Anthony A. Poshepny (Tony Poe)

Anthony A. Poshepny (Tony Poe)

Anthony A. Poshepny (Tony Poe) was born in Long Beach, California on 18th September, 1924. At the age of nine, he was accidentally shot in the stomach by his brother. It was feared he would die but he eventually recovered and at the age of 18 joined the United States Marines. Poshepny served in the Second Parachute Battalion and the 5th Marine Division and saw action at Iwo Jima where he was wounded in the right leg.

Poshepny studied history at San Jose State University and after he graduated in 1950 he joined the Central Intelligence Agency. He was sent to South Korea where he served under John Singlaub. At the end of the Korean War Poshepny was sent to Thailand to work with Walt Kuzmak, the head of the Sea Supply Corporation, a shipping company in Bangkok.

Established by Paul Helliwell, Sea Supply and Civil Air Transport (CAT), a Taiwan-based airline, were secret CIA companies. It was Helliwell's idea to use them to raise money to help support Chaing Kai-shek. According to Joseph Trento (Prelude to Terror): "Through Sea Supply, Helliwell imported large amounts of arms for the KMT soldiers to keep the Burmese military from throwing them out of the country. The arms were ferried into Burma on CAT airplanes. CAT then used the "empty" planes to fly drugs from Burma to Taiwan, Bangkok, and Saigon. There the drugs were processed for the benefit of the KMT and Chiang Kai-shek's corrupt government on Taiwan."

In 1958 Poshepny was involved in the effort to overthrow the Sukarno government of Indonesia. He then joined the project to train and insert dissident groups into Tibet. Poshepny helped organize the escape of the Dalai Lama from Tibet in 1959

In March, 1961, Poshepny was sent to Laos, where he worked alongside General Vang Pao and his Hmong followers. Three years later he married the niece of Touby Ly Foung, a prominent Hmong leader. He was badly wounded in 1965 but he later returned to duty.

Poshepny later admitted that he collected enemy ears, dropped decapitated human heads from the air on to the enemy and stuck heads on spikes. A friend, Philip Smith of Center for Public Policy Analysis has argued: "The posting of decapitated heads obviously sent a powerful message, especially to North Vietnamese troops seeking to invade the homelands of the Hmong and Lao people. 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."

Poshepny told Roger Warner (Shooting at the Moon): "I used to collect ears... 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.. 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' ''.

In 1966 Ted Shackley was placed in charge of the CIA secret war in Laos. He appointed Thomas G. Clines as his deputy. He also took Carl E. Jenkins, David Sanchez Morales, Rafael Quintero, Rafael Villaverde, Felix I. Rodriguez and Edwin Wilson with him to Laos. According to Joel Bainerman (The Crimes of a President) it was at this point that Shackley and his "Secret Team" became involved in the drug trade. They did this via General Vang Pao, the leader of the anti-communist forces in Laos. Vang Pao was a major figure in the opium trade in Laos. To help him Shackley used his CIA officials and assets to sabotage the competitors. Eventually Vang Pao had a monopoly over the heroin trade in Laos. In 1967 Shackley and Clines helped Vang Pao to obtain financial backing to form his own airline, Zieng Khouang Air Transport Company, to transport opium and heroin between Long Tieng and Vientiane.

Poshepny was later sent to Nam Yu where he was responsible for sending intelligence teams into China. In 1970 Poshepny replaced Jack Shirley as head of training at Phitscamp in Thailand. He stayed until he closed the camp in 1974. He retired from the CIA in 1975 but remained in Thailand for the next fifteen years.

Anthony A. Poshepny died on 27th June, 2003, and is buried in Sonoma, California.

Primary Sources

(1) Evan Thomas, The Very Best Men (1995)

Tony Poshepny - "Tony Poe" as he was called-was a paramilitary expert. A former Marine who fought in the Pacific in World War II, Tony Poe ran secret armies for the CIA. In 1956 he trained Khamba tribesmen in Tibet for guerrilla warfare against the Chinese communists; he was one of the CIA's paramilitary advisers to the failed colonels' revolt in Indonesia, and he would go on to become a kind of warlord with the Hmong tribesmen in Laos. Faintly resembling Marlon Brando in middle age, he was sometimes said to be the real-life version of the mad Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now, but even after he went native in Laos and began consuming a bottle of local white lightning every day, he was a very effective fighter. He was fearless; he seemed at home with violence (on R&R, he always carried a boxer's mouthpiece in case he got into a bar fight). Wounded several times, Poe had a claw for a hand, maimed by a jungle booby trap. He had some odd habits: for a time, he paid Laotian irregulars to bring back the ears of their enemy dead-a dollar per ear. Once, when headquarters questioned a body count, he mailed in a fresh batch of bloody ears. He desisted in the custom when he ran into a Laotian boy who was missing his ears. The boy explained that his father had chopped off his ears to sell to the Americans."

