SIOUX CITY | Barbara Robbins died in a bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon 50 years ago, just 22 days after the first U.S. combat units landed in Vietnam.
Robbins was the first American woman killed in Vietnam and the first woman killed in the line of duty while working for the Central Intelligence Agency. At 21, she remains the youngest CIA employee ever killed.
She came from Sioux City.
And that's where we begin today, a Sioux City Journal series that highlights 50 Vietnam veterans over the next 50 days. From now until Veterans Day, you'll meet grandfathers and sons, laborers and executives, career military types and those who landed in the jungles of Southeast Asia despite their best efforts to steer clear: Fifty Vietnam veterans, their stories of service and sacrifice, one each day for seven weeks.
The series culminates with an exhibit at Sioux City's Betty Strong Encounter Center and a related program on Nov. 8, three days before the series' conclusion on Veterans Day.
Although the first U.S. combat units arrived in Vietnam on March 8, 1965, military efforts there began taking shape a decade earlier, if not before. The first American killed in combat died Dec. 22, 1961.
By the time the last American G.I.s evacuated Saigon in 1975, more than 58,000 American soldiers had been killed, more than 303,000 wounded in action.
The conflict, which aimed to stop the spread of communism, divided the U.S. domestically like no other fight since the Civil War.
Some wounds remain, be they lost limbs or limps, or memories that Marines, soldiers and sailors wish not to revisit.
We're visiting with many who wish to over the next seven weeks, giving them a chance to detail their service, share experiences and let readers see how their work and that of our military shaped them as young people and our country, or world, as we know it.
It is there we pick up the story of Barbara Robbins, a 21-year-old out to change the world by fighting communism in 1965, a challenge she found while working for the Central Intelligence Agency at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
Robbins, who was born in Vermillion, S.D., spent a portion of her childhood in Sioux City, residing with her parents, Buford and Ruth Robbins, on Cecilia Street. Her father, a U.S. Navy veteran who logged time during World War II in the South Pacific, was a native of Castana, Iowa, who found work as a meat cutter in Sioux City.
"Barbara was a very bright, independent little girl," said Sioux Cityan Delores Schneider, a cousin of Robbins. "She had a very bad accident when she was 5. A car hit her and dragged her several feet. She had several skin-grafting operations."
Warren Robbins, 69, was born in Sioux City. Barbara's younger brother, he remembers her being in a Sioux City hospital for a couple of weeks.
Barbara Robbins attended Joy Elementary School until the family moved to Colorado in 1952.
"My mom was from South Dakota. She didn't like Iowa at all," Warren Robbins said from his home in Aurora, Colorado. "She thought the family would do better in Denver."
Barbara graduated from high school in Denver and matriculated to Colorado State University. She was recruited by the CIA during college and went to Washington, D.C., to start work with the agency in 1963, as a secretary.
"Then, she volunteered to go to Vietnam," Warren said.
Various accounts note how Barbara Robbins did secretarial work, typed reports filed by officers, and more.
"She was 10 years younger than me and very bright," Schneider said. "She had studied French, maybe that had something to do with it."
One account said Barbara told her father she wanted to fight the spread of communism and that was that.
Warren Robbins said that was likely the case, if that's how her father related it later in life. His older sister was also adventurous and responsible.
Her life ended seven months into her assignment in Saigon, on March 30, 1965. Barbara Robbins heard a commotion outside the American Embassy. She went to an office window to see what was transpiring on the street as shots rang out. Just then, a small vehicle containing 300 pounds of explosives detonated.
The force of the blast killed two Americans, including Robbins, as well as several Vietnamese, and injured more than 100 others.
"The memory is like yesterday," Warren Robbins said. "I got home that night about 10 o'clock and my mother was crying, which wasn't that unusual, as she always got emotional about anything happening in Saigon."
The family knew of the bombing but didn't know the fate of their daughter and sister. The official word of her death came four hours later.
"My dad walked into my bedroom at 2 a.m. and told me what happened," Warren said. "Then he called our minister and the minister came over."
A CIA official also stopped by the family home. News of Barbara Robbins' death spread across the world, leading newscasts and headlining newspapers from New York to Los Angeles, Sioux City included.
Delores Schneider and her husband, Phillip Schneider, grabbed Delores' sister, Mary Miller, and the trio headed west to attend the funeral, which was held on April 3, 1965. Barbara Robbins was buried in Chapel Hill Cemetery, near Denver. Her parents were buried next to her, years later.
"My parents were never the same," Warren said.
The tragic loss forced Buford Robbins into action two years later when Warren Robbins, a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant, received orders to Da Nang, Vietnam.
Buford Robbins had lost one child in Vietnam. He wasn't about to lose another. He called the Pentagon and then the White House.
"He reached Sargent Shriver, you remember him?" Robbins asked, referring to President Johnson's press secretary. "Sargent Shriver told my dad to send a telegram to President Johnson. He did and in three days my orders were changed."
While the "Sole Surviving Son" deferment didn't technically apply as Barbara wasn't in the military, in a sense, it did, Warren Robbins contends, for he never stepped foot in Vietnam. He served 27 months in Thailand, working in air freight.
"I didn't want to go into the military because of what happened to Barbara," he said. "But once I was in, I was very patriotic and believed in what we were doing."
Like his sister.