Home History This Young Woman Was the First CIA Agent Killed in Vietnam

This Young Woman Was the First CIA Agent Killed in Vietnam

by Enochadmin

Barbara Annette Robbins checked her baggage on the United Airways desk, handed by way of the doorways and walked towards the airplane ready on the tarmac at Denver’s Stapleton airport in August 1964. In movie footage captured by her father, the younger lady in a easy pastel swimsuit turns and waves earlier than boarding the silver plane. He saved filming because the aircraft took off.

Three layovers later, Robbins touched down at Tan Son Nhut Air Base on the outskirts of Saigon and was keen to start her job combating communism. There can be no movie of her completely happy return house. Lower than a 12 months later Robbins grew to become the primary American lady and first CIA officer to die in Vietnam and stays the youngest CIA worker killed on obligation.

Shiny and Unconventional

Robbins was born on July 26, 1943, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Buford and Ruth Robbins. On the time, her father was stationed in World Struggle II’s Pacific theater loading ordnance onto Consolidated PBY-FA amphibious flying boat bombers. She grew up in Denver, with youthful brother Warren, in a three-bedroom ranch home within the West Colfax neighborhood. Her father was a butcher at King Sooper’s grocery retailer, and her mom labored within the complaints division at a window manufacturing facility.

Robbins’ dad and mom, Ruth and World Struggle II veteran Buford, get a household image with child Barbara.

At Thomas Jefferson Excessive College in southeast Denver, Robbins demanded loads from herself whereas additionally demanding she obtain correct credit score for her work. “I bear in mind she acquired a B+ in a single class and thought she deserved an A, and she or he went to her trainer and made her case,” Warren stated. “Her grade was modified.”

Robbins was decided to do effectively in highschool as a result of she had school in her sights, in contrast to lots of her friends. Lower than 40 % of girls graduated from school within the Nineteen Sixties.

Robbins was “a really vibrant little lady” and “unconventional,” remembers older cousin Dolores Schneider. Though the lady had a style for Dairy Queen vanilla ice cream cones, “she didn’t all the time wish to eat the ice cream, however she preferred the cones.” Robbins was all the time slightly unbiased, Schneider added. “She was like that as a lady, so naturally she grew as much as be that approach.”

Recruited By the CIA

After highschool Robbins enrolled at Colorado State College in Fort Collins to check French and study secretarial expertise. Whereas there, she was recruited by the CIA. The Robbins household wasn’t particularly political, however it was patriotic. Fourth of July meant giant prolonged household barbecues and parking alongside Interstate 25 to observe fireworks burst within the night time sky over Denver’s newly constructed McNichols Area.

This patriotism that had been imbued in Robbins impressed her to reply President John F. Kennedy’s name for People of all ages to ask themselves what they might do for his or her nation.

A couple of semesters earlier than finishing her diploma, Robbins instructed her household she was going to hitch the State Division and volunteered to serve in Vietnam. “I bear in mind a dialog about how she wished to struggle communism,” Warren stated. “That was her objective, and she or he was adamant about that.”

Addressing her father, Robbins even evoked the potential risk to the household’s house. “After they get to West Colfax, mister, you’ll want you’d completed one thing,” she stated.

Robbins hid the truth that the State Division job was only a cowl for her work with the CIA. She left school in 1963, with no diploma. Her dad and mom “have been nervous about her resolution to volunteer,” Schneider stated. “She wasn’t nervous in any respect.”

The household’s nervousness was comprehensible. In summer time 1959, six Viet Cong guerrillas had attacked a compound that housed eight American advisers with Army Help Advisory Group-Vietnam, in Bien Hoa, a couple of miles northeast of Saigon.

MAAG-V was fashioned on Nov. 1, 1955, to supervise a U.S. navy contingent that had been rising since President Harry S. Truman despatched the primary advisers to Vietnam in 1950 to assist colonial ruler France, which had been making an attempt for the reason that finish of World Struggle II to quell a communist takeover of Vietnam.

The Saigon station had a gap. Robbins volunteered. If she was going to make a distinction, she was going to do it the place it most counted.

The State of affairs In Vietnam

In Might 1954, communist-led Viet Minh independence fighters defeated French forces at Dien Bien Phu, a small village in northwestern Vietnam close to the Laotian border, bringing almost a century of French rule to an finish.

In July 1954, the Geneva Accords sliced Vietnam in half on the seventeenth parallel. Communists led by Ho Chi Minh ruled the North. The professional-Western authorities of the South was led by President Ngo Dinh Diem, buttressed by French and American assist. Tensions between the 2 sides quickly flared into violence.

