A Cold War Coda. Of Severed Heads, Hill Trie Gratitude

"Tony Poe" Ran the Secret War in Laos and Spooked CIA; Old Fighters Stay Loyal.

By Peter Waldman, The Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2000

His feet feel as cold as ice from shrapnel wounds. On wet days, pain shoots through his left hip, where North Vietnamese gunners blew a hole in his side in 1965.

But on a recent afternoon, a band is playing Laotian love ballads, and Anthony Poshepny just wants to dance. Thirty years ago, Mr. Poshepny ran America's secret war in northwestern Laos -- a jungle warlord revered by tribesmen yet feared for his zealotry by his own bosses at the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Poshepny's bloodcurdling reputation has been compared with the film character Col. Kurtz, the upriver renegade played by Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam War classic, "Apocalypse Now."

Cut to a crowded wedding hall in this working-class suburb of San Francisco.

Mr. Poshepny, now 75 years old, holds court at the end of a long banquet table resplendent with flowers and hill-tribe cuisine. Laotian friends stop by to pay respects, some greeting the American on one knee, palms pressed tightly together under their chins in homage.

Mr. Poshepny tells war stories, drinks a little whiskey when his wife isn't looking and hankers to get out on the dance floor.

"I have to perform," he whispers. "I want them to know I can still participate."

This is how the Cold War really ends, in the twilight of one man's extraordinary cloak-and-dagger life. Mr. Poshepny, a CIA legend who waged war and dirty tricks across Asia for 30 years, was branded an anachronism and cast out of the agency in the mid-1970s. Since then, he has kicked around Thailand and San Francisco on a federal pension. His exploits in the jungle are little-known outside spy circles; even there, they are considered by many to be best forgotten.

Only the Laotians have stayed true to Tony Poe, Mr. Poshepny's nom de guerre. Many drifted to the Bay Area after the war, some with Mr. Poshepny's help. He calls them "my people." They call him "father."

He lives with his wife and the younger of his two daughters in a small house on a quiet street in west San Francisco. Medals hang in neat rows in a glass case above the fireplace, more than a dozen in all. There are five Purple Hearts. Once a month or so, Mr. Poshepny heads out for a meal or a Community event with his tribes, where he presides just as in the old days.

At the wedding, he sits with 61-year-old Wern Chen, a leader of a 10,000-strong clan of Mein tribesmen whom Mr. Poshepny recruited to run spy missions inside China. They reminisce about the time Mr. Chen, using foil wrapper from an old Marlboro box, repaired a wiretap on a phone line deep in southern China. The transcripts of Chinese military conversations with their North Vietnamese counterparts stunned the CIA brass back home.

"They sent a man out from Washington to tell us Wern Chen must be a Commie agent making everything up," says Mr. Poshepny. "I nearly slit his throat for saying that."

As the war wound down, Mr. Chen fled with his family to a refugee camp in Thailand, where Mr. Poshepny helped them and many others gain asylum in The U.S. When Mr. Chen developed emphysema a few years later from smoking Opium back in Laos -- a habit he kicked -- Mr. Poshepny found a pulmonary specialist in San Francisco to care for him.

For Father's Day last year, Mr. Chen and another Laotian gave Mr. Poshepny a phone with their numbers emblazoned in red tape on the receiver to remind him to call them more often.

"Tony's our godfather," Mr. Chen says.

It was 1951 when the blond, blue-eyed collegiate golf sensation walked into the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington seeking a job. The recruiter took one look at the former Marine's pair of Purple Hearts from Iwo Jima and sent him to the CIA. Within weeks, he was running sabotage teams behind enemy lines in Korea. He and former CIA colleagues say Mr. Poshepny went on to train anti-Communists in Thailand, to foment a failed coup in Indonesia and to help organize the escape of the Dalai Lama from Tibet in 1959.

In 1960, Mr. Poshepny was air-dropped into Laos to mobilize hill tribes for the CIA's clandestine war against Laos's Communist guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies. Accounts vary of what happened to the thickset operative in the jungle in the course of the next 10 years.

Scattered press dispatches from the time reported sightings, secondhand, of a hard-drinking CIA renegade who had gone native, married a tribal princess, and delighted in collecting the severed ears and heads of enemy dead. The macabre reports -- and the later echoes of them in "Apocalypse Now" -- cemented the legend of Tony Poe as a drunken madman unleashed with his tribes on the jungles of Southeast Asia.

