Extraordinary Fidelity

The Central Intelligence Agency is an institution defined by the unsung heroes that chart its course. This is the story of two extraordinary men. John Downey and Richard Fecteau joined the Agency in 1951 looking for adventure. Shot down on a clandestine flight into Communist territory, they survived two decades of hardship in Chinese prisons. They refused to become victims. They never lost hope, and they knew the Agency would never abandon them.

It's a story that lay in the recesses of institutional memory until it came to the attention of the Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet. [Tenet begins speaking] I thought, what better way to give great incentive by the evidence of what they sacrificed, the heroism that they displayed, what better way to teach younger officers? [Tenet finishes speaking]

In 1998, Tenet brought the men back to Langley to receive the Director's Medal. . . not in recognition for a mission that succeeded, but rather to honor the way they coped with a mission that failed.  [Tenet speaking] "We are forever proud that you are our colleagues. You have been an inspiration to intelligence officers who served with you and to the generations that have followed you. Your story simply put, is the most remarkable in the 50 years of the Central Intelligence Agency." [Tenet finishes speaking]

Nicholas Dujmovic, one of the Agency's staff historians, agrees.  In 2006, he undertook an exhaustive review of the classified record.

[Dujmovic speaking] I delved into the archives, uh the actual operational records, the memoranda, and was able to piece together what really happened. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

In those files he discovered both men recorded detailed debriefings shortly after they returned. [sound from recorded interview]

The story of Fecteau and Downey opens in 1951 at the height of the Korean War. U.S. tanks crossed the 38th parallel pushing north. The first engagement of the Cold War had turned red hot. That summer hundreds of graduating college seniors across America saw the CIA as their way into the fight.

[Downey speaking] Korean War broke out in June of '50 and you might say my generation, my little narrow, post-war generation uh.. that was our war and it was uh. . . something that we had to deal with. [Downey finishes speaking]

[Fecteau speaking] We're all gung-ho we thought this was it. We're were gonna get something done, it's something important. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

Both were recruited into an agency born out of the OSS. An agency that turned from fighting fascism to rolling back the Communist tide.

[Dujmovic speaking] The paramilitary function was huge, uh.. and growing, we sent our men to Fort Benning to learn how to jump out of aircraft, uh. . . we sent them to the range to learn uh. . . about weapons, uh. . . we sent them to specialized uhm. . .training courses to learn about the Communist threat. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

In October, 1949 Chinese Communist forces led by Mao Zedong seized power from the Chinese Nationalists and established the People's Republic of China.  Washington refused to recognize its legitimacy. Instead the CIA embarked on a course designed to undermine and eventually overthrow the Chicom regime.

[Downing speaking] The Third Force Program-- but it was really a kind of covert action program, a very ambitious one where we were hoping that we could unite with a third force in China, that is neither the Communists nor the discredited, we thought at the time, Nationalists... and try and bring that group uh. . . make them stronger and possibly bring them into power.

[Downing finishes speaking] By the spring of 1952, Jack Downey was in the Far East area of operations training ethnic Chinese agents to operate in Communist territory. But from the beginning security was compromised.

[Dujmovic speaking] We had these people housed together, training together, and once they learned of their uhm ... missions they talked among each other. Uh... so betrayal of one team would lead to betrayal of others unfortunately.  [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

The first team parachuted into Mainland China and was never heard from again. The second unit dropped into Manchuria in July and quickly established radio contact with Downey's CIA base. Two months later, a Chinese courier was dispatched to gather intelligence.

[Downey speaking] The report from the radio said he- he arrived safely, he was on his mission. The next time the message was that he'd returned from his mission, had much good news to tell and uh … was waiting extraction. [Downey finishes speaking]

The extraction plan called for a plane to swoop down to pluck the courier off the ground. It was an audacious plan not least because the Agency had never tried it before operationally.

[Fecteau speaking] They asked me if I would fly the mission into China. I said, "Sure."I didn't object at all. You come in about 50 feet off the ground with a pole that's extended from the plane and with a hook on it. Uh. . . and the man that we picked up would be sitting on the ground, facing the plane, with a cu- cut off ba--uh. . . parachute harness on. And we'd pick him up. He would be jolted off the ground, and then we'd- we'd just reel him in. I was running the machine... right off the bat, bing, no problem. They did it beautifully. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

Norman Schwartz and Robert Snoddy volunteered to fly the mission. Both were pilots with Civil Air Transport - a CIA proprietary known simply as CAT.  They stepped in after US Air Force pilots withdrew, insisting the aerial snatch maneuver was too risky.

