The character of Colonel Kurtz in the Vietnam war epic Apocalypse Now is an enduring cinematic depiction of a brutal warlord. He was real. This is Anthony Poshepny, CIA agent and trained killer who built a kingdom in the jungle and refused to go home. Twenty-five years later, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark tracked him down. Portrait by Terry 0’Neill.
The heavy-set man sits like a Buddha in the twilight. The curtains are drawn and when the sunlight breaks through we can see his great, shaven head, scarred and pitted. He spits out words and slumps back into his chair, lost in the fragments of a story about a distant war. His left hand is a claw; only the thumb, the index and little finger remain. Everything around him is from another time and place. A dusty cabinet is lined with medals: five purple hearts, an assortment of awards for brave conduct, and a large star inscribed with the words Central Intelligence Agency. Propped against it are three photographs: two smiling American boys dressed in sailor suits on the dock at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; an Asian princess in a sarong and silk blouse; a renegade army on parade in a jungle clearing – tiny, shoeless men wearing black pantaloons and an assortment of muskets.
On the walls hang gilt-edged citations from foreign kings and governments. A small plaque, presented by a tribe from northern Laos, a land-locked republic in Southeast Asia, thanks their “dedicated” American leader, the “father of our people”.
Despite the apparent adulation heaped upon this man, you will not have heard of him. Even his neighbours in this quiet San Francisco suburb of Sunset know nothing of his history, or how his life helped to create the greatest cinema icon to come out of the Vietnam war. This man, all but invisible for the majority of his turbulent life, is the real Colonel Kurtz, whose fictional counterpart was played by Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic movie Apocalypse Now.
Although the film director never met him, he heard the legend of a fearless soldier, one of America’s highly decorated heroes, who went wild and refused to come home from the jungle. The movie depicted a maverick colonel, a man who had “taken a high seat among the natives”, and was worshipped by thousands of tribesmen who made offerings of human body parts. The Pentagon sent Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen, up the river to exterminate him. Willard said, “Kurtz started out as an assassin and now he’s a strange man in a twilight zone, our twilight zone, America’s twilight zone.”
The reality of the Kurtz legend is far stranger than fiction. After a journey through Thailand and Laos, which took us up the Mekong River to a remote village on the Chinese border, and then on to the United States, we found the real Kurtz. On the way, dozens of veteran CIA and Special Forces officers, diplomats and mercenaries, and the Communist generals pitted against them, confirmed the existence of a US super-spy codenamed Upin – and eventually led us to him.
Upin was a paramilitary expert whose identity and mission were classified by the US government. Like the fictional Kurtz, he recruited a private army of 10,000 tribesmen, married a princess, turned his back on the US and became as savage as the jungle he made his home.
It emerged that Agent Upin, also known as Pat Gibbs, was Anthony Poshepny, one of the CIA’s most notorious and effective agents deployed in the Vietnam war. His orders were to enter Laos illegally in 1961 and conduct a secret war against the communists that would be denied in Congress and hidden from the US public. Without any documents to identify him, he was dropped behind enemy lines and told to stop the march of the North Vietnamese on Laos – a country that was known to its people as the land of a million elephants. While the Americans succeeded in holding the North Vietnamese back for 10 years, ultimately they were driven out of Laos.
But after 10 years in the jungle, Poshepny refused orders to go home, and by the early 1970s the Chinese, the North Vietnamese, the Pathet Lao – the Communist army in Laos – and the US all wanted him dead. In the words of the CIA, Anthony Poshepny had gone “bamboo”. Everyone wanted and tried to terminate his command. In 1975, the US withdrew from Laos, and Poshepny vanished for two decades. Some thought he had died, others that he had gone mad. Many wondered, but few missed him.
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