The assault on the Bien Hoa MAAG-V compound occurred on July 8, 1959. Six of the American advisers have been within the mess corridor watching The Tattered Gown, a 1957 crime drama starring Jeff Chandler and Jeanne Crain. Simply as somebody flipped on the lights to alter the reel, Viet Cong attackers thrust their weapons by way of the open home windows and sprayed the room with automated fireplace. The VC killed two South Vietnamese guards and two People—Maj. Dale R. Buis, 37, and Grasp Sgt. Chester M. Ovnand, 44, the primary U.S. troops killed by enemy fireplace through the American struggle in Vietnam.


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The simmering battle in Vietnam had not but resonated with most People and even discovered its approach into U.S. navy school rooms. The eye of the nation’s main navy educators and strategists appeared to put elsewhere—particularly on how greatest to repel the hordes of Soviet troopers seemingly poised to troll by way of West Germany if the continued Chilly Struggle ever turned “sizzling.”

“There was zero consideration paid to Vietnam,” stated retired Col. Alan Phillips, a Silver Star recipient who graduated from West Level in 1959 and did excursions in 1963 and 1967. “We had half 1,000,000 troops stationed in Germany then, and there was nothing like counterinsurgency plans being developed or taught.”

Retaining The Secret

Throughout Robbins’ time at Colorado State, the scenario in Vietnam remained on the periphery. The peace motion didn’t absolutely attain the campus till 1968 when college students occupied the agricultural constructing. The Rocky Mountain Collegian, the scholar newspaper, centered on varied membership actions, visitor audio system and sporting occasions. After leaving the college, Robbins returned to her dad and mom’ home and packed for Washington whereas listening to Pat Boone on the file participant she had purchased together with her saved allowance.

Whereas her dad and mom believed she was working in a State Division constructing, Robbins spent 12 months as a trainee within the CIA’s Directorate of Plans, the forerunner of as we speak’s Nationwide Clandestine Service.

In late spring 1964, after the final of Washington’s famed cherry blossoms had fluttered to the bottom, an sudden alternative arrived. The Saigon station had a gap. Robbins instantly volunteered. If she was going to make a distinction, she was going to do it the place it most counted.

Earlier than she left for Vietnam that summer time, Robbins, her dad and mom and brother piled into the automotive and drove to the 4 Corners Monument in Monument Valley, Utah. A house film reveals the 4 skipping, dancing and smiling their approach across the steel marker on the level the place Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico contact.

Final Goodbye

Every week later the household returned to their house. Robbins stood in her bed room contemplating her garments. She laid out ethereal linen shifts and pastel fits, low-heeled pumps and some pairs of gloves. She packed pencils, pens and light-weight stationary. She was prepared for her journey to Vietnam.

On the drive to the airport together with her dad and mom and brother, bursts of quiet interrupted the chatter. Warren recalled it as “a pleasant day and simply form of thrilling, too, to see Barbara off.” Buford parked, popped open the trunk and lifted out Robbins’ suitcases. She headed for the United Airways desk.

The Brinks Resort Bombing on Christmas Eve 1964, which killed two People, was famous in certainly one of Robbins’ letters to her household.

After the arrival at Tan Son Nhut, Robbins, a leather-based purse in hand and wise pumps on her ft, boarded a bus. Rooster wire lined the home windows to guard in opposition to bomb blasts, and the seats reminded her of buses in elementary faculty. The bus took Robbins to the Astor Resort in downtown Saigon. She stayed there for per week after which moved into a totally furnished condominium, full with linens and maid service.

“There are lots of different People from the Embassy additionally residing right here so I really feel very protected,” she wrote to her household. “Safety-wise we do must watch out–however you’d by no means really feel that approach proper right here in Saigon if it weren’t for the Vietnamese police all around the metropolis.”

Over the subsequent 12 months Robbins despatched 30 letters house. She by no means wrote about how she typed top-secret CIA stories through the day. Her letters described looking the black marketplace for piasters (Vietnamese foreign money) and {dollars}, what girls wore, coaching her new canine “Captain” and occasional weekends in Nha Trang, a coastal metropolis about 200 miles north of Saigon with seashores and high quality French eating.

Now and again she nonchalantly talked about Buddhist protests within the sq. close to the Rex Resort in Saigon, bombings at varied cafes and combating on the outskirts of the town.

“You in all probability see extra of what’s occurring on tv than I’ll ever see right here,” she wrote, including that her household would examine curfews and Vietnamese college students marching in protest as if the “nation doesn’t have sufficient issues making an attempt to win in opposition to the VC.”

Hoping to bolster South Vietnam’s prospects for victory, U.S. navy personnel had jumped from 16,263 in 1963 to 23,310 in 1964, and by the top 1965 would attain 184,314.

The Christmas Bombing

Robbins took pains to distinction the struggle information introduced within the States with actuality on the bottom, whether or not within the portrayal of Saigon politics or every day risks American personnel confronted.

“We within the embassy have been in no hazard by any means,” Robbins wrote after a bomb exploded Aug. 25, 1964, on the fifth flooring of Saigon’s Caravelle Resort. It didn’t kill anybody, however a number of have been wounded. Reassuring her dad and mom, she remarked that the lodge’s rooftop was nonetheless in all probability the most secure place within the metropolis for dinner. Robbins wrote about assembly navy personnel who volunteered for service in Vietnam, the “very uncommon group” of helicopter pilots “you’re all the time studying and listening to about,” and the close-knit American neighborhood that got here collectively for dinners and dancing.

“Nicely, I used to be right here throughout a coup—or at the very least an tried one—it’s fairly busy within the embassy at a time like that,” she famous. Robbins talked about a navy parade on the anniversary of the profitable Nov. 2, 1963, coup that overthrew and assassinated Diem. Throughout “the night time of our occasion it was a 2 a.m. curfew as a substitute of 12 midnight and so we have been all outdoors and will hear the gunfire at Bien Hoa.”

In December 1964 Robbins marked her 9 months in-country with a renewed sense of objective. She meant to attend Christmas Eve Mass, however two males in a four-door sedan modified these plans. She defined: “I didn’t go to Xmas service as a result of the Brink’s BOQ [bachelor officers’ quarters housed in the Brinks Hotel] was simply bombed at 6 p.m. and it was all however inconceivable to get to church from the place I reside. I heard the explosion and at first thought it was thunder, however when the radio went off the air I knew it was an explosion and a big one. Not a really nice strategy to begin the vacation.”

Two Viet Cong had pushed a automotive with 200 kilos of explosives to the lodge, parked it and detonated the explosives. Two People—one navy, one civilian—have been killed, and dozens of People and South Vietnamese have been injured.

Killed Within the Embassy

With the arrival of the brand new 12 months, Robbins pushed by way of a quick bout of homesickness and immersed herself in her work. She thought-about extending her keep in Vietnam.

All of the whereas the scenario in Saigon grew more and more fraught. In February 1965, as situations deteriorated, dependents of American diplomats and navy personnel have been evacuated. Robbins’ letters grew to become extra severe.

She wrote: “Many demonstrations are backed and infiltrated by the VC. It’s form of like within the U.S. with the communists in among the golf equipment, societies, and so on. who’re influencing and persuading in a form of behind-the-scenes act. You don’t know who all of them are, and in order that makes it twice as tough to struggle them. Even then the American advisors are out within the discipline combating with the Military of the Vietnam North—they don’t know who the enemy is. Throughout the day he could also be a easy farmer along with his rice paddies and when the night time comes he’s the enemy.”

On the morning of March 30, 1965, Robbins sat at her steel desk on the second flooring of the U.S. Embassy on Pasteur Road. Gunfire erupted outdoors. In response to accounts of the incident, a automotive that sagged from being overloaded was parked too near the embassy.

A policeman ordered the motive force to go away, however the man refused. The officer fired on the automobile. All of the sudden a person on a scooter pulled up alongside the automotive and shot on the police officer.

President Lyndon B. Johnson despatched a telegram to Robbin’s dad and mom expressing his sympathy. Among the many different condolences was a telegram from Secretary of State Dean Rusk, as the federal government maintained her cowl.

Listening to the commotion outdoors their workplace, Robbins and different CIA secretaries scurried to the window. As Robbins acquired shut, 300 kilos of explosives within the automotive exploded. Within the blast, a bit of iron grating masking the home windows broke free, sailed by way of the air like a javelin and impaled the 21-year-old CIA worker, killing her as she seemed out the window.

Exterior, firemen sprinted towards the constructing, ambulances screeched to a cease, and extra photographs rang by way of the air. A younger American lady, blood streaming from her ear, stumbled round dazed. On the sidewalk, shattered glass sparkled in rivulets of blood. A person on a stretcher held a cigarette between nicotine-stained fingers.

It was probably the most brazen assault in opposition to American pursuits in South Vietnam so far. The bomb killed 21 folks—Robbins, Petty Officer 2nd Class Manolito Castillo, a Filipino serving within the U.S. Navy, and 19 South Vietnamese. Moreover, 183 have been wounded.

Viet Cong Arrested

The South Vietnamese police arrested one of many males concerned within the bombing, Nguyen Van Hai, and took him to a neighborhood hospital. Hai admitted he was with the Viet Cong, and a navy tribunal sentenced him to demise. In retaliation, the North Vietnamese introduced they’d execute Gustav Hertz, a 46-year-old American support mission officer they’d taken hostage.

On the urging of the U.S. authorities, the South Vietnamese didn’t execute Hai. Nor was Hertz executed, though he died of malaria in 1967 whereas in captivity.