(2) David Corn, Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA's Crusades (1994)

Shackley's tribal troops and most U.S. programs in Laos depended on two highly unorthodox civilian air transport firms, Air America and Continental Air Services. Officially, Air America was a private company, but it was an open secret that Air America was a CIA front, owned entirely by the Agency. As its number one "customer" in Laos, Shackley de facto supervised much of its operations. Its pilots flew in and out of combat zones, hauling tribal and Lao troops, the wounded, unidentified CIA officers, VIPs, weapons, ammunition, and livestock. Continental Air was not owned by the Agency, hut the firm argued it was improper for Air America to win all the available contracts. The threat was implicit: either the Agency hire Continental, or Air America's cover would be blown.

Ed Dearborn, the director of operations of Continental and a former Agency hand, disliked dealing with Shackley. Dearborn, who had been in charge of the Agency's secret air war in the Congo, was accustomed to camaraderie existing between the CIA officers on the ground and the covert airmen. But Shackley was all business. Dearborn's meetings with Shackley in the chiefs nondescript embassy office were like corporate sessions, the only concern being the bottom line. "Shackley would ask us to go where people shouldn't go," Dearborn recalled. "He asked us to do things that we were not able to do with the type of equipment we had. We were just pilots, not fighter pilots. But he had his requirements and didn't care how it was done. Shackley's attitude was, `Do this, and I don't care if you get back.' "

In Laos, Shackley was to command present and future Agency legends. The most notorious was Tony Poe. A large, rough-looking fellow with a booming voice, Poe had helped create Vang Pao's army. As more Americans settled into Long Tieng in the 1960s, he pushed further into the remote reaches of Laos to run operations out of the northwest corner. There "Mr. Tony" directed tribal units and became the subject of many bizarre and mostly true tales. He had aided Burmese insurgents, when Washington officially was favoring the government of Burma. He kept heads of slain enemy soldiers in jars of formaldehyde. And Tony Poe, according to a case officer who served with him, used to collect ears.

Poe had offered his tribal irregulars a bounty for enemy ears-a dollar a pair. When mission officials once questioned Poe about his claims of a large enemy body count, he stapled a batch of fresh and bloody ears to a report and sent it to the station. Eventually, he discontinued this program when he discovered it provided too much encouragement. At one airstrip, he had found a small boy with no ears. "My father took them to get money from the Americans," the boy said.

Poe, who married a Yau princess and spoke several local dialects, embodied the term "gone native." Within the DDP, he was well known and admired, even if grudgingly. But one case officer who worked with Poe in Laos considered him a tragic figure, a sad symbol of U.S. policy: "an interesting man who was very confused, very sick, and very good, extremely good, working with local people, enormously brave. He loved what he did. He simply lost touch with reality."

(3) Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (1972)

In 1963 Poe was sent to Laos as chief adviser to General Vang Pao.87 Several years later he was transferred to northwestern Laos to supervise Secret Army operations in the tri-border area and work with Yao tribesmen. The Yao remembered "Mr. Tony" as a drinker, an authoritarian commander who bribed and threatened to get his way, and a mercurial leader who offered his soldiers 500 kip (one dollar) for an ear and 5,000 kip for a severed head when accompanied by a Pathet Lao army cap.88 His attitude toward the opium traffic was erratic. According to a former Laos USAID official, Poe refused to allow opium on his aircraft and once threatened to throw a Lao soldier, with half a kilo of opium, out of an airborne plane. At the same time, he ignored the prospering heroin factories along the Mekong River and never stopped any of Ouane Rattikone's officers from using U.S.-supplied facilities to manage the drug traffic.

(4) Richard S. Ehrlich, Asia Times (8th July, 2003)

Some say Tony Poe was the model for the Col Kurtz character of the film 'Apocalypse Now'. He inspired fear and disgust.

Anthony A. Poshepny, a decorated, former CIA official who collected enemy ears, dropped decapitated human heads from the air on to communists and stuck heads on spikes, was buried on Saturday 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 Lao people,'' said Philip Smith, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Public Policy Analysis, in an email interview after 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-Sept 11th, 2001, 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 loquacious, gravel-voiced 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.

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 highlands of northern Laos, where he was seriously wounded three times, Poshepny grew angry at Washington's attempts to control his activities. So he sent a bag filled with human ears to the US embassy in the Lao capital, Vientiane, to prove his guerrillas were killing communists.

The unopened bag arrived on a Friday and sat in the US 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,'' a cheerful 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 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.'