While the Vietnam War raged from the 60’s to the 70’s, changing American politics and culture, another war was going on next door in Laos. While the U.S. military and its allies fought a major war in Vietnam, the CIA was covertly fighting the Laotian Civil War. Out of this conflict, a legend would arise of a CIA officer whose exploits were more akin to Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now instead of a spy; the man was known as Anthony Poshepny.
Poshepny was born September 18, 1924 in Long Beach, California, although he sometimes claimed to have been a Hungarian refugee. Also known as “Tony Poe,” he served in World War II in the 5th Marine Division during the fighting over Iwo Jima. During the war, Poshepny received the Purple Heart twice and had reached the rank of sergeant by the time he was honorably discharged. In 1950, Poshepny enlisted in the Central Intelligence Agency and trained refugees to carry out sabotage missions behind enemy lines during the Korean War, as well as training Chinese Nationalist commandos to carry out missions within Red China.
After the Korean War ended, Poshepny trained members of the Tibetan Khamba people and joined them in Tibet to fight on behalf of the Dalai Lama against the Chinese. Poshepny also organized a revolt against the Indonesian government and trained Cambodians to fight the government of Prince Sihanouk. In 1959, Poshepny was awarded the Intelligence Star.
In 1961, Poshepny was assigned by the CIA to train the Hmong hill tribes in Laos as chief advisor to General Vang Pao, fighting the Communist North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces. It was during his time in the Laotian Civil War that the legends surrounding Poshepny would arise, and leave his mark on the Cold War’s history.
Like most CIA advisors, Poshepny had rules to not engage in combat directly, and to only handle logistics and organization. But the distance between Poshepny and his CIA handlers in Vientiane gave him the freedom to do as he pleased, and despite being out in the bush with his native forces, reports eventually began to reach his superiors that Poshepny was waging his own personal war.
Poshepny by this time had established himself in a village close to the border with Red China. To help get the locals on his side, Poshepny had taken to paying 500 Kip (the equivalent to $1) for the ear of an enemy. When he began receiving too many ears that could have come from anywhere, Poshepny changed the requirements to 5,000 Kip for a head wearing a Pathet Lao cap. Not only that, but Poshepny hung the ears like garlands over his porch while he kept some of the heads preserved in alcohol in jars. The rest of the heads Poshepny used at least twice for psychological warfare, dropping the heads from low-flying aircraft onto Communist forces.
“At one time, there was no better paramilitary man in the CIA,” Roger McCarthy, a fellow CIA officer who served alongside Poshepny once said, “If we’d had enough sense to bring him in sooner, a lot of what Tony became wouldn’t have happened.”
While some could argue that Poshepny’s methods were brutal and unconventional yet effective ways of fighting a guerrilla war against Communist forces, Poshepny’s personal conduct suggested that the mission was not always at the forefront of his mind.
Aside from the gruesome decorations on his shack, Poshepny had taken to drinking at least a quart of whiskey everyday by mid-morning, and had taken to using opium. On some occasions, Poshepny was so drunk that he swore over the radio at his CIA superiors and the American ambassador. This rift between Poshepny and the CIA grew over time, at one point threatening to drop a CIA emissary from a helicopter into Red China. Another time, Poshepny wanted to prove that his style of warfare was effective and sent an entire box full of severed ears to the American embassy in Vientiane, although he also occasionally sent reports with ears attached.
Fellow CIA operative Jim Scofield once said that Poshepny arrived for a meeting in the American ambassador’s office in Vientiane raving drunk with an assault rifle in one hand and a machete in the other, which did nothing to improve his image.
The CIA may have thought Poshepny was going native, but the Hmong tribesmen he fought alongside thought he was a god, and Poshepny certainly made efforts to cement that idea into the minds of the warriors under his command. To the natives, it looked like Poshepny could summon supplies of rice from the air, and when he seemed to encounter stronger enemy positions, Poshepny could simply call down napalm on them. To further cement his place in the native society, Poshepny married a Hmong princess, which is considered his ultimate breach of CIA regulations.
Obviously, the CIA couldn’t have someone like Poshepny running amok with native forces under his command, so two efforts were made to assassinate him. The first attempt was made using a Laotian operative, while the second was made using an American operative. Poshepny survived both attempts, although a trap set by the American cost Poshepny two fingers as he was defusing it.
Despite everything Poshepny did, the wars in Southeast Asia began to slide irrevocably in favor of the Communists, and in 1973 Poshepny had to flee Laos to Thailand to escape Pathet Lao forces. A day after he fled, Poshepny ordered a napalm strike on his former base, obliterating any evidence of what he had been doing in the jungle. In 1975, the CIA awarded him a second Intelligence Star. Poshepny lived in Thailand until the 1990’s, when he returned to California with his wife and children.
Upon returning to the United States, Poshepny made great efforts to help bring members of the Hmong community to the U.S. after being abandoned by the CIA following the ends of the Vietnam War and the Laotian Civil War. This further cemented the Hmong’s loyalty to Poshepny, as his loyalty to his warriors in the field continued to establishing their families in the U.S., including helping their youths to providing financial support.
Poshepny eventually died of liver failure on June 27th, 2003. At his funeral were roughly 150 people in attendance, more than half of whom were Hmong tribesmen who had followed him to the U.S.