Agent Provocative

In the 1960s Anthony Poshepny was a CIA operative whose macabre Southeast Asian exploits drew comparisons with Col. Kurtz, the megalomaniacal anti-hero of Apocalypse Now

Tony Poe stories have, no doubt, been embellished over the years. Perhaps greatly. The man was an epic drinker, and he acknowledges that the only thing he liked better than telling stories was killing Commies. But the story of the CIA's role in Laos, including Poshepny's dealings there, has been soberly detailed in a book by Roger Warner called Back Fire, winner of the 1995 Book of the Year Award from the Overseas Press Club, a New York-based group of foreign correspondents. According to Warner's account, after Poshepny joined the CIA, he became involved in a number of operations throughout Asia, mostly encouraging rebellions against China's Communist regime. In his first years he worked with the Khamba tribesmen of Tibet in their resistance against the Chinese invasion of their country. He was later involved in a failed attempt to cause an uprising on the island of Sumatra in 1958. On these missions, Poshepny's role was to provide a rebellious spark; the native people did the rest.

"Most people don't realize, the CIA was created to do the things the country couldn't do out in the open," says Shirley. "Nothing we did was legal. Everything we did was illegal. 'Plausible deniability' was the name of the game."

After their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French cleared out of all of Indochina, including Laos; the U.S. was eager to fill the resulting political vacuum, to keep Communists from stepping in. In 1961, Poshepny was dropped into Laos near the border to Thailand, along with a couple of other CIA operatives, including Shirley. Their mission, called Operation Momentum, involved the quiet training of a tribe of hill people called the Meo -- later called the Hmong -- to use modern-day weaponry against the Communist front in North Vietnam.

Operation Momentum expanded quickly until nearly 10,000 tribesmen were armed and ready. The tribesmen would make quick, guerrilla strikes on the North Vietnamese, blowing up a bridge here, booby-trapping a trail there, while the U.S. involvement was kept virtually invisible.

The Geneva Accords of 1962 only increased the CIA's clandestine activities, according to Warner's account. Under the accords, Laos was declared a neutral country, forcing North Vietnamese, Soviet, and American armed forces to officially leave the country. From then on, Laos was no man's land, while behind the scenes, the major military powers continued to play chess with each other, using the Lao people as pawns. In 1964, the CIA received its first confirmation that the Communists were using the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos to provide troops and supplies to South Vietnam. In March 1965, 3,500 U.S. Marines landed in South Vietnam; that number would grow to 184,000 soldiers by year's end.

Poshepny says he was living in North Laos in January of 1965 when he saw North Vietnamese soldiers advancing upon his training site and his home, a thatched hut that leaked during the monsoon season, when sheets of rain would turn the dirt floor into mud. The rainy season had ended, giving way to drier, foggy days, but there was still no running water, no electricity. He was subsisting on Spam, beans, and White Horse scotch. It was the day Lyndon Johnson was being sworn in as president, Poshepny recalls.

Poshepny says he was eating lunch when he saw the troops, "leapfrogging" in groups of twos and threes along the base's airplane landing strip. One group of North Vietnamese would get up and run, while the others would fire their guns to protect the advancing group.

Poshepny began firing at the soldiers with an M-1 carbine. He waited until he saw a soldier get up and then aimed for the head. "I kept hitting them as they got up, popping them in the head, until they stopped coming. Somebody looked through some binoculars and saw 17 bodies along the edge of the strip," he says.

Poshepny and a few of his troops went out to check the bodies for paperwork, when three soldiers hidden in the brush started firing at them. A bullet went into Poshepny's stomach and out his hip, knocking him to the ground. The three soldiers came out of the brush, firing at the rest of Poshepny's troops. As quickly as he could, Poshepny says, he lined up his grenades next to him on the ground, pulled the spoons, then began lobbing them in the direction of the North Vietnamese soldiers until all signs of human life were obliterated from the runway.

When Poshepny got up, he saw that the tribesmen who had followed him to the strip had been killed. He says he then walked back to the camp with half his hip gone, using his rifle as a cane. "When my people saw me coming out of the mist alive ... they were simply amazed," he says. "They thought I must have had some magic protecting me, so they all came up wanting to touch me. 'Stay close to Tony, he protect you,' they said."

As the war in Vietnam escalated, so did Poshepny's drinking, until, he says, he was downing a quart of lao-lao, the native whiskey, before breakfast. "I drank before I went out to kill," he says. "There's nothing wrong with that."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Very interesting man,first met him in the Charoen hotel in udorn,and often around town.Also a black man called Leroy .I understand Tony has passed away but wonder about the fate of Leroy

©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.