“Shot down on their first operational mission, Downey and Fecteau spent two decades in Chinese prisons.”
This article draws extensively on operational files and other internal CIA records
that of necessity remain classified. Because the true story of these two CIA
officers is compelling and has been distorted in many public accounts, it is
retold here in as much detail as possible, despite minimal source citations.
Whenever possible, references to open sources are made in the footnotes.
* * *
Beijing’s capture, imprisonment, and eventual release of CIA officers
John T. Downey and Richard G. Fecteau is an amazing story that too few
know about today. Shot down over Communist China on their first
operational mission in 1952, these young men spent the next two decades
imprisoned, often in solitary confinement, while their government
officially denied they were CIA officers. Fecteau was released in 1971,
Downey in 1973. They came home to an America vastly different from the
place they had left, but both adjusted surprisingly well and continue
to live full lives.
Even though Downey and Fecteau were welcomed back as heroes by the CIA family more
than 30 years ago and their story has been covered in open literature—albeit in
short and generally flawed accounts— institutional memory regarding these brave
officers has dimmed.
Their ordeal is not well known among today’s officers, judging by the
surprise and wonder CIA historians encounter when relating it in
internal lectures and training courses.
story is important as a part of US intelligence history because it demonstrates
the risks of operations (and the consequences of operational error), the
qualities of character necessary to endure hardship, and the potential damage
to reputations through the persistence of false stories about past events.
Above all, the saga of John Downey and Richard Fecteau is about remarkable
faithfulness, shown not only by the men who were deprived of their freedom, but
also by an Agency that never gave up hope. While it was through operational
misjudgments that these two spent much of their adulthood in Chinese prisons,
the Agency, at least in part, redeemed itself through its later care for the
men from whom years had been stolen.
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John Downey and Richard Fecteau were youthful CIA paramilitary
officers: Downey, born in Connecticut, had entered CIA in June 1951,
after graduating from Yale; Fecteau, from Massachusetts, entered on
duty a few months later, having graduated from Boston University. Both
men had been varsity football players, and both were outgoing and
engaging with noted senses of humor. They were on their first overseas
assignment when the shootdown occurred.
late 1952, the Korean War had been going on for more than two years. Accounts
often identify that war as the reason for the operation Downey and Fecteau
were participating in. While largely true, the flight the men were on was part
of operations that had antecedents in the US response to the communist takeover
of China in 1949. In accordance with US policies, CIA took steps to exploit
the potential for a Chinese “Third Force” by trying to link Chinese agents,
trained by CIA, with alleged dissident generals on the mainland. This Third
Force, while anticommunist, would be separate from the Nationalists, who were
assessed to be largely discredited on the mainland.
Third Force project received new emphasis after the Communist Chinese
intervened in the Korean War. At that point, the project aimed to divert
Chinese resources from the war in Korea by promoting domestic antigovernment
guerrilla operations. This was to be accomplished by small teams of Chinese
agents, generally inserted through airdrops, who were to link up with local
guerrilla forces, collect intelligence and possibly engage in sabotage and
psychological warfare, and report back by radio. The operational model was the OSS experience in Europe during World War II, which assumed a cooperative captive population—a
situation, as it turned out, that did not prevail in China.
the time of Downey and Fecteau’s involvement in the Third Force program, its
record was short and inauspicious. Because of resource constraints, the training
of Chinese agents at CIA facilities in Asia was delayed, and the first Third
Force team to be airdropped did not deploy until April 1952. This fourman team
parachuted into southern China and was never heard from again.
The second Third Force team comprised five ethnic Chinese dropped into
the Jilin region of Manchuria in midJuly 1952. Downey was well known to
the Chinese operatives on this team because he had trained them. The
team quickly established radio contact with Downey’s CIA unit outside
of China and was resupplied by air in August and October. A sixth team
member, intended as a courier between the team and the controlling CIA
unit, was dropped in September. In early November, the team reported
contact with a local dissident leader and said it had obtained needed
operational documents such as official credentials. They requested
airexfiltration of the courier, a method he had trained for but that
the CIA had never attempted operationally.
At that time, the technique for aerial pickup involved flying an
aircraft at low altitude and hooking a line elevated between two poles.
The line was connected to a harness in which the agent was strapped.
Once airborne, the man was to be winched into the aircraft. This
technique required specialized training, both for the pilots of the
aircraft, provided by the CIA’s proprietary Civil Air Transport (CAT),
and for the two men who would operate the winch. Pilots Norman Schwartz
and Robert Snoddy had trained in the aerial pickup technique during the
fall of 1952 and were willing to undertake the mission. On 20 November,
Downey’s CIA unit radioed back to the team: “Will air snatch
approximately 2400 hours” on 29 November.
question of who would operate the winch, however, was still unresolved.
Originally, Chinese crewmen were to be used, but Downey’s unit chief decided
that time was too short to fully train them. Instead, two CAT personnel
trained in the procedure were identified for the pickup flight, but the CIA
unit chief pulled them four days before the mission because they lacked the
requisite clearances. Downey, who had been at the unit for about a year, and
Fecteau, who had arrived in the first week of November, were directed to fill
the breach. They were hurriedly trained in the procedure during the week of 24
on 29 November, Downey and Fecteau boarded Schwartz and Snoddy’s olive drab
C47 on an airfield on the Korean peninsula and took off for the rendezvous
point in Chinese Communist Manchuria, some 400 miles away. It was a quiet,
uneventful flight of less than three hours. The moon was nearly full and
visibility was excellent. At one point, Fecteau opened a survival kit and noted
that the .32caliber pistol therein had no ammunition—joking about that was the
only conversation the men had on the flight.
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Mission Gone Awry
C47, with its CAT pilots and CIA crew, was heading for a trap. The agent team,
unbeknownst to the men on the flight, had been captured by Communist Chinese
security forces and had been turned. The request for exfiltration was a ruse, and the promised documentation and
purported contact with a local dissident leader were merely bait. The team
members almost certainly had told Chinese authorities everything they knew
about the operation and about the CIA men and facilities associated with it.
From the way the ambush was conducted, it was clear that the Chinese Communists
knew exactly what to expect when the C47 arrived at the pickup point.
the designated area around midnight, the aircraft received the proper
recognition signal from the ground.
Downey and Fecteau pushed out supplies for the agent team—food and
equipment needed for the aerial pickup. Then Schwartz and Snoddy flew
the aircraft away from the area to allow the team time to set up the
poles and line for the “snatch.” Returning about 45 minutes later and
receiving a ready signal, the C47 flew a dry run by the pickup point,
which served both to orient the pilots and to alert the man being
exfiltrated that the next pass would be for him. Copilot Snoddy came
back momentarily to the rear of the aircraft to make sure Downey and
Fecteau were ready. On the moonlit landscape, four or five people could
be seen on the ground. One man was in the pickup harness, facing the
path of the aircraft.
the C47 came in low for the pickup, flying nearly at its stall speed of around
60 knots, white sheets that had been camouflaging two antiaircraft guns on
the snowy terrain flew off and gunfire erupted at the very moment the pickup
was to have been made. The guns, straddling the flight path, began a murderous
crossfire. At this point, a crowd of men emerged from the woods. Whether by reflex or purposefully,
the pilots directed the aircraft’s nose up, preventing an immediate crash;
however, the engines cut out and the aircraft glided to a controlled crash
among some trees, breaking in two with the nose in the air.
Downey and Fecteau had been secured to the aircraft with harnesses to keep them from
falling out during the winching. On impact, both slid along the floor of the
aircraft, cushioned somewhat by their heavy winter clothing. Fecteau’s harness
broke, causing him to crash into the bulkhead separating the main body of the
aircraft from the cockpit, which, he later said, gave him a bump on his head
“you could hang your coat on.”
Other than suffering bruises and being shaken up, Downey and Fecteau
were extremely fortunate in being unhurt. The Chinese apparently had
targeted the cockpit, with gunfire passing through the floor in the
forward part of the aircraft but stopping short of where Downey and
Fecteau had been stationed, although one bullet singed Downey’s cheek.
Meanwhile, tracer bullets had ignited the fuel. Both men tried to get
to the cockpit to check on the pilots, who were not answering Downey’s
shouts, but their part of the aircraft was burning fiercely and the two
had to move away. Whether due to gunfire, the impact, or the fire, the
pilots died at the scene. Fecteau later remembered standing outside the aircraft with Downey, both
stunned but conscious, telling each other that they were “in a hell of a
mess.” The Chinese security forces descended on them, “whooping and hollering,”
and they gave themselves up to the inevitable.
[Top of page]
the years, various explanations arose within CIA to explain Downey and
Fecteau’s participation in the illfated mission. It seemed incredible to
operations officers that two CIA employees, familiar with operations, locations,
and personnel, would be sent on a mission that exposed them to possible capture
by the Chinese Communists. One of the most persistent myths was that the two must
have been joyriding because their participation was, it was thought, a violation
of the rules. In fact, the record shows that they were directed to be on the
flight and that they had received specialized training in preparation for it.
It may have been poor judgment on the part of Downey and Fecteau’s boss, the
CIA unit chief—who in fixing a tactical problem (the lack of security
clearances by aircraft personnel) created a strategic vulnerability—and
certainly it appears so in hindsight. In any case, it was only after the
shootdown that the rules were changed so that no CIA officer would fly over the
In addition to the field shortcomings in assigning Downey and Fecteau to the
fatal mission, there is the question of whether the field ignored warnings that
the deployed team had been turned by the communists. Such is the claim of a
former senior operations officer who, as a young man, had served in Downey and
Fecteau’s unit in 1952. This officer asserts that, in the summer before the
November flight, an analysis of two messages sent by the team made it “90
percent” certain, in his view, that the team had been doubled. Bringing his
concerns to the attention of the unit chief, the officer was rebuffed for lack
of further evidence. When he persisted, he was transferred to another CIA
unit. After Downey and Fecteau’s flight failed to return, the unit chief called
the officer back and told him not to talk about the matter, and he followed
instructions—much to his later regret.
No record of an inquiry into the decision to send Downey and Fecteau on the
flight appears to exist. It is clear that no one was ever disciplined for it,
probably because it was a wartime decision in the field. Moreover, it could be
argued that the success of the August and October missions to resupply the
team indicated that the team had not been doubled. Many years later, Downey
told a debriefer that he felt no bitterness toward the man who sent him on the
mission: “I felt for him. It turned out to be such a goddamned disaster from
his point of view.”
[Top of page]
Men without a Future
The Chinese security forces treated Downey and Fecteau roughly as they tied them
up. The prisoners were taken to a building in a nearby village—possibly a
police station in Antu, which was near the pickup point. There it became clear
that the agent team had talked: Across the room, Downey saw the courier they
were to pick up looking at him and nodding to a Chinese security officer, a
man of some authority with his leather jacket and pistol, who pointed at Downey
and said, in English, “You are Jack.” Fecteau remembers being told, “Your
future is very dark.” The man took their names. Fecteau gave his full name,
Richard George Fecteau, to warn off potential rescuers if the Chinese sent out
a false message from him and Downey. The two CIA officers, with a dozen armed
guards, were then taken by truck and train to a prison in Mukden (Shenyang),
the largest city in Manchuria, almost 300 miles away. In Mukden, they were
shackled with heavy leg irons and isolated in separate cells.
[Top of page]
Reaction at Home
Several hours after the scheduled time of pickup, the CIA field unit received a
message from the agent team, reporting that the snatch had been successful. However,
when the C47 was overdue for its return on the morning of 30 November 1952,
CIA worked with Civil Air Transport to concoct a cover story—a CAT aircraft
on a commercial flight from Korea to Japan on 3 December was missing and, as of
4 December, was presumed lost in the Sea of Japan. Downey and Fecteau were
identified as Department of the Army civilian employees. Meanwhile, the US
military conducted an intensive search of accessible sea and land routes, with
negative results. Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Walter Bedell Smith
signed letters of condolence to the men’s families, saying “I have learned that
[your son/your husband] was a passenger on a commercial plane flight between
South Korea and Japan which is now overdue and that there is grave fear that he
may have been lost.”
By mid-December, CIA had made the official determination that the men were missing
in action; however, within the Agency’s Far East Division, the strong feeling
was that Downey and Fecteau, as well as the pilots, were dead at the scene of
the intended pickup. With nothing other than the conviction that the Chinese
Communists would have made propaganda use of the CIA men had either remained
alive, the Agency declared Downey and Fecteau “presumed dead” on
4 December 1953. Letters to that effect were sent to the families under
the signature of DCI Allen Dulles.
[Top of page]
Meanwhile, of course, the men were very much alive, a fact known only to their captors.
Separated in Mukden, Downey and Fecteau would not see each other for two
years. The interrogations began, with sessions usually lasting for four hours,
but some as long as 24 hours straight. Sleep deprivation was part of the game:
The men were prohibited from sleeping during the day and the Chinese would
invariably haul them off for middleofthenight interrogations after a half
hour’s sleep. An important element of the Chinese technique was to tell Downey
and Fecteau that no one knew they were alive and that no one would ever know
until the Chinese decided to announce the fact—if they ever decided to do so.
At the same time, the men were told that the US government was evil and did
not care about them and that they should forget their families. Downey later
said, “I was extremely scared…. We were isolated and had no idea of what was
going to happen to us and had no idea of what was going on in the world.”
During the first two years of their captivity, while no one outside of China knew
their fate, the men were subjected to enormous pressure to confess that they
were CIA spies, repent of their “crimes,” and tell everything they knew about
CIA personnel, operations, and locations. The deck was stacked because the
Chinese authorities already knew much from this Third Force agent team and from
others they had caught. Downey and Fecteau’s training had covered subjects like
“Resistance” and “Police Methods,” but it was inadequate for this dilemma.
Fecteau, in fact, lamented the lack of relevant training: “We had none, and it
really hurt me. I had to play it by ear as I went along, and I was never sure
whether I was right or wrong.” He even remembered being told in training that,
“if you are captured by the communists, you might as well tell them what you
know because they are going to get it from you anyway.” Downey, similarly, had
been told by an instructor, “If you are captured, you’ll talk.” It certainly
did not help that the men knew so much—Downey was intimately familiar with
Third Force operations from his experience over the previous year; Fecteau had
been in the field for only three weeks but had carried out his supervisor’s
order to familiarize himself with the program by reading the operational files
for two or three hours every day.
Both men initially tried to stick to their cover story. Unfortunately, both were
told before the flight to say they were CAT employees, which was at variance
with the official cover story that they were US Army civilians on a commercial
flight. Their Chinese interrogators caught them out and made subsequent
interrogations more intensive and confrontational.
The men were never tortured physically or, after their initial capture, beaten. Fecteau reported that
he wore leg irons constantly for the first 10 months and that he was made to
stand during interrogations to the point of falling down from exhaustion,
especially after being caught lying or bluffing. Downey remembered the leg
irons and the intense psychological pressure of interrogations, plus the added
mental stress from concocting new stories after the cover story evaporated—as
he later acknowledged, telling lies requires an extraordinarily good memory.
Eventually both men—isolated from each other, battered psychologically, threatened with
torture and execution—talked, albeit divulging varying degrees of truth.
Downey, hemmed in by the disclosures of the team he had trained, confessed his
CIA affiliation on the 16th day. He later recalled that telling what he knew
was liberating: “I’m free and they have got to leave me in peace, and thus
relieve the psychological strain of resisting…. [They] can’t come at me anymore
mentally because it is all out there.”
Fecteau, who was unknown to the captured Chinese assets, had an easier situation to
story I decided to stick to, I decided to keep it as simple as possible, was to
tell them only what I needed to know to be where I was. I decided to add
nothing else. I decided to shorten my length of service with the Agency from
November 1951 [and] changed that to June 1952, to give me only five months in
the Agency [to] make it much easier to explain to the interrogators. I thus cut
out a lot of the training I had taken, cut down on the number of names they
would ask of people I had met within the Agency and so forth. I based it all
on “need to know,” only what I needed to know to be where I was.
They kept asking for names, names, names. I decided that all Agency names except
classmates [from training], I would tell them only first names and I stuck
with that all the way, instructors, people in Washington, all first names
only. As to personnel [in the field], I told them that I had only been there
three weeks and I only knew first names there also…. On the names of classmates
I knew they would ask not only the names but character descriptions, physical
descriptions. I then decided to give the names of my fellow teammates on the
Boston University football team [to] be able to give them very good character
Fecteau made his “cover confession” on the 13th day, after
thinking it through the previous night. This technique of Fecteau’s— which
Downey almost certainly could not have employed without tripping up against
what the Chinese already knew—enabled Fecteau to withhold information safely
for his entire imprisonment, and it turned out to be a huge morale boost: “The
thing that sustained me most through the 19 years was the fact that I didn’t
tell them everything I had known. Whenever I felt depressed, this was the
greatest help to me.” Even so, both men, but especially Downey, were plagued by
feelings of guilt for the information they had given up.
After their first five months in Mukden, the men were moved
to a prison in Beijing. They were still isolated and in irons, still undergoing
interrogations, still each in a small cell illuminated by a single bulb, with a
straw mattress. Fecteau remembers being told to sit on the floor and stare at a
black dot on the wall and think about his crimes. For five months after the
move to Beijing, he was not allowed a bath. His weight dropped by 70 pounds;
Downey lost 30 pounds.
[Top of page]
Back From the Dead
Two years after their capture, the men saw each other for
the first time since the shootdown. They were put on trial together in a secret
military proceeding, the authorities apparently having been satisfied with the
take from the interrogations. Fecteau remembers being marched into the
courtroom and told to stand by Downey, who looked despondent and who was
dressed in a new prison suit. To cheer Downey as he stood next to him, Fecteau
whispered, “Who’s your tailor?” Downey smiled thinly. Such humor in the face of
adversity was needed, for the military tribunal convicted Downey, the “Chief
Culprit,” and Fecteau, the “Assistant Chief Culprit,” of espionage. Downey
received life imprisonment; Fecteau, 20 years. Downey’s immediate reaction was
relief, as he had assumed he would be executed. Fecteau could not imagine even
10 years in prison, but he felt sorrier for Downey than for himself. When
Fecteau remarked, “My wife is going to die childless,” Downey broke into
laughter, angering the guards.