[Fecteau speaking] We did it several times, no problem at all. I had nothing but co- complete confidence in'em.  I think they had more experience, but I also think they had more balls if you like, you know? [Fecteau finishes speaking]

As a result of the Fecteau-Downey case, it was decided that no CIA officer should fly over enemy territory. But that wasn't the rule at the time. It was the early days of the CIA, America was at war, and the inherent risk seemed justified.

[Tenet speaking] In a difficult situation, you can scrub it, you can analyze it, and at some point, somebody has to make the call. [Tenet finishes speaking]

So on the evening of November 29th 1952, Fecteau and Downey boarded the olive drab C-47 piloted by Norm Schwartz and Bob Snoddy, two of CAT's very best. Fecteau remembers his final set of instructions from the CIA ground crew.

[Fecteau speaking] If you get shot down, don't tell 'em you're CIA. Tell 'em anything, but don't tell 'em you're CIA.  I mean, what're you gonna tell ‘em, you're with the National Geographic Society? [Fecteau finishes speaking]

One recurring myth associated with the mission is that Fecteau and Downey hitched a ride for the heck of it.

[Dujmovic speaking] The story that had been received as part of organizational lore wasn't right. It was said that they were on a joyride, they didn't need to be on that, it was even said that uh. . . the plane was dropping a team into Manchuria. . . none of this is true. And as a historian I felt like I need to set the record straight both for the historical record and for the sake of the men. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

At 21:40, their unmarked plane took off heading due north. [Downey speaking] We got to the drop zone around midnight as I recall, 12, 12:15, on time. They had bonfires in a pattern. My recollection was three- three in a straight line. [Downey finishes speaking]

[Fecteau speaking] All I could see was a few people. I thought, "This is great." And they waved. I thought it was legit, you know, it looked good to me.  When they flash the red light down and I pushed out the cargo, ... And then we flew away, giving them time to get the apparatus for pick up. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

[Dujmovic speaking] They did a dry run first coming in low and slow, uh.. made that pass, and then the next pass was what they called the wet run, this is- this is for real. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

[Fecteau speaking] I looked and there was a man sitting with the parachute harness on the ground. The poles are up. It looked beautiful. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

[Downey speaking] And uh. . . we started our run. And just as we hit the target, uh. . . as they say, all hell broke loose. [Downey finishes speaking]

[Fecteau speaking] They had two American 50s, and they- they--right into the cockpit. The uh. . . tracers came up through the floor of the plane, all around Downey and I, and they were b-- they were bouncing up and down inside the plane like popcorn. Then they hit the wings and the w-- and the plane caught fire. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

[Downey speaking] The bulk of the fire seemed to be concentrated on the- the pilot's compartment and the uh.. . the- the uh.. engines Seemed to me plowing through treetops for a long distance and then pancaked, belly landed in a- an open space. [Downey finishes speaking]

[Dujmovic speaking] The pilots were dead, but in the back the men bounced around like peas in a tin can, but they survived, they were shaken up but otherwise unhurt...They stumble out of the aircraft and very quickly find themselves surrounded. . . by yelling and hollering Chinese security forces. [Dijmovic finishes speaking]

It was immediately obvious this was a well planned and executed ambush

[Fecteau speaking] They were coming from everywhere and they're all screaming and shouting and a couple of shots were fired, unbelievable. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

[Downey speaking] The first guy who reached us gave Fecteau a whack across the head. [Downey finishes speaking]

[ Fecteau speaking] and I swore at him, and he took out a pistol and pointed it at me. One person spoke English. He said, "You know, your future is very dark," But the worst is when they brought in this guy and said, "Who is Jack Downey?" and he pointed at Jack. And I thought, "Oh boy, that's bad." [Fecteau finishes speaking]

[Dujmovic speaking] Downey was in the worst possible situation, because the Chinese knew all about him, from what the ethnic agent team had told them, Jack Downey had no story to preserve. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

Back at Downey and Fecteau's base, CIA received a radio message from the team on the ground. The pick-up had gone well. The C47 was heading home. Then silence. Hours passed with no radar contact. The plane simply disappeared. By morning a cover plan was put into effect.  [Drewyer speaking]

The Agency and the Pentagon and Civil Air Transport folks came up with a story that it was a commercial CAT flight going from Korea to Japan and it was lost in...The Sea of Japan... As a result, the military undertook two-plus days of intense search for the plane.  [Drewyer finishes speaking]

In reality, the CIA was simply buying time.

