Barbara A. Robbins joined the CIA 50 years ago this summer, but just two years later – in March 1965 – she was killed when terrorists bombed the U.S. Embassy in South Vietnam. She was the first female CIA officer to die in the line of duty and she remains the youngest ever, at just 21-years old.
Barbara was born in South Dakota in 1944. She spent her early years in Iowa and California, and later moved to Colorado, where her father worked as a butcher and her mother was a homemaker. Like many young Americans at the time, she enjoyed bowling and was part of her high school’s bowling club. She attended church every Sunday and was close to her family, including her brother, Warren.
Making A Difference
Barbara joined the Agency because she was eager to serve an organization that would open its doors to the world. After completing a two-year program in Secretarial Studies at Colorado State University, she joined the CIA in July 1963. She worked in the CIA’s Directorate of Plans (forerunner of today’s National Clandestine Service), where she served as a secretary-stenographer.
Before joining the CIA, Barbara had never left the United States, but less than a year into her tenure, she volunteered when an opportunity to work in Saigon presented itself. Like many CIA officers at the time, Barbara wanted to make a difference in the fight against communism and she saw the war in Vietnam as an opportunity to do her part. The CIA’s Saigon Station had become the largest and busiest CIA station, providing around-the-clock intelligence to U.S. policymakers about the war. Once in station, Barbara managed employees’ time cards and performed other critical secretarial duties, including typing important intelligence reports.
March 30, 1965
Media reports in the U.S. frequently highlighted the increasingly violent situation in Saigon, and Barbara sent letters home to her parents telling them not to worry and reassuring them that she was not in any danger.
But, eight months after she arrived in Saigon, the Viet Cong had taken aim at the U.S. Embassy. On the morning of March 30, 1965, Barbara heard loud gunfire from outside the window. She rushed to the window to see that the shots had come from a policeman trying to stop a vehicle, which had come too close to the embassy. When the policeman opened fire on the vehicle, another man on a scooter drove up next to the vehicle and shot the policeman. A 300-pound bomb inside the vehicle then exploded, throwing back the observers at the windows. The force of the blast also threw window glass, air conditioners, and iron window grates, which ultimately killed Barbara, another American and several Vietnamese.
Book of Honor
Beneath the 133 stars carved into the Memorial Wall at the CIA is the Book of Honor, which lists 98 names of CIA officers killed serving their country. Due to cover concerns, Barbara’s name was not listed in the Book of Honor for nearly 50 years.
Every spring, family members of our Memorial Stars are invited to attend a private memorial service, in which all of the fallen officer’s names are read aloud. At the 2011 Memorial Service, when her name was finally publicly acknowledged, then-Director Leon Panetta said, “To this day, Barbara is the youngest officer memorialized on our Wall. She was the first American woman to die in Vietnam and the first woman in our Agency’s history to make the ultimate sacrifice. Nine women since then have fallen in service to our mission. Today we remember them all, with great love and great admiration.”