That day, 23 November 1954, almost a year after the CIA had
pronounced Downey and Fecteau “presumed dead,” Beijing declared them alive, in
custody, and serving their sentences as convicted CIA spies. The first that
the Agency learned of it was through a New China News Agency broadcast.
At the same time, the Chinese announced the sentencing, also for espionage, of
the officers and crew of a US Air Force B29 aircraft, shot down over China
some weeks after Downey and Fecteau’s C47 flight.
[Top of page]
Trying to Secure Release
The Agency quickly assembled an ad hoc committee under
Richard M. Bissell Jr., then a special assistant to the DCI. Bissell’s committee
accepted the Chinese declaration as true and changed the men’s status from
“presumed dead” to “missing in action.” Further, the committee decided to
backstop the cover story that Downey and Fecteau were Army civilians traveling
as passengers on a contract aircraft between Korea and Japan; this required
coordination with the Pentagon and dealing with some two dozen persons outside
the government who were aware of the CIA affiliation of either Downey or
Fecteau: family members, officials of three insurance companies, two banks,
several lawyers, and the executor of an estate. Despite the potential for
leaks, the true status of the two men was kept secret by authoritative sources
for many years, and there was no deviation from the cover story for two
Contrary to the public histories that claim the CIA
“abandoned” the men during their captivity, the Agency continually argued for
official US efforts to induce the Chinese to free them and monitored such
efforts on the part of the State Department and other agencies. As soon as it was known that the
men were alive in late 1954, Bissell proposed that the US government put
pressure—diplomatic and covert—on Beijing to free the men. Bissell was
authorized to convene a working group to study the problem, but his proposal
went nowhere. Other US agencies were against forceful action against China; at
least one based its opposition on the assessment that Beijing had a good case
in international law against Downey and Fecteau.
Throughout the years of the men’s imprisonment, senior CIA
officers met periodically to discuss the case with counterparts at the State
Department and the Pentagon. During discussions in 1955 of a general release of
military prisoners associated with Korean War operations, the Agency was
rebuffed within the US government in its attempts to include Downey and Fecteau
in such a release, despite strong and highlevel CIA representations that the
CIA prisoners should be treated in the same way as US military personnel shot
down and captured by the Chinese.
The rationale given for separating the two categories was
that if the same line were adopted for military and civilian personnel, Beijing
might then deny the prisoner of war status of the former, and all would remain
in captivity. Thus, Washington took the case of its military personnel to the
UN General Assembly but did not include Downey and Fecteau in its demand for
CIA was alone in the US government in pressing the issue.
China released US military prisoners in 1955 but continued to maintain that
Downey and Fecteau were on a mission unrelated to the Korean War. And, despite
protests from CIA, official Washington kept up the fiction that they were
Army civilians whose flight strayed into Chinese airspace. For the next 15
years, US diplomats would bring up the matter during talks with Chinese counterparts
in Geneva and Warsaw, but US policy that there would be no bargaining, no
concessions, and no recognition of the Communist Chinese government prevented
[Top of page]
The Long Wait
There may be some among us who can imagine 20 days in
captivity; perhaps a fraction of those can imagine a full year deprived of liberty
and most human contact. But 20 years? Downey and Fecteau have consistently
sought to downplay their period of imprisonment; and neither has done what
arguably too many former CIA officers do these days with far less
justification: write a book. Downey has said that such a book would contain
“500 blank pages,” and Fecteau says the whole experience could be summed up by
the word “boring.”
No doubt boredom was among their greatest enemies, but of
course the men are downplaying a significant ordeal. What we know is that
living conditions in the first few years were harsh, improving after their
trials to spartan. Their sparsely furnished, small cells were generally cold
and drafty and allowed for little external stimuli—the windows were whitewashed
and a dim light bulb burned constantly. Food was simple—almost exclusively
rice, vegetables, and bread, with perhaps some meat on holidays. Both spent
stretches in solitary confinement that went on for years—one span was six
years. While the most intense questioning ended with their trial and sentencing
in late 1954, both were subjected throughout to verbal insults and psychological
abuse, particularly of a kind that Fecteau called “the whipsaw”: their captors
would improve conditions—providing better food, access to books and magazines,
or a luxury such as soap—only to take them away.
Worst of all were the hints at early releases. In 1955, for
example, Downey and Fecteau were placed together in a large cell housing the
Air Force officers and crew of the downed B29. For three weeks, the group of
Americans lived together, with little supervision and expanded privileges.
The Chinese allowed the CIA men to believe they would be released with the Air
Force group. Then, as Downey recalls, “the axe fell,” and he and Fecteau were
suddenly removed into solitary confinement.
Both men learned that complaining was usually counterproductive.
Once, when Fecteau said the tomatoes in his food gave him indigestion, all he
saw for three weeks was tomatoes—green tomatoes. After that, whenever he was
asked, “How is the food?” Fecteau would always respond with “adequate.” If he complained
that there was not enough water for his weekly bath, there would be less water
next time. Likewise, the men learned not to request medical treatment until a
condition was serious enough to draw attention to it.
[Top of page]
Insights from Captivity
Even if Downey and Fecteau do not consider their long
captivity suitable for literary treatment, there is great value for today’s
intelligence officers in how they played the bad hand dealt to them. The men’s
reflections on their imprisonment—generally made shortly after their release,
when impressions were freshest—provide a series of “lessons learned” that
could be relevant to others facing long captivity.
Never Give Up Hope. Downey and Fecteau affirmed that they always believed that CIA and the US government were
doing everything they could and that eventually they would be released. Both
rejected Chinese assertions that they had been abandoned, that no one cared
what happened to them. Fecteau, in fact, reasoned that he could never forget
he was an American and an Agency man— his captors threw it in his face so often
that he never lost his sense of identity and affiliation. Suicide was never
contemplated by either man.