On Might 25, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed laws appropriating $1 million to construct a brand new embassy compound on a safer website. Johnson wouldn’t but assist navy leaders’ push for retaliatory raids on North Vietnam however vowed that “the Saigon bombing fires our will to struggle on.”

Robbins’ dad and mom turned on the night information simply as stories have been being aired a couple of bombing on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Buford phoned a contact on the State Division to study extra. An hour later, Warren got here house and realized by the look on his dad and mom’ faces that one thing severe had occurred.

Round midnight Warren closed his bed room door and tried to sleep. Two hours later, Buford known as the household’s pastor and requested him to maintain them firm whereas they waited for information. At 4 a.m. there was a knock on the door. Opening it, Buford and Ruth noticed a State Division official standing on the stoop. They crumpled. Their daughter was useless.

Robbins’ coffin is transported to Chapel Hill Cemetery outdoors Denver on Sunday, April 4, 1965. About 325 relations, pals and neighbors attended the companies. On April 3, a service honoring Robbins and a sailor killed within the blast was held in Saigon.

In Saigon, on Thursday, April 1, a South Vietnamese and an American honor guard stood at consideration throughout a brief ceremony on the American chapel at Tan Son Nhut. Appearing U.S. Ambassador U. Alexis Johnson, whose face had been reduce within the blast, stared on the caskets holding Robbins and Castillo. Assistant Prime Minister of South Vietnam Tran Van Do pinned the Vietnamese medal of gallantry on the flag-draped coffins.

After the aircraft bearing Robbins’ physique touched down at Stapleton, her dad and mom and brother drove to the funeral house. A State Division official escorting the 21-year-old’s stays met the household there and gently defined that one of many handles on the coffin broke in transit. He requested Ruth if she wished to see her daughter. She shook her head. Buford and Warren additionally declined.

Touring To Washington

After finalizing the funeral preparations, the three drove house to find native and nationwide press camped throughout the road. For the subsequent three days Buford and Ruth remained cloistered inside their house, leaving Warren, now 18, to run the occasional errand and convey within the mail. Among the many many condolences have been telegrams from Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk.

Three days in a while April 4, 1965, the funeral procession wended its strategy to Chapel Hill Cemetery on the outskirts of Denver. On the grave, Ruth, sporting sun shades and a white hat, pressed her white-gloved arms to her mouth. Buford, in a black swimsuit, bowed his head.

That Sunday, the College Hills Lutheran Church devoted its service to Robbins. State Division co-workers, family and friends donated an illuminated cross that was affixed to the wall behind the altar.

Weeks later, Buford, Ruth and Warren traveled to Washington. The household had realized solely just lately that their daughter labored for the CIA, not the State Division. Since Robbins was stationed contained in the U.S. Embassy, Rusk wished to satisfy her household.

He introduced the dad and mom with an engraved plaque: “Barbara A. Robbins (Posthumous) Who gave her life for her nation on the American Embassy, Saigon, Viet-Nam, On March 30, 1965.” Rusk and the household then moved to the eating room for a meal of lamb chops and apple pie with cheddar cheese on high. “It wasn’t a miserable factor,” Warren stated. “It was good for my dad and mom.”

The CIA’s Memorial Wall

Thirty years later, on June 1, 1995, the Robbins household returned to the nation’s capital to attend a non-public service in honor of their daughter, who had a memorial star carved into the CIA’s Memorial Wall, which acknowledges company workers who died in service to their nation. However Robbins’ identify was not within the accompanying E-book of Honor that lists fallen CIA officers.

Warren stated a CIA official instructed the household that Robbins’ identify was not listed for what the company termed “cowl issues,” a sign that some associated paperwork had not been declassified but. Buford wished to see his daughter’s identify inscribed, however he died in 1998. Robbins’ identify wasn’t listed till 2011. By then, Warren’s mom had died. He was the one one alive for the ceremony, held within the company’s corridor on Might 23, 2011.

CIA Director Leon Panetta stated: “To today, Barbara is the youngest officer memorialized on our Wall. She was the primary American lady to die in Vietnam and the primary lady in our Company’s historical past to make the last word sacrifice. 9 girls since then have fallen in service to our mission. Right this moment we bear in mind all of them, with nice love and admiration.”

In 1974, the CIA devoted a Memorial Wall at its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to honor fallen workers with a star carved right into a marble wall. Initially proposed to acknowledge CIA officers killed in Vietnam and Laos, the idea was expanded to honor all who died within the line of obligation. The preliminary stars represented 31 members killed for the reason that company’s founding in 1947. Right this moment there are 139 stars.

Displayed with the wall is a “E-book of Honor,” containing the names of these memorialized with a star. Some stars don’t have corresponding names within the ebook as a result of they continue to be labeled even in demise to guard intelligence sources and strategies.

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