The Biography of “Tony Po,” AKA Anthony Poshepny
Anthony Poshepny was born in Long Beach, CA, on September 18, 1924. His family is said to have been immigrants from Hungary. His father was a naval officer reportedly somehow caught up in the scapegoating that followed Pearl Harbor. Po himself joined the Marines in December 1942, dropping out of high school shortly after his 18th birthday. His performance in training was such that he was invited to join a USMC special warfare unit, the 2nd Marine Parachute Battalion, then being organized by Lt.Col Victor Krulak.**
Poshepny rose to sergeant in the Marines and led a machine gun section in the 27th Regiment of the 5th Marine Division on Iwo Jima, where he was wounded in action and received the Silver Star. He recovered in time to participate in the Occupation of Japan.
Poshepny entered Saint Mary’s College in San Francisco in the fall of 1946 under the GI Bill. He was a member of the school’s golf team, which included the later pro golfer Ken Venturi, and most notably, the entire Saint Mary’s golf team left with Po when he transferred to San Jose State University. He graduated in 1950. While Po had thoughts of joining the FBI, he was recruited into the CIA instead. He was a member of the first class to receive all its training at the then-new facility of Camp Peary, finishing in 1953. Po was then sent to Korea where, at the tail-end of the war there, he worked under Jack Singlaub on infiltration operations to islands off the North Korean coast.
His first exposure to Southeast Asia came in the wake of Korea, when he was sent to Thailand to work with CIA programs in that country. It was here that Po decided he would be above all a field man—and among his distinctions is that he is not known ever to have served a headquarters/desk tour. After five years in Thailand, with CIA ramping up a paramilitary operation in Indonesia, Po became a PM (political-military) officer dealing with some of the CIA-supported agent teams. That experience, in turn, led to his assignment to the Tibet PM program, where he helped train Khamba guerrillas at Camp Hale, Colorado, and accompanied several of these CIA agent teams to their launch point at Dacca. He recalled the Khamba as “the best people I ever worked with.” He also trained Chinese Nationalist commando teams for missions onto the mainland.
Tony Po returned to Southeast Asia with a brief assignment in northern Cambodia training anti-communist partisans. Then it was to Pa Dong, Laos, in March 1961 to work with the Hmong. He was then transferred to Long Tieng. Hating paperwork and preferring the field, Po was content that a younger officer, Vincent Lawrence, served as base chief with himself as underling. He ran field missions with the Hmong partisans. After the Geneva Accords of 1962, which was to have removed all U.S. field operatives from the country, Lawrence and Po remained at Long Tieng anyway to coordinate with Vang Pao. Poshepny is said to have had shifting relations with Vang Pao and there were reportedly multiple incidents where the two almost came to blows or even drawn guns. Lawrence remained the head CIA man.
Poshepny had a checkered reputation with senior CIA officers for a number of reasons. One was that during the period of post-Geneva fictive neutrality, he reportedly continued to go out on field missions. During his career Po would be wounded about a dozen times, including losing some fingers to a booby-trap that killed a fellow officer. On another occasion he shouldered a wounded Hmong fighter and carried him about 30 km back to camp for the doctors to see him. His difficulties with Vang Pao gradually increased and created a second problem. His drinking also did not help.
With April 1964, when the Laotian operation went back into high gear, came reports of Po paying bounties for severed heads and ears of alleged Pathet Lao guerrillas. When the CIA Station questioned his body counts, he told the partisans to cut off the ears of dead enemies, which he kept in a plastic bag. When Poshepny considered he had enough he forwarded them to Embassy Vientiane. “I used to staple them to the reports,” Po joked. “There were bushels of ears at headquarters.” He admits to “distributing” at least two. Another time a village that had shot at Po’s aircraft was threatened by the airdrop of a severed head. The outraged headman managed to get the tail number of the Air America aircraft and complained to Embassy Vientiane. The ambassador was forced to apologize to the villagers. “if you do everything according to the orders, you’d be in a straightjacket. You have to break the monotony sometimes,” Po is quoted as saying.
Among Po’s peculiarities was that he maintained a mail subscription to the Wall Street Journal. During breaks on patrol he would pull out the paper and plan how to make a killing in the market. Lawrence, whose family included Wall Street traders and knew the difficulty of that, was amused. Poshepny had also been a teetotaler until he became a drunk and that weighed on him. His attitude to the drug trade was another issue. According to a former USAID worker Po refused to allow opium onto his aircraft and once threatened to throw out of the plane a Lao soldier found to have a kilo of powder. On the other hand he ignored the burgeoning heroin factories, Vang Pao’s stock, or Laotian General Ouane Rattikone’s officers from using U.S. facilities and equipment to plan and manage their traffic.
His CIA cryptonym was reportedly “UPIN” and his cover “Air Operations Officer, Continental Air Services.”
After he took an enemy round in the stomach in January 1965, and one-too-many confrontations with Vang Pao, Poshepny was transferred up-country, to the land of Yao tribesmen. There he met and married his tribal princess. Until 1970 he continued to run patrols into the southwestern PRC and against the “Chinese Road,” which the Chinese were constructing to connect to Pathet Lao territory. One story from this period is that he thought of putting teams into the PRC to exploit a rich seam of gold he had heard about from a man who had mined the ore and then escaped down the Mekong. An Air America pilot got the ore sample assayed and found it to be copper-iron pyrite. A researcher who visited the area reported the Yao thought “Mr. Tony” was a drinker and an authoritarian commander and a mercurial leader, who could threaten and bribe to get his way, but would walk tribesmen into the ground.
In 1970 Poshepny moved to Thailand to run a guerrilla training facility there. He closed out the camp in 1974 and retired from the CIA a year later. He remained in Thailand as a gentleman farmer for many years. In February 1984 he attended the first overseas reunion (since WW2) of American Legion Post No. 1, which had originally been established at Shanghai in the early 1920s. He returned to California in the 1990s.*** Anthony Poshepny died peacefully in his sleep on June 27, 2003. He is not recorded to have earned any CIA medals.
The National Security Archive has filed a series of FOIA requests for information about Tony Po, but has not yet received documents in response.
**It was Krulak’s unit that, in late October 1943, just prior to the U.S. invasion of Bougainville, carried out Operation “Blissful,” a diversionary landing on the nearby Solomon island of Choiseul, in which the Marines operated for several days to distract the Japanese from the larger threat. The young Navy Lieutenant (j.g.) John F. Kennedy, commanding PT-59, was instrumental in saving Krulak’s Marine paratroops when the Japanese were closing in on their landing beach and they had to be pulled out under fire. There is no evidence as to whether Po was a participant in Operation Blissful.
***I believe this may have been without his Yao princess, and with another, American, woman. He left money and a pension for his Yao consort.
Boston Globe, September 3, 1970.
Oklahoma Journal, January 18, 1971.
Washington Post, February 21, 1984 (William Branigan), April 12, 1984 (Jack Anderson).
Robbins, Air America.
Grant, Facing the Phoenix.
McCoy, et. al., The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia.
Stevenson, Hard Men Humbled.