Harrowing escape defines man#039;s life

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Jim Palmer's days are spent tending the land around his house, taking care of his cats and visiting with friends at Greenville Country Club, where he used to be one of the best golfers around until age and an undiagnosed illness affected his game.

The quiet existence he leads now is a far cry from his earlier years when he served in Vietnam as a member of three elite sniper teams responsible for helping carry out a highly secret CIA black project called the Phoenix Program.

The Phoenix Program, initiated in 1967 in Saigon, called for the assassination of high-level civilian and military targets. The program's goal was, as Palmer put it, "to screw up the chain of command."

Palmer's military career began at an early age. Born and raised just south of Greenville in Shackleville, Palmer skipped graduating from high school and joined the Air Force in 1954 to get away from what he called an abusive father.

Before joining the military, Palmer discovered he had a knack for shooting a rifle, something he'd been taught to do at an early age by a family friend.

"There was a guy who lived out on Highway 10 and he taught me how to take a .22 rifle and strike a match from 30 yards," said Palmer, who loved to hunt and fish as a child.

After being stationed overseas in Greenland and Okinawa, Palmer's keen eye and steady hand landed him the job of teaching others how to shoot at a rifle range at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Ga.

"Back then, the Air Police didn't have to be qualified (on the range), but in 1963 The Air Force Chief of Staff ruled they had to be qualified," said Palmer, who taught his students how to shoot with a .45 automatic pistol.

In 1965 Palmer was transferred to California where he participated in and won a marksmanship contest by scoring 290 out of a possible 300 hits from 200-1,000 yards. He beat out 50 other competitors to win the contest sanctioned by the National Rifle Association.

"That's the award that got me to Vietnam as a sniper," said the now 69-year-old Palmer, pointing to the framed certificate from the NRA.

While his tour in Vietnam was brief, his story of survival after being wounded while on his last mission is extraordinary.

"I'm the sole survivor of three six-man (sniper) teams," Palmer said, as he described his last mission. "They dropped us behind enemy lines. The rest of my team was killed, and when I woke up, I was in a village near where we had originally been dropped off."

Palmer, who professed to be a heavy whiskey drinker back then, awoke to find his arm had been shot and his Viet Cong captors were drinking the whiskey he packed with him on his missions. He said they eventually got drunk and passed out. A short time later a young Vietnamese girl, who Palmer said looked to be only 10 or 12 years old, came in with a knife and freed him.

"She cut me loose," he said. "I couldn't believe it."

After being freed, Palmer tied up his captives, made his way out of the village and radioed his sergeant, Jim Austin, who flew in with a team on a helicopter and rescued the injured Palmer.

It wouldn't be the last time Palmer would see his sergeant. After a tour in England, Palmer returned to the U.S. where he worked communications for the 5th Mobile Communications Group in North Carolina.

"One day the first sergeant for the 5th Mobile Comm Group retired and I was standing outside," Palmer said. "Then up walked Austin. I yelled 'Jimbo,' and we hugged and fell on the ground laughing."

Palmer said the commander of the group, "a full-bird colonel," chastised them for their behavior, but later came to his office and apologized after Austin told him the story of how Palmer had escaped captivity in Vietnam.

Palmer said he kept up with his buddy in the years that followed, often driving to meet him for a round of golf. Sadly, Austin died suddenly of a heart attack in 1984.

"I really miss the good times we had together," he said of his friend.

Palmer, who has two children of his own, said he often wonders what would have happened had it not been for the heroic deed of that young, unknown Vietnamese child.

"If I could I would have adopted her," he said. "She saved my life."