Scale Down Expectations. While never losing the strategic conviction that they would return home, the men
learned to be wary, on a tactical level, of developments that were too good to
be true. Between periods of solitary confinement, for example, they often had
one or two Chinese cellmates. If either Downey or Fecteau appeared to be
getting on well with a Chinese prisoner, the American might find himself suddenly
in solitary for a year. After one such “whipsaw,” Fecteau was asked by a guard:
“Are you lonely now?” So the men disciplined themselves to lower expectations,
to the point that when Fecteau was taken to the Hong Kong border in December
1971, he made himself assume that the release he had been promised was another
“whipsaw,” until he actually crossed the bridge. Likewise, when Downey was
told in 1973 that he was being released, he responded with indifference, saying
he wanted to finish the televised pingpong match he was watching. He recalls,
“I had a tight rein on my expectations.”
Create a Routine. Both men said that it was essential to busy themselves with a daily schedule, no matter how
mundane each task might be. The prison environment, of course, mandated a
certain routine, but within that general outline, as Downey put it, one could
organize “a very full program every day.”
had my day very tightly scheduled—and if I missed some of my own selfappointed
appointments, I’d feel uneasy. As a result, the days really moved along.
Whereas if you just sit there and think about home, feeling sorry for yourself,
then time can really drag.
Downey would leap out of bed at the prison’s morning whistle
to begin a day that involved calisthenics, cleaning his cell, meals, reading
and studying, listening to the radio, and “free time” with letters, books and
magazines from home. Fecteau developed a similar routine but varied it by the day of the week, later
saying, “the weeks seemed long but the months went fast.” The Chinese
occasionally allowed them periodicals like the New Yorker and Sports
Illustrated. In addition, prayer and Bible study, as well as learning
Chinese and Russian, composed a big part of Downey’s day. Ironically, CIA had
assessed Downey in 1951 as disliking both being indoors and keeping to a fixed
Get Physical. Both men credit
exercise—pushups, situps, chinups, jogging, and other calisthenics for as
long as two or three hours every day—as vital to coping with the inactivity of
imprisonment. Fecteau commented:
found that, although sometimes it was very difficult to make myself do it, it
was a great help to my morale, especially if I was depressed. If I got up,
pushed myself to do exercises, it would make a tremendous difference in my
spirit. It also made me feel better, made me sleep better, but it was a lot
more than just physical [benefit]. The effect on my mental outlook, what I
thought of at the time as toughening my mind, was just tremendous.
Keep a Secret Space for Yourself.
It is clear that an important coping mechanism was each man’s ability to fence
off a part of his mind, deriving psychological benefit from keeping its very
existence secret from the captors. Not only did Fecteau get a morale boost
from being able to manufacture a consistent “cover confession,” he also kept
in his mind the thought that, as an American and a CIA officer, he was in
competition with the guard, the prison, and the Chinese regime. That helped his
selfdiscipline in not shouting or complaining but enduring in silence. Both
men reported that they enjoyed telling their captors the opposite of what they
Both men used their imaginations to good effect. Downey
enjoyed thinking, especially in the presence of an interrogator, guard, or
prison official, about how his salary was accumulating—he knew that his
$4,000ayear salary was something none of his captors would ever see. Fecteau
said he taught himself to become “an expert daydreamer”:
I remembered every kid in my sixthgrade class and where each one sat. I pictured
myself leaving my house in Lynn and driving to Gloucester and every sight I’d
see on the way…I could lose four hours just like that.
Fecteau also developed in his mind complex stories involving
madeup characters—a boxer, a baseball player, a football player, an actor, and
a songwriter—that became for him almost like watching a movie. As his imaginative
skill increased, he could even mentally change “reels.”
Remember that a Brain Cannot be Washed.
In 1952, rumors of Chinese “brainwashing” were rampant because of the behavior
of returned US prisoners from Chinese custody during the Korean War. It is not surprising,
then, that both Downey and Fecteau were fearful, particularly in the early
years, that they would be turned into ideological zombies or traitors to the
United States. Their concerns were heightened by Chinese rhetoric that they
must show true repentance and remold their thinking. While they were allowed
noncommunist reading materials, from about 1959 to 1969, they were required to
participate in daily study and discussions of the works of Marx, Lenin, and
Mao; the Communist Party platforms; and the like. Downey, at first, was
agitated by this, but he did not resist, thinking that he could fake enough
ideological reform to be granted a pardon when the 10th anniversary of their
capture came along in 1962—in retrospect, a vain hope. In any case, he found
that he had worried too much:
of the things that relaxed me was the eventual discovery that you cannot really
be brainwashed…. There are some things they can’t change [and] basically I
came out about the same as I went in…. They could scare you into saying just
about anything, maybe scare me, I should say, but actually believing it is a
much more difficult proposition.
Likewise, Fecteau observed that “they couldn’t wash my
brains or change my thinking unless I changed.”
Both men recognized at least three benefits from the study
sessions: They helped structure the days and pass the time; they provided
human interaction, however stilted and contrived; and they gave insights into
communist thinking and Chinese culture. As Fecteau put it: “I began to
understand how they thought and what they meant when they said this or that to
me. So then I began to look at the studies a bit differently [as] an
opportunity to study them and to understand them.”
Care for Each Other. Although Downey
and Fecteau saw each other infrequently during the two decades, they developed
a communications system. In the first years, they used distinctive coughs to
track each other’s whereabouts, or wrote words or sports scores in the dust
where the other man would see it. Later, they found ways to deliver notes and
also used sotto voce comments when possible. They were always in the same
prison, and not far from each other, which kept their spirits up more than if
they had been imprisoned in separate cities.
Even through the years of solitary confinement, each man
drew comfort from the thought of his nearby comrade. When Fecteau was told of
his impending release, his first question was whether Downey would be coming
out, too. After release, Fecteau spurned lucrative offers to tell his story
publicly because of the impact it might have on Downey’s fate. To this day, the
men remain close friends.