"At one time, there was no better paramilitary man in the CIA," says Roger McCarthy, a retired CIA officer who worked with Mr. Poshepny in Asia. "He was a rebel with a cause." Adds Mr. McCarthy: "If we'd had enough sense to bring him in earlier, a lot of what Tony became wouldn't have happened." The tribesmen who still worship him tell it differently. The Laotians, like so many other superpower proxies, emerged from their chapter of the Cold War feeling used and discarded by the CIA -- but never by Tony Poe.

He lived with the hill tribes, drank with them, fought with them, nearly died with them. Most important, the Laotians say: Long after American street gangs replaced CIA commando units as the proving ground for tough hill-tribe youths, Mr. Poshepny still cares. He counsels Laotian kids on joining the Marines, helps finance Laotian weddings and plots strategy for winning official recognition in Washington for Laotian veterans.

A few years ago, he fought a deportation order for one of his men convicted of opium possession in Sacramento, Calif. The man's military contributions, Mr. Poshepny testified in court, should outweigh his opium rap. The judge agreed.

Mr. Poshepny is more bemused than bothered by the Col. Kurtz comparisons. Sure, he drank too much, he admits, but mostly "to lay down a foundation To kill." He did marry a local woman, flouting CIA rules, but he won an agency dispensation for the match because it solidified U.S. ties to a key tribal clan, he says.

And yes, Mr. Poshepny did staple human ears to a "kill report" he sent the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, Laos's capital, causing the secretary who opened it to keel over from the putrid flesh. But that was only after the paper-pushers had been challenging his body counts for months, he says; he finally sent them the proof. (Former CIA contemporaries confirm the episode.)

As for dropping human heads on enemy villages, "I only did it twice in my career," Mr. Poshepny says -- once on a Lao ally who had been flirting with the Communists. "I caught hell for that."

The Poshepny empire was based in a highlands village called Nam Yu. It was unique for a U.S. site in Indochina, say Laotians and other CIA agents who served there. On Mr. Poshepny's orders, it had no hot showers, no American food, no television sets -- none of the goodies customarily given to Americans but not locals in the region.

"Tony was one of us," says Fouhin Sang Chao, a former Mein spymaster who now pastors a church here.

He still is. On Mr. Chao's living-room wall hang photographs commemorating his family's proudest moments as refugees in America: his son's college graduation and his daughter's wedding. Mr. Poshepny's jowly mug peers out from both.

At the home of another tribesman, former fighters arrive for a celebration of Mr. Poshepny's 75th birthday. Some kiss his hand; others snap off salutes. They tell old-soldier stories -- many about battles and booze, but some about kindness. When Mr. Chao's grandfather died after a long evacuation from the mountains, Mr. Chao recalls, Mr. Poshepny gave his family cash and a pig to hold a proper funeral service. He also sent Mr. Chao to Thailand on a U.S. plane to buy an urn for his grandfather's ashes.

"Tony always took care of us," says Pree Boonkert, another former fighter.

In 1970, the CIA pulled Mr. Poshepny out of Laos. The U.S. was withdrawing from Indochina, and Mr. Poshepny was frustrated and drinking heavily. No single incident caused his ouster, say former CIA officials. Showing up raving drunk for a meeting at the U.S. ambassador's office in Vientiane with a rifle in one hand and a machete in the other didn't help, says Jim Scofield, a former CIA man who was there. Mr. Poshepny's tribesmen Pleaded for his return, to no avail. In early 1973, Nam Yu fell to the Communists without a fight. The CIA called in the B-52s and bombed the base off the map.

The bonds the secret warriors forged there haven't been so easily erased. At the wedding in Richmond, after the cake-cutting and traditional bridal offering of mugs of tea, Mr. Poshepny clambers toward the dance floor.

The crowd parts, chanting and clapping as the old warlord slowly shuffles out a jig.

Watching from the back of the hall, Khankham Vilaikam smiles at the scene.

He once spent two nights with Mr. Poshepny in the wreckage of their chopper after it crashed in the jungle. He never thought he would be watching Tony Poe dance at the wedding of a new generation of Laotian tribesmen in America.

"He taught me everything I know," says Mr. Vilaikam. "He's why we're here today.

Ian Kaplan
Last modified: Wed Aug 31 22:35:50 PDT 2005