Stickman Readers' Submissions June 11th, 2023

Wild Flowers Never Die



It’s no secret, that Patpong seems to be struggling of late. Some say it might be nearing the verge of demise. Maybe, maybe not. We do know, however it has a storied history beyond the notorious go go bars and nightlife… one involving the CIA, the Secret War in Laos and in particular, characters like Tony Poe. Tony Poe, or more properly, Anthony Poshepny, was a colorful agency operative most would associate with Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (Ford Coppola denies any connection). More than an operative, Poe was a paramilitary instructor better known as “knuckle draggers” who trained indigenous people in combat skills during the Cold War. He was very much a part of Patpong as he was Vientiane, Long Cheng or his grass hut housing a jar of pickled ears in Nam Yu, Laos. Paying bounties on severed communist ears was how Poe incentivized his fighters.

During the 1960s, Poe trained Hmong hill tribe soldiers to fight communists, whether they be Pathet Lao or the North Vietnamese. But this was after spending a couple years in the late fifties training Tibetan freedom fighters at Camp Hale in the mountains of Colorado. This is where I got to know about a secret CIA camp located not more than ten miles from where I went to high school. It inspired me to write “Wildflowers Never Die- the CIA and Memories of the Cold War” which follows Poe and five of his cohorts’ exploits from the Korean conflict to the final days of Vietnam. CIA’s Bangkok station office came into being in the early 1950s when it was located in a house on Pra Athit Road. It later relocated to a hotel and at some point to Patpong all the while operating under cover name, SEA Supply Company. SEA Supply had their offices in Patpong at Building 1 on Surawong Rood (tall building housing Shenanigan’s pub today). Their exclusive transport airline changed its name from Civil Air Transport to Air America around 1959 and operated out of Building 3 (on Soi 1 where Air France offices were located). At some point, Air America moved up north to Udon Thani to be with their planes. This all happened in the early 1960s when Vietnam and Laos were beginning to heat up and the Laos part of the fight was known as Operation Momentum, a concept originated and led by Poe’s boss, Bill Lair. Tony Poe, a heavy drinking ex-Marine was known to let off steam in the bars of Vientiane as well as Patpong. Favorite haunts in Patpong included the Madrid Bar (now relocated to Charoen Krung Road), Max’s Lounge (closed), Lucy’s Tiger Den (closed, on Surawong) and even The Other Office, on Soi 2, which surprisingly is still open.

He Clinic Bangkok

Bars and restaurants would come and go with regularity often changing owners and names, but the mainstay Madrid Bar was probably best known. After Vietnam and Laos wound down in the mid seventies, agency knuckle draggers and flyboys with Air America would still use Patpong as their stomping ground. Pilot Les Strouse related a story to me how they’d often get together at Madrid swapping stories and tall tales of their days in Laos. One time, he said Tony Poe, Jack Shirley and him took on a night of drinking at Madrid. Poe gets up to visit the “hong nam” and half way back falls flat on the floor out cold. Jack Shirley, close friends with Poe, had become the Bangkok Chief of Station. They both passed away months apart in the same year, 2003; Jack Shirley in Pattaya and Poe in Northern California. Les Strouse, now in his mid eighties has slowed down a bit, but is still going strong.

As one walks the streets of Patpong today they might well remember those who have gone before…  ghosts of the clandestine service and foreign conflicts. Patpong was very much a part of America’s Southeast Asia experience, be it good or bad, during the 1960s and 70s. Sadly, it may be largely forgotten should the area undergo redevelopment in the near future.

For readers interested, Randall Howlett’s book, “Wildflowers Never Die”, is available on Amazon. He owned Patpong’s Strip go go bar several years ago, writing of his experience in “Five Crazy Years” using the pseudonym R. G. Gordin.

CBD Bangkok


Wild Flowers Never Die


Wild Flowers Never Die.


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