- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2003

BANGKOK Jack Shirley, a legendary former CIA official who helped run America's failed "secret war" in Laos, died yesterday in the Thai beach resort of Pattaya after a long bout with cancer.
He was 76, according to his Thai wife, Pen.
"Most people don't realize, the CIA was created to do the things the country couldn't do out in the open," Mr. Shirley was once quoted as saying.
"Nothing we did was legal. Everything we did was illegal. 'Plausible deniability' was the name of the game."
Mr. Shirley, an American, reached his professional zenith during the Vietnam War, when the CIA armed minority ethnic Hmong tribesmen in Laos against communist Pathet Lao guerrillas and North Vietnamese fighters.
During the horror of those years, the U.S. unleashed on Laos the heaviest aerial bombardment any country had ever suffered. Nevertheless, many of his Laotian friends remained loyal to him after the war was lost.
In recent years, he was a lively personality inside the small, quiet Madrid Bar favored by retired U.S. government and military officials on Patpong Road in Bangkok's red-light district.
Mr. Shirley, who settled in Thailand, regaled listeners with tales of gossip, scandal, adventures and bumbling within the CIA and the armed forces.
"He had a very sharp wit and a very good sense of humor. He had a real, genuine affection for Asia and its people," said Canadian screenwriter Dave Walker.
Mr. Shirley expressed occasional bitterness over the Vietnam War.
"Jack complained about a lot of the [U.S.] bureaucracy during the war and the needless loss of life," Mr. Walker said.
During Washington's 15 years of trying to contain communism, more than 1 million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians were estimated killed alongside more than 50,000 Americans.
It was a time when "hundreds of CIA and other officers in god-awful circumstances did their [best] to do what they were told was their duty," wrote historian Harold P. Ford.
Mr. Shirley joined the CIA in its early years after World War II.
The CIA, meanwhile, slipped into impoverished, landlocked Laos in 1954 after French colonialists retreated. For America, Laos became a line drawn across lush mountains to stop North Vietnam's communism from infecting the region.
Starting in 1961, Mr. Shirley and other CIA officers gave weapons and cash to rugged, indigenous Hmong tribesmen former allies of the French and aimed them at Vietnamese communists encroaching into Laos.
Vietnamese used eastern Laos as a so-called "Ho Chi Minh Trail" to zigzag across the border during attacks against U.S. forces in South Vietnam.
While fighting for the CIA, the Hmong's fragile culture was mostly obliterated and thousands of them perished. Thousands of others fled to refugee camps in Thailand.
Washington, however, was pleased that the Hmong disrupted the Ho Chi Minh Trail and saved American lives.
Mr. Shirley worked in Laos for the CIA from 1961-68, according to the investigative, archival Web site, NameBase.
"After the 1973 truce, the CIA's cowboys and their proxies shrugged their shoulders and went to Thailand or the U.S. to retire on their pensions. They left behind a country … full of bomb craters, antipersonnel bomblets, and amputees on crutches," NameBase says.
One of Mr. Shirley's closest partners was a fabled CIA legend Anthony Poshepny, aka Tony Poe who became immortalized as the insane, bloodthirsty intelligence officer Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando in the film "Apocalypse Now."
"He [Poshepny] once said he was collecting heads for humanitarian reasons. He had been paying a bounty for ears [of dead communists in Laos], until he ran into a little boy with his ears missing," Mr. Shirley told the San Francisco Weekly.
"The boy said his father had cut them off and sold them [to Poshepny for a reward]. Tony was so shocked, he gave the boy a few hundred kip [a small amount of Laotian currency], and immediately decided he would accept only heads from then on," Mr. Shirley said.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide