"He must have known his plan would leave CIA agents behind. And I don't think he cared," Mr. Parker said in the interview.
Mr. Parker, Jim D. and others eventually arranged Air America helicopter flights to U.S. Navy ships for themselves, the consulate, embassy and CIA colleagues, plus more than 100 KIP during the final 48 hours.
One week before the war's end, Mr. Parker's best South Vietnamese source Gen. Tran Van Hai had predicted the April 30 deadline of North Vietnam's victory over Saigon.
But Saigon's CIA Station Chief Tom Polgar and CIA head analyst Frank Snepp refused to believe Mr. Parker.
Both CIA seniors insisted North Vietnam would allow Saigon and the southern Delta to remain separate under U.S. protection after a last minute cease-fire, he said.
On May 1, 1975, Gen. Hai was found dead. "General Hai lay face down at his desk. Alone during the night, without saying good-bye to anyone, he had committed suicide. A half-empty glass of brandy, laced with poison, was near an outstretched hand," Mr. Parker wrote.
"That report Hai gave me [predicting] the day Saigon would fall to the NVA...that intel probably had a bearing on my receipt of the [CIA's] Intelligence Medal," Mr. Parker said in the interview.
Hours after North Vietnam's April 30 victory, South Vietnamese Gen. Le Van Hung -- Mr. Parker's other best CIA source and also "my friend" -- said he would commit an "honorable" suicide.
Gen. Hung saluted his troops "and then shook each man's hand. He asked everyone to leave. Some of his men did not move, so he pushed them out the door, shook off his wife's final pleas, and finally was alone in his office.
"Within moments there was a loud shot. General Hung was dead," he wrote. One month earlier off Danang's coast, violence among evacuees erupted aboard a U.S. ship, the Pioneer Contender, chartered to the Military Sealift Command and mastered by Merchant Marine Capt. Ed Flink.
Capt. Flink was evacuating Americans and thousands of South Vietnamese civilians when Danang fell to the communists at the end of March.
But some U.S.-backed South Vietnamese Rangers also climbed aboard. Mr. Parker wrote about meeting Capt. Flink aboard his ship during the war's final hours after Mr. Parker's KIP were transferred there.
"The Vietnamese Rangers...took over my ship. Killed, raped, robbed. You could hear gunshots all the time. Soldiers were walking around with bloody knives," Capt. Flink, a World War II veteran, told Mr. Parker.
"We had to lock ourselves in the pilot house. I only had a crew of forty plus some security, but there were thousands of those wild, crazy Vietnamese people.
"They finally shot some of the worst, once we docked...but I'll tell you, son, it was hell. We found bodies all over the ship after everyone got off. Babies, old women, young boys. Cut, shot, and trampled to death."
Asked about the bloodshed, Mr. Parker said in the interview: "It was Vietnamese officials who shot the rioters."
South Vietnamese marines shot dead about 25 people they claimed were communist Viet Cong suspects, an Associated Press reporter aboard the ship reported on March 31, 1975.
Capt. Flink later told interviewers that Vietnamese conducted onboard "kangaroo courts" and executed suspected communists. One month later on May 1, "Standing on the bridge of the Pioneer Contender and looking back at Vietnam, I suddenly sensed -- in a startling moment of clarity -- that even though we had lost, we had done right by coming here to fight this war," Mr. Parker wrote. "History will look kindly on our good intentions to save a country from being overrun by an aggressive neighbor."
Mr. Parker was the last CIA officer to evacuate Vietnam, escaping on May 1, 1975, two days after the U.S. abandoned its Saigon embassy. He joined the CIA as a contract employee in 1970 and, in 1971, became a paramilitary case officer fighting alongside ethnic Hmong guerrillas and Thailand's forces against Lao and North Vietnamese communists inside Laos until 1973.
In 1974, he became a CIA intelligence officer in South Vietnam handling Vietnamese agents in the Mekong River Delta and liaising with South Vietnam's military.
After the war, he returned to headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and in 1976 became a staff espionage officer doing "CIA Directorate of Operations work as a spy recruiter and handler...around the world" -- starting with three years based in West Africa during the Angola war.
He retired in 1992 but on Sept. 11, 2001, returned to the CIA as a contractor to "teach tradecraft to new hires" and work inside Cambodia, Afghanistan and elsewhere before retiring again in 2011. In addition to the CIA's Intelligence Medal of Merit, he received a Certificate of Distinction and two Certificates of Exceptional Service.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978. He received a master's degree from Columbia University's Journalism School and also won Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter about "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest Virtual Reality novel titled, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo," is an immersive three-dimensional, one-hour experience using Oculus Rift technology.
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