Revelations, grievances of a Vietnam War spy
James Parker, the last CIA officer to evacuate after the April 30, 1975 fall of Saigon, tells his secret side of a war he reckons history will eventually look kindly upon
When the US-Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer’s two best military sources committed suicide. At the same time, an American diplomat endangered the lives of escaping staff and CIA personnel, according to James Parker, the last CIA officer to evacuate Vietnam, in an interview.
“As for my experiences back in Vietnam at the end, the absolute chicken shit character of the men in the US Embassy in Saigon, how they were so petty and self-indulgent, so pedantic and so distant from the fighting,” contributed to the US war’s failure and chaotic end, Parker said. He was evacuated on May 1, 1975, two days after the US abandoned its Saigon embassy.
“Their pusillanimity disrespected the men, American and Asian, I had known who died fighting the good fight,” he said. “I’m speaking about all the Americans at the US 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,” said Parker, who now lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, after working at the CIA for 32 years, starting in 1970. Parker has authored several books about his CIA combat experiences in Southeast Asia, including his latest 706-page volume entitled, “The Vietnam War Its Ownself.”
The book’s blurb promotes the story of one man who came early and stayed late. On April 23, 1975, one week before communist North Vietnam achieved victory over US-backed South Vietnam, the evacuation plan for the consulate in Can Tho city, where Parker was based at the time, degenerated into chaos, he claims.
“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, Parker said in the interview, declining to reveal Jim D’s surname. But Can Tho Consul-General Terry McNamara demanded the consulate evacuate by boat down the Bassac River, a 60-mile route to the South China Sea.
According to Parker, McNamara did not trust the CIA’s reliable battle-hardened Air America pilots would fly them to a waiting US Navy ship. Jim D rebelled, replying: “I have my people to protect, and I have [Air America] helicopters. My people go out by helicopter.” Parker’s and his CIA colleagues’ escape was also “at extreme risk with McNamara’s plan,” he said.
“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 airport) while refusing to allow the base to evacuate its more vulnerable KIP,” Parker claimed, referring to the CIA’s Key Indigenous Personnel.
“He must have known his plan would leave CIA agents behind. And I don’t think he cared,” Parker said in the interview.
Parker, Jim D and others eventually arranged Air America helicopter flights to US Navy ships for themselves, the consulate, embassy and CIA colleagues, plus more than 100 KIP during the final 48 hours before Saigon fell to communist troops.
Parker 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.
The next year he became a CIA intelligence officer in South Vietnam handling Vietnamese agents in the Mekong River Delta and liaising with South Vietnam’s military.
One week before the war’s end, Parker’s best South Vietnamese source, General 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 Parker, he said.
Both CIA seniors insisted North Vietnam would allow Saigon and the southern Delta to remain separate under US protection after a last minute cease-fire, he said. On May 1, 1975, General 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,” Parker wrote in his book.
“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,” Parker said in the interview. In addition to the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit, Parker received a Certificate of Distinction and two Certificates of Exceptional Service over a 32-year career.
Hours after North Vietnam’s April 30 victory, South Vietnamese General Le Van Hung — Parker’s other best CIA source and also “my friend” — said he would commit an “honorable” suicide. General 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,” Parker wrote.
One month earlier, off Danang’s coast, violence erupted among evacuees aboard a US ship, the Pioneer Contender, chartered to the Military Sealift Command and mastered by Marine Captain Ed Flink. Flink was evacuating Americans and thousands of South Vietnamese civilians when Danang fell to the communists at the end of March. But some US-backed South Vietnamese Rangers also climbed aboard.
Parker wrote about meeting Captain Flink aboard his ship during the war’s final hours after 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,” Flink, a World War II veteran, told 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, 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. 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,” Parker wrote. “History will look kindly on our good intentions to save a country from being overrun by an aggressive neighbor.”
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist, reporting news from Asia since 1978