August 19, 2022

Patpong Museum: Who was Coppola's real-life Colonel Kurtz?

If you've ever seen the 1979 film Apocalypse Now you'll truly remember Colonel Kurtz, the enigmatic character played by Marlon Brando. It's said that Francis Ford Coppola was inspired by Anthony Poshepny, more simply known as Tony Poe.

Tony Poe fought for the US Marines on Iwo Jima in World War II before receiving two Purple Hearts and being discharged as a sergeant. Not one for shying from a life of action and intrigue, Poe joins the CIA and becomes active in the Korean War. Here he participates in the CIA's Paramilitary Operation Branch, training refugees for sabotage missions behind enemy lines. 

Following Korea, Tony Poe then becomes a member of the Overseas Southeast Asia Supply (SEA Supply), a CIA front company operating out of Patpong in Bangkok. Now in the late 1950s, SEA Supply is secretly sending military equipment to Taiwan Nationalists in Burma. He's also off to the mountains of Colorado to train Tibetan Khampas troops at Camp Hale.

He was awarded the Intelligence Star medal in part for his ability to effectively, quickly train and inspire paramilitary troops. The year was 1959 and even today, the Intelligence Star is sparingly awarded in the intelligence field. It's considered equivalent to the military's Silver Star.

Former ‘Secret War in Laos’ veterans, including Jack Shirley (yellow shirt) and Tony Poe (back right) and Bill Dettori (RIP) in the blue shirt at a reunion in the Madrid Bar on Patpong Road.

The Vietnam War was getting into full swing, and it's where Tony Poe really makes his mark. He's assigned to train Hmong tribesmen in Laos to fight the North Vietnamese and communist Pathet Lao forces. His methods earn the admiration of the Hmong for his tendency to join trainees in battle resulting in injuries to himself on several occasions. 

However, there was also a brutal aspect to Poe which brought some condemnation and also bolstering of his image as an unconventional warrior. Poe would have the ears of combatants cut off as proof of kills, not unlike the taking of scalps during the American Indian wars. On at least two occasions, he air-dropped bags containing severed heads onto enemy positions as part of a psychological warfare effort.

Poe was decorated numerous times despite his unorthodox tactics. (Patpong Museum)

As the war dragged on, Poe became more and more disillusioned with the US handling of the war and in particular, its continued support of General Vang Pao. The Lao general and his Royal Lao Army were deeply involved in the opium trade and were using CIA assets, particularly Air America planes for transport. 

The Lao army needed the hard currency that growing poppies provided, but Poe felt General Vang was also being personally enriched in the process. Some in Air America dispute such involvement but Poe and several pilots confirm it. By 1970 Poe was extracted from Laos and was assigned back to Thailand. He retired in 1974, whereupon he received his second Intelligence Star the following year and continued to drink in Patpong.

Text source: Patpong Museum

Patpong is a street in the Bangrak district, the heart of Bangkok, home to the history of Chinese immigrants, the modernization of Siam, the lair of serial killers, wild nightlife, the CIA and the Vietnam war as well as superstars like David Bowie and Kendall Janner. (18+)

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