Find Humor Where You Can. In
recruiting Downey and Fecteau, CIA had noted that each man had a welldeveloped
sense of humor. This quality, far more than any particular training, helped
sustain them. There was little in their situation that made for flippancy, but
they were able to see the humor in the incongruous and the absurd. Downey, the
more serious of the two, was amused at the aboutface required in his study
sessions, when he was expounding the Soviet line about Albania before he became
aware that the new Chinese line was antiSoviet! Fecteau reflected for long
periods on humorous stories he would hear from cellmates: about the man jailed
for fortune telling who produced a pack of cards in his cell, or the man
ridiculed by his cellmates for believing that the world rested on the back of
huge turtle. He was amused by a book he was given, written by an Australian
communist, that glowingly described Chinese prison conditions quite at variance
with his own experience.
Be Patient. Because of insufficient training, both men acknowledged it took several years to develop
effective coping strategies. At the beginning, each thought he was going
crazy. Fecteau says he started to have “mental aberrations”: “The walls
started moving in on me. I would put my foot out in front of me and measure the
distance to be sure the wall wasn’t really moving.” Downey, besides being
“extremely scared,” was frustrated to the point of despair, seeing every day
in prison as a day robbed from him. As the men learned how to deal with their
fate, it became easier. Fecteau did not have a vivid imagination at first, but
he developed one as a skill. Downey maintained that, had he been released after
only five years, he would have come out in far worse shape than he did after 20
[Top of page]
the Home Front
It was the exemplary manner in which CIA headquarters handled
Downey’s and Fecteau’s affairs that partially redeems the disaster that led to
their predicament. Once the Chinese had broken the news that the two were
alive, the Agency quickly restored them to the active payroll. DCI Dulles had
them moved administratively from the Far East Division to a special list
maintained by the Office of Personnel (OP). OP officer George Cary handled
their affairs until 1957; thereafter, it was Ben DeFelice.
Although no precedent existed for administering the affairs
of civilian federal employees subjected to lengthy foreign imprisonment, OP
creatively applied existing law in managing the three primary areas: pay and
allotments, promotions, and maintenance of accrued funds. In addition, OP
representatives took on the delicate matter of dealing with the men’s families.
In making decisions on behalf of Downey and Fecteau, OP drew guidance from the
Missing Persons Act of 1942—intended for military MIAs—and subsequent Agency regulations.
Pay was the easiest area to address. Keeping the men’s pay
accounts in a current status would allow both the accrual of pay and the
immediate payment of funds upon their release. OP also ensured that the men
received separation allowances and post differentials, which were applied
retroactively and carried for the entire period of their imprisonment in
recognition of the “excessively adverse” conditions of the two men’s “foreign
assignment.” Deductions were made for federal income taxes and held in escrow
until such time as the men could file.
In 1958, when it looked as though the men would not be
released for a long time, DCI Dulles approved an OP plan to promote them from
GS7 to GS11, with a schedule of interim promotions and step increases applied
in a graduated, retroactive manner over the previous five years. Once their
ranks were in line with their contemporaries, Agency officials ensured regular
promotions and step increases as if they had continued unimpeded in their
careers. Eventually the Director of Personnel determined that Downey and
Fecteau should be promoted to the journeyman level during their imprisonment,
which was set at GS13; then one grade was added to help compensate for the
deprivations of captivity. So the terminal rank for the two was established at
GS14, to which both were promoted in 1971, just before Fecteau’s release. Both
men, after their release, were startled to learn of the promotions and that
they were earning some $22,000 per year—they were still thinking in terms of
their 1952 GS7 salaries of just over $4,000.
Of bigger concern to OP was handling the accrued funds
responsibly. DeFelice later outlined his philosophy: “We couldn’t give them
[back] their years of imprisonment, but we could at least assure financial
security for their future.” Doing so required considerable ingenuity. The
accrued funds were initially invested in Series E savings bonds, but the sums
soon passed the $10,000 annual ceiling. From 1960 to 1963, the funds were
invested in savings accounts under pseudonyms, but this had to be abandoned
when the Internal Revenue Service started requiring banks to report interest
income to depositors. Then, for about a year, the Agency simply credited the
accounts with interest payments at the prevailing bank rate. Finally, in late
1964, OP got DCI John McCone to approve investing the funds through a covert
proprietary company. When Fecteau was released in 1971, his accumulated
account came to almost $140,000; Downey’s in 1973 came to more than $170,000.
Each figure represented a nest egg of about seven times each man’s annual
salary as a GS14 at the time.
[Top of page]
Taking care of the families also required imaginative management.
Downey and Fecteau were allowed monthly packages from family, which they relied
on for morale and physical health—the food and vitamin supplements augmented
their sparse diet. While Downey’s mother could afford the cost of these packages,
it was a financial hardship for Fecteau’s parents. Legally, the Agency could
not simply give them the money to pay for the packages. Beginning in 1959,
DeFelice’s creative solution was to have the Agency apply an “equalization
allowance” to the men’s pay—typically used to offset the excess cost of living
at a duty post; it was a stretch to apply this to life in a Chinese cell. This
amount—several hundred dollars per year—was passed along to the families by
allotment. It was made retroactive to the date of their capture.
Allotments for the families were authorized based on the presumption
of the men’s wishes. Educational expenses for Fecteau’s twin daughters from
his first marriage, for example, were covered by allotments from his pay
account. When CIA representatives visited Fecteau’s parents and saw their
modest standard of living based on a fixed retirement income, allotments to
them from Fecteau’s pay account were increased, based on the assumption that
Fecteau would have so decided.
The Agency also helped family members with the several trips
they made to visit the prisoners, starting in 1958 when both mothers and
Downey’s brother went. CIA could do nothing officially to facilitate the trips
because diplomatic relations did not exist with the People’s Republic of China
and US policy required the prisoners’ CIA affiliation to be concealed. The
Agency gave the travelers briefings on what to expect—with regard to the communist
authorities and the prisoners’ likely attitudes—and what topics and behavior
to avoid. Because such trips were beyond the means of the families—and to keep
the prisoners’ accounts from being depleted—DCI Dulles authorized the
disbursement of Agency funds to the families through intermediaries for travel
As the Agency’s point of contact for the families, Ben
DeFelice held thousands of phone conversations over the years, especially with
Downey’s mother. Mary Downey was strong willed and capable of lecturing the
most senior government officials in every administration from Eisenhower to
Nixon on the need for the United States to do more to free her son. DeFelice
reported he talked to Mary Downey at least weekly, for up to several hours at a
time. Costs of the calls were always borne by the Agency. DeFelice and other OP
officials also wrote hundreds of letters and made dozens of visits to family
members over the years.
