The Truth Behind Apocalypse Now
For most American moviegoers Apocalypse Now is just a crazy but exciting Vietnam War movie that may have patched together some truths about the conflict, but was largely fiction. However, the movie’s plot was based upon historical events that were happening in Laos during the Vietnam War. The character Col. Walter Kurtz, who was played by Marlon Brando, was based on a real life CIA agent known as Tony Poe.
Tony Poe was open and honest about his activities during the Vietnam War and he even had a habit of embellishing his stories when talking to reporters. He often bragged about sending severed communist ears to the American Embassy in Laos as proof that his Hmong warriors were killing the enemy in droves. He also paid them well for the ears and sometimes, for the heads and other body parts of dead communists.
The CIA made numerous efforts to rein him in under control and they even tried to remove him but to no avail.
Poe consistently violated agency orders and fought alongside his Hmong warriors as any true leader and special warfare soldier would have done. As a result, this agent became a sort of untouchable in Laos and his methods, some of which were probably war crimes, were brutally effective. He may have become a devil, but he was a devil that they knew, and a devil working for them.
Tony Poe’s real name was Anthony Poshepny. He was a Californian who lived from 1924 until 2003. His life plays out like a mythical character from a spy novel that conventional perception believes is only fiction.
Poe started his career as a marine in the Second Parachute Battalion and fought in Iwo Jima earning two Purple Hearts. After the war he earned his B.A. from San Jose State University.
He subsequently joined the CIA in 1951 and was sent to fight in Korea as a paramilitary advisor working with the Chondogyo church group that fled North Korea. They were being trained to be sent back across the 38th parallel.
After the Korean War, Poe was sent to Thailand. He remained there for five years until 1958 when he was sent to Indonesia to overthrow the Sukarno government.
This covert agent was then sent to Laos in 1961 to train Vang Pao’s Hmong followers at Padong in Laos.
During this time Poe began his descent into darkness as portrayed by the character Col. Walter Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Poe was normally a teetotaler but he crossed the tipping point and began to drink heavily. In 1964 he really went native when he married the niece of Touby Ly Foung, a prominent Hmong leader.
From 1965 to 1970, Poe starting developing into the legend we know him as.
During this time he sent intelligence teams into China to monitor the construction of the Chinese Road. According to friends, it was during this time that Poe eventually became disillusioned with the war as the will of Americans to win the war seemed broken.
Not surprisingly, Tony Poe’s drastic efforts earned him the ire of Washington bureaucrats within and outside of the agency.
But he also earned the respect and admiration of rank and file war fighters in the agency and in the military. More importantly, he earned the respect and dedication of his Hmong Army which numbered around 30,000 at its peak. Poe’s efforts would have been a model for an exceptional counter-insurgency operation if the U.S. had not abandoned the operation. This lightly armed army with only a few American and Thai advisors was inflicting a level of devastation upon communist forces that rivaled all of the efforts of conventional U.S. Forces in Vietnam.
Poe was retired from the Agency in 1975 and awarded his second Intelligence Star for his efforts, despite the controversy and anger that he provoked with the government. Perhaps he was a skeleton they wanted kept in the closet and out of the spotlight where he could cause real public relations damage.
He remained in Thailand until 1992 when he moved his family back to San Francisco of all places.
Tony Poe’s greatest legacy is still with the Hmong Tribesmen whom he served until his death. He was revered throughout the Hmong community as a patron and a hero. He worked tirelessly to bring the Hmong to the United States and helped them to integrate once they arrived. He was active in local politics on their behalf, fighting for public assistance and even fighting deportation.
Poe’s legacy will no doubt be that of a grisly warlord and Cold War dinosaur that the U.S. would just as soon forget.
However, he was also a man who rose up to the defining challenge of his age and fought the war against communist expansion in the way that he knew was effective. He may be many things to many people and a devil to most but he was a true American warrior who, for better or worse, cannot be forgotten.