[Downing speaking] If they weren't dead, if they had been captured that certainly within a period of time, fairly short period of time, they would have surfaced. The Chinese would have wanted to make some propaganda hay out of this, and in the absence of such-any such indication that they were presumed dead. [Downing finishes speaking]

On December 4th 1952, DCI Walter Bedell Smith signed letters of condolence to the men's families. Each was listed as a passenger on an overdue commercial flight and the families were told "There is grave fear that he may have been lost." By then Fecteau and Downey had been transported 300 miles to the Manchurian provincial capital of Shenyang. There they were shackled and placed in isolation.

[Downey speaking] Prison in Shenyang was a-- it could've been a former embassy building. It was a tall, ornate building with a big courtyard. We were in the basement and uh. . . and there were cells down there...we were alone... tightly guarded. . . and we wore ankle chains for the first 11 months, something like that. [Downey finishes speaking]

[Fecteau speaking] You can feel pretty lonely in- in solitary confinement. They said, "We can do whatever we want with you. The Geneva Convention does not include you.""Nobody knows you're alive." They kept repeating it for two years. "No one knows you're alive. We haven't decided what to do with you yet." And of course, I knew they were right. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

The Chinese demanded both men confess their crimes. More ominously, they wanted names and places and operational details. Initially Downey tried to maintain cover. But with inadequate training he was not prepared for this ordeal.

[Downey speaking] I found it very difficult to keep track of my false story. I mean, I- I was giving all kinds of uh. . . stories and using false names and I'd forget who-- which name I'd given to which guy. [Downey finishes speaking]

[Fecteau speaking] That was tough, because I didn't know what he was saying, and he didn't know what I was saying. I never saw him again till ---two years later. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

The interrogation lasted up to twenty hours a day. Both men forced to stand until they collapsed. Sleep deprivation was part of the ordeal. No more than a half hour at a time-in a remorseless cycle that went on for weeks. Jack Downey felt totally alone and scared.

[Downey speaking] There was no end to what I was facing. I mean, there was no uh. . . if I can hang on for a week, I'll be okay, a week or the war's gonna be over. There's nothi-- I was uh. . . facing a- an indefinite period of uh. . . incarceration, and there was no way I could get out of it. I think it was the 16th day -- by my count. I admitted I was in the CIA. I remember – I burst out crying at the time. [Downey finishes speaking]

He remained haunted by the feeling he'd betrayed the agency. A view rejected by those who came to understand what he'd endured.

[Tenet speaking] Look he didn't know whether he was gonna live, die, had no idea what was going to happen to from the perspective  - the people that had betrayed him had already given up the whole-- he didn't give up anything that hadn't been given up.  I mean, he was in jail because people already compromised the program. And he comported himself as a hero in my view. [Tenet finishes speaking]

Dick Fecteau took a different approach. The Chinese agents didn't know him, so he created a story that shortened his time at CIA and allowed him to withhold vital information.

[Fecteau speaking] I kept going over it and over it in my mind. Once I got the story straight, I kept-- I- I memorized it so I can m-- remember, no matter how many days the interrogation went on, I could-- I could come out with what I'd said. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

He knew they wanted names, so he gave them names - and physical descriptions... of the Boston University football team.

[Fecteau speaking] I gave the names of the football team, and I said, "Hey, I can get away with stuff here."Sometimes I couldn't. Sometimes they'd get angry and like, "Zhan Qi lai! Stand up!" and they'd make me stand for hours, then put me down again. But I got away with a few things. They didn't get any names from me. It made life worth living in that lousy place. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

The CIA still had no idea the men were alive. In 1953, as the first anniversary of the loss of the C47 approached, the agency wrestled with the right course for Jack Downey's widowed mother, and Fecteau's new wife Joanne, and his twin daughters from a previous marriage.

[Downing speaking] As this happened in 1952, the agency's about five years old and it had absolutely no experience with anything of this magnitude. [Downing finishes speaking]

With no evidence that the men were alive, the new DCI Allen Dulles wrote to the families notifying them that their loved ones were presumed dead.

[Downing speaking] Part of the thought process was that it might be more advantageous to the families to declare the men dead and pay the insurance proceeds. [Downing finishes speaking]

[Tenet speaking] I think people understand you made a decision based upon the information you had at hand. You made a reasonable assumption of what the circumstance was. You had some obligation to try and come to some closure with the family, and you did. [Tenet finishes speaking]

But the families' closure was an illusion. Half a world away, the men were enduring incredible hardship. By the spring of 1953, they were moved from Shenyang to Beijing. There, they each remained in solitary confinement. A disconnected world defined by sensory deprivation. Overhead a single bulb burned day and night. They were completely alone.