[Top of page]
Release and Readjustment
In the end, of course, this tragic tale becomes a happy one,
with the men restored to freedom and the Agency continuing its extraordinary
efforts to see these extraordinary men into ordinary retirement. Fecteau’s
release in December 1971, and Downey’s 15 months later, came about in the
context of the warming of relations between the United States and China. In
particular, 1971 was the year of “ping pong diplomacy,” the lifting of US
trade restrictions, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger’s secret mission
to Beijing, and the seating of the People’s Republic of China at the UN. That
fall, the two captives were taken to a Beijing department store—for the first
time—for new clothing, including overcoats. Fecteau remarked to Downey that
“either we are on our way out or we are going to stay in for another 20 years.”
On 9 December 1971, Fecteau was summoned to a tribunal,
which informed him of his impending release. Asking about Downey, Fecteau was
told that Downey’s case was more serious and that he would not be going.
Fecteau was allowed to leave some of his belongings for Downey, but because a
guard stood all the while in front of Downey’s cell, Fecteau could not
communicate with him. After a train trip to Canton, Fecteau found himself
walking across the LoWu bridge to Hong Kong. A British army officer gave him a
cigarette and a beer, which he described as “incredible.” Fecteau had served
19 years and 14 days of his 20year sentence.
The CIA evacuation plan, which had existed since 1955, was
put in motion and soon Fecteau was being examined at Valley Forge Military
Hospital. His physical condition astounded the doctors, but his demeanor was extremely
reserved—not used to interacting with people, he spoke in a low voice only when
spoken to and preferred to have decisions made for him. Within days, however,
he began opening up and taking charge of his new life, and soon he was back at
work giving interviews on his experience. Worried about Downey, Fecteau was
careful to say in public that he harbored no bitterness toward the Chinese
people or their government.
At the time of Fecteau’s release, Beijing announced that
Downey’s sentence had been reduced from life imprisonment to five years from
that date—a bitter disappointment both to the Agency and to the Downey family,
particularly his mother, by then in her seventies and in failing health.
Despite the highlevel talks and interventions, it was her severe stroke in
early March 1973 that accomplished her son’s release. President Nixon’s appeal
to Beijing on humanitarian grounds—together with his admission the previous
month in a press conference that Downey was a CIA employee—led to his freedom
after 20 years, 3 months, and 14 days in prison. He crossed the border into
Hong Kong on 12 March, noting that the salute he received from a British
soldier at his crossing was the first act of dignity shown him in
20 years. He arrived at his mother’s bedside the next day. Recovered
enough to recognize her son, Mary Downey admonished him: “You’re a celebrity
now, don’t let it go to your head.”
[Top of page]
on with Life
Both men came home in good physical and mental shape, free
of grudges, surprised at their GS14 rank and accumulated pay, stunned by changes
in the American landscape and culture, and grateful for what the Agency had
done with their affairs. Both were restored to CIA’s East Asia Division as
operations officers and underwent a series of debriefings. Each received the Distinguished
Intelligence Medal for “courageous performance” in enduring “sufferings and
deprivations, measured in decades, with fortitude [and an] unshakable will to
survive and with a preserving faith in his country.” Fecteau also was awarded
the Intelligence Medal of Merit for his conduct following his release, when,
in order to protect Downey’s chances for release, he refused lucrative offers
from the media and publishers to tell his story.
Both men, understandably, were interested in qualifying for
retirement, but even with all their years in prison, they were short of the
necessary 25 years. To make up the deficit, DeFelice made sure that both
received all the annual leave they had accumulated over two decades—90 percent
of which had technically been forfeited but was now restored. OP also helped
the men gain all the creditable government service due them—both had worked
temporary jobs with the post office in the 1940s, and Fecteau had served in
the Merchant Marine for a year. The final trick up DeFelice’s sleeve was his
initiative, following the Pentagon’s example with its returning military
POWs, to add one year’s “convalescent leave” to each man’s accumulated sick
leave. This allowed Downey and Fecteau to attend to their own affairs while
drawing full CIA salaries for some time after coming home. Downey used the time
to go to Harvard Law School, and Fecteau worked on home projects, took care of
his parents, and sought work as a probation officer. Fecteau qualified for
retirement in 1976; Downey, in 1977.
Richard Fecteau and John Downey have lived up to their
desire to focus on the future and not dwell on the past. They have refused to
make careers out of their experience and instead have lived full lives since
returning to America:
- Downey became a respected judge in Connecticut, specializing in juvenile matters. Now
retired, he continues to take on cases as needed, working three or four days a
week. The Judge John T. Downey Courthouse in New Haven is named for him. He
married in 1975; his ChineseAmerican wife, Audrey, was born in Manchuria not
far from where the plane was shot down. They have an adult son.
- Fecteau returned to his alma mater, Boston University, as assistant athletic director,
retiring in 1989. He reconnected with his adult daughters, who were two years
old when he was shot down, and he remarried his first wife, who had kept him in
her prayers while he was in prison.
Both have maintained friendships with former colleagues and
retain their sense of Agency affiliation.
DCI George Tenet brought Downey and Fecteau back to the CIA
in 1998, 25 years after Downey’s release, to present them with the Director’s
Medal. Their story, Tenet declared, “is one of the most remarkable in the history
of the Central Intelligence Agency.” On the occasion, Fecteau affirmed “This is
still my outfit and always will be,” and Downey declared “I am proud to be one
of you.” Tenet spoke of their “extraordinary fidelity”—words also inscribed on
their medals— and told them: “Like it or not, you are our heroes.” Downey, speaking
for himself and for Fecteau, replied: “We’re at the age where, if you want to
call us heroes, we’re not going to argue anymore, [but] we know better.”
