of a dirty fighter
By Richard S Ehrlich
BANGKOK - Anthony A
"Tony Poe" Poshepny, a decorated former official of the
US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who collected enemy
ears, dropped decapitated human heads from the air on to
communists and stuck heads on spikes, was buried on the
weekend in California.
who waged failed secret wars for the United States in
Indonesia, Tibet and Laos, was often compared to the
Marlon Brando character Kurtz in the movie
"The posting of decapitated heads
obviously sent a powerful message - especially to North
Vietnamese troops seeking to invade the homelands of the
Hmong and Laotian people," Philip Smith,
executive director of the
Washington-based Center for Public Policy Analysis, said
in an e-mail interview after Poshepny's death on June
We flew in real low, in front
of that bastard's house, and I threw the head so
it bounced right on his porch and into his front
"He successfully fought terror with terror.
He strove to instill courage and respect in the tribal
and indigenous forces that he recruited and trained as
well as fear in the enemy. In the post-September 11
security environment, fearless men like Tony Poe are
what America needs to combat and counter terrorism and
the new unconventional threat that America faces from
abroad in exotic and uncharted lands," Smith said.
The heavy-drinking, stocky Poshepny suffered
shrapnel and other wounds, diabetes and circulatory
problems. He died, aged 78, in the San Francisco
Veterans Medical Center after a long illness and his
funeral was held in nearby Sonoma, California. He is
survived by his Lao-American wife Sheng Ly and their
children Usanee, Domrongsin, Maria and Catherine.
He twice won a CIA Star - the agency's highest
award - from directors Allen Dulles in 1959 and William
Colby in 1975, according to a funeral announcement.
Born on September 18, 1924, in Long Beach,
California, much of his legacy remains in unmarked
graves half a world away, here in Asia.
In 1942, Poshepny joined the US
Marine Corps, was wounded on Iwo Jima and received two
Purple Hearts, the decoration awarded
by the United States to troops injured in
Somebody said, 'Tony, he heard
you were paying for ears. His daddy cut his ears
off. For the 5,000 kip.' Oh, that pissed me
A loud, intense, short-tempered patriot,
he joined the CIA as a paramilitary officer in 1951.
"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," the Wall Street Journal
reported in 2000.
During the Korean War,
Poshepny went to Korea with the CIA and "worked with the
Chondogyo church group, a sort of animist-Christian sect
that had fled North Korea and were being trained to be
sent back across the 38th parallel", according to
William M Leary, a University of Georgia history
professor. "At the end of the Korean War, Tony was one
of eight [CIA] case officers who were sent to Thailand.
He remained there for five years, serving under Walt
Kuzmak, who ran the CIA cover company Sea Supply," added
Leary in an online condolence website honoring
In 1958, Poshepny and fellow
CIA operative Pat Landry tried, but failed, to spark an
uprising among dissident colonels against Indonesia's
then-president Sukarno, father of current President
Megawati Sukarnoputri. Outgunned and trapped on the
Indonesian island of Sumatra, Poshepny and Landry fled
to a fishing trawler that took them to a waiting US
submarine, according to the book Feet to the Fire
by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison.
Hale, Colorado, Poshepny helped train Tibet's tall,
fierce Khamba tribesmen to be guerrillas and accompanied
them to Dhaka, in what was then East Pakistan, from
where Tibetans were flown and parachuted into Tibet in a
failed attempt to stop China's People's Liberation Army
from occupying their homeland.
work in Laos began in 1961 during America's failed
"secret war" against communist North Vietnamese who
carved a Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laotian territory to
attack US forces in South Vietnam. Pathet Lao communist
fighters were also the CIA's foe. The Lao communists
achieved victory in 1975 and continue to rule the small
The loquacious, gravel-voiced
Poshepny confirmed to me in 2001 that he rewarded his
fighters for bringing in enemy ears. He also confirmed
that he let his Lao guerrillas erect a human head on a
spike and toss pebbles at it, to boost their
Poshepny said he twice
hurled human heads from an aircraft on to his enemies in
Laos, to terrify them. "We flew in real low, in front of
that bastard's house, and I threw the head so it bounced
right on his porch and into his front door," Poshepny,
laughing, told me at his San Francisco home in 2001.
Based for several years in the rugged highlands
of northern Laos where he was seriously wounded three
times, Poshepny also grew angry at Washington's attempts
to control his activities. So he sent a bag filled with
human ears to the US Embassy in Vientiane to prove his
guerrillas were killing communists.
bag arrived on a Friday and sat in the embassy over the
weekend. "Human ears contain a lot of water, and they
dried up and shriveled in the heat all weekend, so when
the embassy secretary opened the bag on Monday morning
it was terrible and she got real sick," Poshepny told
me. "I really regret doing that to her, because she
wasn't to blame at all."
He unabashedly admitted
his horrific acts to other journalists, while insisting
his motive was to defeat communism. "I used to collect
ears," he was quoted as telling Roger Warner in his book
Shooting at the Moon, which won Washington's
Overseas Press Club award for the best book on foreign
"I had a big, green, reinforced
cellophane bag as you walked up my steps. I'd tell my
people to put them in, and then I'd staple them to this
5,000 kip [Laotian currency] notice that this [ear] was
paid for already, and put them in the bag and send them
to Vientiane with the report.
"Sent them only
once or twice, and then the goddamn office girls [in the
US Embassy] were sick for a week. Putrid when they
opened up the envelope. Some guy in the office, he told
me, 'Jeez, don't ever do that again. These goddamn women
don't know anything about this shit, and they throw up
all over the place.'
"I still collected them,
until one day I went out on an inspection trip ... and I
saw this little [Lao] kid out there, he's only about 12,
and he had no ears. And I asked, 'What the hell happened
to this guy?'
"Somebody said, 'Tony, he heard
you were paying for ears. His daddy cut his ears off.
For the 5,000 kip,'" Poshepny said.
pissed me off," Poshepny told Warner.
dropping human heads on enemy villages, I only did it
twice in my career," Poshepny told the Wall Street
Journal - once on a Lao ally who had been flirting with
the communists. "I caught hell for that."
people considered him mentally unsound, "obnoxious", "a
drunk" and an insubordinate "knuckle-dragger" while
working for the CIA. But Poshepny inspired strong
loyalty and admiration among other Americans and Hmong
who knew him.
Said Smith of the Center for
Public Policy Analysis: "Tony Poe epitomized what the
late Theodore Shackley, former CIA station chief in
Laos, called the 'Third Option'. America - to avoid the
potential twin options of using nuclear or conventional
forces to defend its interests - should instead rely on
special, elite clandestine forces to recruit, train and
arm indigenous, or tribal forces, to project power,
protect its interests and counter guerrilla movements,
terrorism or other attacks.
"Clearly, Tony Poe
symbolized America's decision to exercise its 'Third
Option' in Laos."
After retiring in 1975,
Poshepny and his Hmong wife lived in northern Thailand
until 1992, when they moved to the United States.
He remained close to the Lao community in the
San Francisco Bay Area, advising their sons to join the
US Marines, financing Laotians in need and petitioning
Washington for aid to Laotian veterans.
(Copyright 2003 Richard S Ehrlich)