BANGKOK — Time has done little to dull the anger of James Parker, the last CIA officer to evacuate Vietnam, as the world this weekend marks the anniversary of the U.S. evacuation of the Saigon embassy just ahead of advancing North Vietnamese forces in 1975.
When South Vietnam’s capital fell, the intelligence officer’s two best military sources committed suicide and the actions of an American diplomat endangered the lives of escaping diplomats and CIA personnel, the 73-year-old Mr. Parker recalled in an interview. Off the coast of Danang, panicked South Vietnamese who evacuated onto a U.S. ship shot, stabbed, raped, trampled and executed each other during onboard revenge attacks.
But much of his anger targets Mr. Parker’s fellow Americans, as they stumbled through one of the low points of the postwar era in American history.
“As for my experiences back in Vietnam at the end, [I remember] the absolute chickens—t 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,” Mr. Parker said in an interview with the Washington Times, an attitude that he says contributed to the ignominious defeat.
“Their pusillanimity disrespected the men, American and Asian, I had known who died fighting the good fight,” he said. “… The State Department people were not folks to look up to in a combat zone.”
Mr. Parker now lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, after a 32-year career in the CIA starting in 1970. He has written several books about his experiences in Southeast Asia, including his newest volume published in 2016 titled, “The Vietnam War: Its Ownself.” The colorful, 706-page book includes photographs of CIA officers, Hmong and Vietnamese soldiers, maps of bomb sites, and pictures of dead bodies and one nude Lao bar girl.
His memories of the bitter end remain especially vivid. One week before the communist North defeated the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government, 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 full name. But Consul-General Terry McNamara did not trust the CIA’s battle-hardened Air America pilots would fly them to a waiting U.S. Navy ship.
Mr. McNamara yelled: “”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 a 60-mile Bassac River route to the South China Sea.
Jim D. 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 risk.
“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.”
Mr. McNamara, his diplomatic staff and some South Vietnamese nationals went on boats down the “extremely dangerous” river, Mr. Parker said in the interview. “He must have known his plan would leave CIA agents behind. And I don’t think he cared.”
The State Department eventually overruled Mr. McNamara and cleared an evacuation by air.
This allowed Mr. Parker, Jim D. and others to arrange Air America helicopter flights to U.S. Navy ships for themselves, the consulate, embassy and CIA, plus more than 100 CIA key local allies during the final 48 hours.
One week before the war’s end, Mr. Parker’s best South Vietnamese source, Gen. Tran Van Hai, predicted the April 30 deadline of North Vietnam’s victory. But Saigon’s CIA Station Chief Tom Polgar and CIA head analyst Frank Snepp refused to believe Mr. Parker.
They insisted North Vietnam would allow Saigon and the southern Delta to remain under U.S. protection after a 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” probably helped Mr. Parker win a top citation from his Langley bosses, the agent bitterly recalled in the interview.
Hours after Hanoi’s victory, South Vietnamese Gen. Le Van Hung — Mr. Parker’s other top intelligence source — 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.
There were other bitter memories in those final days. One month before the final defeat, Merchant Marine Capt. Ed Flink aboard the Pioneer Contender — a U.S. ship chartered to the Military Sealift Command — was evacuating Americans and thousands of South Vietnamese civilians from Danang when it fell to the communists. As the mission proceeded, however, some U.S.-backed South Vietnamese Rangers also climbed aboard.
“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 told Mr. Parker. “We had to lock ourselves in the pilot house. I only had a crew of 40 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.”
Mr. Parker said in the interview: “It was Vietnamese officials who shot the rioters.”
Capt. Flink later told interviewers Vietnamese conducted onboard “kangaroo courts” and executed suspected communists.
Mr. Parker was the last CIA officer to evacuate Vietnam, escaping on May 1, 1975, two days after the U.S. abandoned the Saigon embassy.
He joined the CIA in 1971 as 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 and South Vietnam’s military.
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.