John Downey, 22 when he began his captivity and almost 43
when released, is now 76. Richard Fecteau, 25 when shot down and 44 on his
return, will be 80 next August. Their story, and the lessons we derive from
it, will long outlive them. Their experience in China teaches many things: the
importance of good decisions in the field and the costs of bad ones; the
ability of men to say “it’s not over” when life seems to be at an end; the
resilience to get through a bad day—7,000 times in a row; and the strength
gained from faith that one is still cared about. But their experience back home
is also inspirational, for it teaches us that perhaps the most enduring lesson
of all is the absolute necessity of making every day lived in freedom count.
and Fecteau’s CIA affiliation was revealed as early as 1957 by a disgruntled
former USIA official and by early exposés of the Agency, such as David Wise and
Thomas Ross, The Invisible Government (New York: Random House, 1964).
Later brief treatments can be found in William Colby and Peter Forbath, Honorable
Men: My Life in the CIA (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978), in which
former Director of Central Intelligence Colby identifies Downey and Fecteau as
“CIA agents”; John Ranelagh, The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986); William Leary, Perilous Missions:
Civil Air Transport and CIA Covert Operations in Asia (University of
Alabama Press, 1984); Norman Polmar and Thomas Allen, The Encyclopedia of
Espionage (New York: Gramercy, 1997); Ted Gup, The Book of Honor (New York: Doubleday, 2000); and James Lilly, China Hands
(New York: Public Affairs, 2004). The public also can learn of the case
at the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, and through the
reference to Third Force covert operations is available in a National Security
Council report on “Current Policies of the Government of the United States
Relating to the National Security,” 1 November 1952, reproduced in Declassified
Documents Reference System (Farmington Hills, Michigan: Gale Group, 2006),
document CK3100265583. A description of the Chinese Third Force program is also
available in the cleared account by former CIA officer James Lilley, later US
Ambassador to Beijing, China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage,
and Diplomacy in Asia (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004), 78–83. Lilley
describes the “three prongs” of CIA covert operations against the Chinese
mainland at the time: the first was support of Nationalist efforts, the second
was the Third Force program, and the third comprised unilateral operations.
For a personal story of CIA’s China operations in concert with the Nationalist
Chinese, see Frank Holober, Raiders of the China Coast: CIA Covert
Operations during the Korean War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999).
details on the pickup system, see William Leary, “Robert Fulton’s Skyhook and
Operation Coldfeet,” Studies in Intelligence 38, no. 1 (Spring 1994), 67–68. The aircraft pickup system in use in 1952 was
not, as is sometimes asserted, the Skyhook system developed in the late 1950s
by Robert Fulton but was rather a more rudimentary arrangement known as the
“All American” system that the Army Air Force had modified during World War II
from a system to pick up mail bags.
Far East Division later assessed that the Chinese agent team probably had been
caught and doubled immediately after its insertion in July.
Fecteau’s reminiscences as told to Glenn Rifkin, “My Nineteen Years in a
Chinese Prison,” Yankee Magazine, November 1982.
years later, after his return, Fecteau remembered the recognition signal as a
flashlight signal; Downey thought it comprised three bonfires. Both were used.
recently published a highly fanciful, heroically written version of events
that night, which claims the Chinese awaited the CIA aircraft with 37 guns—
half of them machine guns, the rest antiaircraft cannon—along with 400 armed
security forces, all of which fired at the plane! The account also asserts
erroneously that Downey and Fecteau came out firing small arms before
surrendering. See “The WipeOut of the American Spies in An Tu County,” in Documentary
On the Support to Resist the U.S. and Aid Korea,
(Beijing: China Literary History Publishing House, 2000).
years of negotiations, the Chinese government in 2002 finally allowed a US
Defense Department excavation team into the area, where they discovered fragments
of the aircraft. In June 2004, the team found bone and tooth fragments, which
later were identified as Robert Snoddy’s. To date, no remains of Schwartz have
records make clear that, while the participation of CIA officers on overflights
of denied areas was to be minimized, local field commanders were allowed to so
decide on their own discretion.
date of the “presumed dead” finding was exactly a year and a day from the date
construed by the cover story for loss of the plane.
records over the decades refer to the “brutal treatment” or the “harsh
interrogation techniques” the men were subjected to, but the word “torture” was
never used to describe what they endured.
Downey later expressed regret for “every bit of information” he had picked up in the
Agency “via shop talk, idle curiosity, etc.”, and he “thanked God for each
instance” in which he had minded his own business.
sizes varied, from 5by8 feet to 12by15 feet. The men were moved often
enough to disorient and anger them.
recent example is Larry Tart and Robert Keefe, The Price of Vigilance:
Attacks on American Surveillance Flights (New York: Ballantine, 2001),
53–55. This book makes the preposterous claim that CIA would have nothing to do
with the men during and immediately after their captivity.
one point, CIA officers briefly considered a “commando raid” on the
Beijing prison to free the men, but there was too little information on
commenting on a draft of this article, Fecteau expressed his approval for its
lack of what he called “hype” and “melodrama.”
remembers once being given a food bucket containing a dead sparrow in water.
“It had not been cleaned; it had been just boiled in the water and that was
the first three years, each man could receive letters and one family package
per month and send one letter. In addition, they received monthly Red Cross
packages. Incoming mail was searched and read, with material objectionable to
the Chinese Communists withheld.
Abbot Gleason, Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War (London: Oxford University Press, 1997), 92– 95.
Downey reports he was caught passing notes only twice in 20 years.
mother was upset by the sight of him in prison in 1958. Fecteau discouraged
her from coming again, so she never made a return trip. Fecteau’s father
refused to go, fearing he would express anger at the Chinese authorities and
make his son’s predicament worse. After 1958, then, all trips were made by Downey family members.
 Fecteau liked to joke later that his good health could be attributed to “19
years without booze, broads, or butts.”
mid1973, CIA’s Far East Division (FE) had been renamed the East Asia Division
Merchant Marine service allowed him to retire before Downey even though the
latter had spent more time in CIA service.
All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this
article are those of the author. Nothing in the article should be
construed as asserting or implying US government endorsement of an
article’s factual statements and interpretations.