Mixed Media on Illustration Board, 2010
Donated Courtesy of Alan Seigrist
November 1950 marked the entry of Chinese Communist military forces into the Korean War as the new Communist government in China was rapidly expanding its influence elsewhere in Asia. The Truman Administration turned to the fledgling (three-year-old) CIA to frustrate China’s expansionism through a covert-action program on the Chinese mainland designed to foster internal democratic opposition to the Communist regime and divert some of its military resources from combat with US forces in Korea.
One particularly sensitive program in the early 1950s involved the Civil Air Transport (CAT), a CIA proprietary company that aided CIA’s efforts to support anti-Communist Chinese guerrillas along the China-Korea border and inside mainland China. While leaflet, supply, and agent airdrops posed considerable dangers, the most perilous flights were air exfiltrations in which low-altitude, slow-moving planes hoisted agents from the ground–only the most trusted and experienced pilot volunteers flew these missions.
Norman A. Schwartz and his friend and fellow pilot, Robert C. Snoddy, were among the elite group of CAT volunteers to fly agent exfiltration missions. They trained to fly a C-47 aircraft (the military version of a commercial DC-3) specially outfitted with a unique retrieval system of a pole, hook, cable, and winch designed to snatch a person from the ground and reel him into the plane on the fly.
On 29 November 1952, Schwartz and Snoddy piloted the C-47 on an exfiltration mission in Manchuria. Also aboard were two young CIA paramilitary officers–John T. Downey and Richard G. Fecteau. Leaving a Korean airfield at 10 pm, the flight reached the pickup zone just after midnight and headed for the pickup point, well marked with three bonfires flaring out of the darkness. The aircraft was about 50 feet off the ground at a near-stalling 60 knots on its final approach. With the plane’s rear door removed, Fecteau and Downey had extended the pole with hook and cable attached, ready to catch the awaiting agent’s line and then to winch him in.
The crew proceeded according to plan, unaware that Chinese Communist units had been tipped off about the flight and were waiting in ambush. Suddenly, a murderous barrage of gunfire erupted from ground troops hiding in the darkness. The pilots were able to prevent an immediate crash; however, when the engines cut out, the aircraft glided to a controlled crash. Schwartz and Snoddy were killed. Other than suffering bruises and being shaken up, Downey and Fecteau were not seriously hurt.
Downey and Fecteau were captured, convicted of espionage, and imprisoned. Over the years, numerous US efforts to obtain their release failed. Fecteau was eventually released in December 1971, nearly a year shy of his 20-year sentence. Downey was released 15 months later, serving just over 20 years of his life sentence.
Schwartz and Snoddy posthumously received the CIA Distinguished Intelligence Cross in recognition of their exceptional valor and sacrifice. Downey and Fecteau received the CIA Distinguished Intelligence Medal for “courageous performance” in enduring “sufferings and deprivationsÉwith fortitude [and an] unshakable will to survive and with a preserving faith in [their] country.” They returned to the Agency in 1998 to receive the Director’s Medal.