CIA Poshepny Legacy
By Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Anthony A. Poshepny, a decorated, former CIA official who collected enemy ears, dropped decapitated human heads from the air onto communists and stuck heads on spikes, was buried Saturday (July 5) in California after waging failed secret wars in Indonesia, Tibet and Laos.
"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," said Philip Smith, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Public Policy Analysis in an email interview after Mr. Poshepny's death on June 27.
"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 11th 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," Mr. Smith said.
The heavy-drinking, stocky Mr. Poshepny, also known as Tony Poe, suffered shrapnel and other wounds, diabetes and circulatory problems.
He died, aged 78, in the San Francisco Veterans Medical Center following 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 Central Intelligence 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, Mr. Poshepny joined the Marines, was wounded on Iwo Jima and received two Purple Hearts.
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, Mr. 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 Mr. Leary in an online condolence website honoring Mr. Poshepny's life.
In 1958, Mr. 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 Indonesia's current President Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Outgunned and trapped on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Mr. Poshepny and Mr. Landry fled to a fishing trawler which took them to a waiting U.S. submarine, according to the book Feet to the Fire, by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison.
At Camp Hale, Colorado, he helped train Tibet's tall, fierce Khamba tribesmen to be guerrillas and accompanied them to Dacca -- then East Pakistan -- from where Tibetans were flown and parachuted into Tibet in a failed attempt to stop China's Peoples Liberation Army from occupying their homeland.
Mr. Poshepny's CIA work in Laos began in 1961 during America's failed "secret war" against communist North Vietnamese who carved a Ho Chi Minh Trail through Lao territory to attack U.S. 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 tiny nation today.
The loquacious, gravel-voiced Mr. Poshepny confirmed to me in 2001 that he rewarded his fighters for bringing in enemy ears.
He also confirmed he let his Lao guerrillas erect a human head on a spike and toss pebbles at it, to boost their anti-communist fervor. Mr. Poshepny said he twice hurled human heads from an aircraft onto 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," Mr. Poshepny, laughing, told me in his San Francisco home in 2001.
Based for several years in the rugged highlands of northern Laos where he was seriously wounded three times, Mr. Poshepny also grew angry at Washington's attempts to control his activities.
So he sent a bag filled with human ears to the U.S. embassy in the Lao capital, Vientiane, to prove his guerrillas were killing communists.
The unopened bag arrived on a Friday and sat in the U.S. 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," Mr. 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," a cheerful Mr. Poshepny 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 affairs.
"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 [Lao 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 U.S. 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'," Mr. Poshepny said.
"Oh, that pissed me off," Mr. Poshepny told Mr. Warner.
"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 Wall Street Journal reported.
Some people considered him mentally unsound, "obnoxious," "a drunk" and an insubordinate "knuckle-dragger" while working for the CIA.
But Mr. Poshepny inspired strong loyalty and admiration among other Americans and Hmong who knew him.
"Over the years, I have worked closely -- in various capacities -- with many senior American military and clandestine leaders involved in Laos during the Vietnam War including William Colby, former DCI [Director of Central Intelligence]; Theodore Shackley, former CIA Station Chief, Laos; Douglas Blaufarb, former CIA Station Chief, Laos; Larry Devlin, former CIA Station Chief, Laos; and others," said Mr. 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," Mr. Smith said.
After retiring in 1975, Mr. 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 Marines, financing Laotians in need and petitioning Washington for aid to Laotian veterans.
Richard S. Ehrlich,
a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for
the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book,
"HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar
Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is