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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

Wednesday, Nov 17 1999
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Poshepny likes to say he was too fast, too tough, too wild for death to ever bring him down. "Every time I was injured, I'd look up at the sky and say, 'Hey, Jesus, you want me now?' And Jesus would say, 'No, Tony. We've got a lot of girls up here, and you've got a bad reputation.'"

Poshepny's earliest brush with death came when he was 8 years old and living on a farm in Santa Rosa; his brother accidentally shot him in the stomach with a .22 rifle. The boy would have died if it were not for a blood transfusion from his father who, luckily, had the same blood type. Tony's father, John Charles Poshepny, was a Navy commander and one of Tony's biggest heroes. "He was the toughest son of a bitch around. To me he was the highest symbol of excellence," Poshepny says.

During World War II, John Poshepny was stationed on the battleship USS Utah and narrowly avoided death himself when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The Utah was one of the ships that was sunk in the bombing, but at the time the senior Poshepny happened to be on the island on his way back to the ship.

Though he was only 15, the young Poshepny immediately tried to join the armed forces but wasn't allowed to enlist until his mother gave her official consent a year later. "I couldn't wait to start shooting those Japs," he says. Poshepny says he was sent to Iwo Jima with an elite parachute battalion. He was hit twice during his tour, once by machine gun fire and another by shrapnel. When the war ended, he was given two Purple Hearts for his service; he now displays them with dozens of other medals in his living room.

After the war, Poshepny went to college on the GI Bill, first at St. Mary's in Moraga, then graduated from San Jose State with degrees in English and history. Following college, he was one of the first recruits of the fledgling CIA in 1952.

On a recent stopover on his way home to Bangkok, Jack Shirley, one of Poshepny's classmates in CIA training, sat down to talk about their early years on "The Farm," the agency's fabled training center at Camp Peary, Va. Shirley and Poshepny were in the class of '52 and went on to work together off and on in Asia for much of the rest of their lives. Back then, Shirley says, the agency was filled with aging World War II veterans and was looking for young men who had a few years of military experience, a college education, and an athletic background. Both Shirley and Poshepny fit the mold, and were among approximately 30 men chosen from hundreds of applicants.

Tony Poe stories are legion, predating his wartime activities by years, and Shirley loves to tell them. For example, he says, before graduation from the Farm, Poe was called in for a psychological evaluation. As part of the examination, the story goes, the doctor asked Poe to compose a one-act play, and then perform it. The doctor left for 20 minutes, and when he returned, Poe was sitting behind the doctor's desk, and from this vantage point began screaming at him, calling him a "Communist penetration" and a "parlor pink." Poe then opened the desk drawer and pulled out a pair of pink panties, which he threw in the doctor's face, threatening to have the doctor fired from the agency.

"Tony had talked the secretary into giving him her underpants," Shirley says. "How is the outfit going to turn away a guy who can come up with something like that?"

Poshepny's old friends never tire of unearthing Tony Poe chestnuts, like the time he carried on a conversation at a Bangkok bar in a level voice, while underneath the table he was strangling a cat. (The reason he had his hands around the kitty's neck was not made clear.) Or the time in Thailand when he was recuperating at a Mormon hospital, after his back had been lacerated by the explosion of a Bouncing Betty, a type of land mine that, when stepped on, "bounces" to chest level before exploding. Even though his back was covered with stitches, his friends sent him a prostitute who carried a sack of oranges that held a bottle of vodka at the bottom. They say administrators kicked Poshepny out of the hospital, even though his exertions with the prostitute had ripped open all the stitching on his back.

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.

About The Author

Matt Isaacs

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