[Fecteau speaking] 5 by 8, four cement walls. A thick wooden door. Th-there was a window, but it was covered over. And in the door, there was a little eyehole that had a piece of wood that slid over it. And every once in a while, it would slide up and you'd see an eye, and then it would close again. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

[Downey speaking] The first three years were uh. . . miserable. I had no knowledge of the- what's going on in the world. I had no contact with anybody else. [Downey finishes speaking]

Jack Downey remembers sitting on his mattress shaking uncontrollably. This was the closest he came to a mental breakdown. Dick Fecteau found that after weeks in solitary, he started hallucinating.

[Fecteau speaking] For a while there I got the feeling the walls were moving in on me. Then one day I'm sitting against the wall and I put my foot out and I measured the distance between my foot and the wall. That phenomenon went away completely and never came back again . . . Then there was a voice. I'd wake up in the middle of the night and I could swear there's somebody at the door saying, "Hey, Dick. Hey, Dick."And I actually went over to the door a couple times, said, "What?"And there was no answer so I thought, "Oh my god, I'm- I'm imagining things. This is awful. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

By the Fall of 1954, the Chinese government had extracted what they wanted and was ready to put Fecteau and Downey on trial.

[Dujmovic speaking]  The charges leveled against Downey and Fecteau uh. . . basically amounted to making war on the Chinese people, inciting insurrection, uh. . .engaging in assassination plots. Basically trying to overthrow the government. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

[Downey speaking] I'd been waiting for a trial f- from the beginning, and time went by. No trial, no trial. Finally I g-- I said, "Well, I guess there's no trial."And uh. . . there's nothing except continuation of the status quo. So when the trial came, and I thought, "Oh god, I might get ten years for this, because they're claiming I'm the master spy." [Downey finishes speaking]

[Fecteau speaking] I was taken separately down to the uh. . . the courthouse. . . and oh, Downey was already there. That's the first time I had seen Downey in two years. And he had on the black suit, you know, which - he looked kind of funny, and I said to him, "Hey Jack, who's your tailor?" And he started laughing. And the guy behind me gave me a boot in the back of the legs and it really hurt. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

[Downey speaking] And It was fair to call it a show trial. It wasn't a trial as we would understand it. On the other hand, I was not an innocent lad who f-- you know, fell into the hands of robbers I had been trying to overthrow their government. [Downey finishes speaking]

Also charged were the nine ethnic Chinese that Downey had trained. The vanguard of the Third Force now stood accused of treason. The verdicts handed down after just one day of evidence.

[Downey speaking]  "Life, life, death, life, death," coming down. I thought, "Holy shit!" Uh. . . I went from uh. . . fearing ten years, to being grateful for life. [Downey finishes speaking]

Downey received a life sentence, Fecteau was sentenced to 20 years. Returned to solitary, they confronted the prospect of dying inside a Chinese prison cell.

[Fecteau speaking] Depressed, yeah . But I didn't wanna show it. I didn't think I could live 20 years in there frankly. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

[Downey speaking] It really hit me that night. I thought, "Boy, here's your reward for buck-knuckling under to their interrogation. Now you got a life sentence." [Downey finishes speaking]

The Chinese were now ready to break their two year silence. "This is Radio Peking.- -John Thomas Downey and Richard George Fecteau, both special agents of the Central intelligence Agency were convicted of seriously jeopardizing the security of China. Nine other ...."

[Downing speaking] Suddenly we learned from the new China news agency through a broadcast that there's been a trial and that Jack Downey was sentenced to life, Richard Fecteau was sentenced to 20 years in Chinese prison. That changed the game completely. [Downing finishes speaking]

[Dujmovic speaking] Downey and Fecteau pled guilty because they knew essentially they were guilty, the Chinese had caught them red-handed, so to speak. And it's interesting because it mirrors the discussion within the U.S. government at the time when it was mooted that maybe we should try to get these guys out uhm... through a commando raid or something like that . Uh.. and the government, in the U.S. government it was expressed "Well, you know, the Chinese got the goods on them. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

There was no appetite for a major diplomatic offensive to secure the men's release from a Chinese government Washington refused to recognize as legitimate. After the loss of more than 30,000 American lives, the Korean War was finally over. But Communist China still held Americans in uniform. Pressing the case of two convicted spies might jeopardize their chances for release.

[Downing speaking] The CIA ran out of options. We worked with the State Department, with the uh. . . Department of Defense and with a number of other agencies that had contact with the communist Chinese. Nothing was going to work. [Downing finishes speaking]

There was the immediate issue of preserving cover. Washington's official position was that the men were civilian employees with the US Army. But letters of condolence had been sent on CIA letterhead and signed by the DCI.

[Downing speaking] Those letters had gone to more than two dozen people ultimately, not by design from the DCI but because lawyers got involved with the settlement of affairs, executors got involved, family members got the letters, bankers, several bankers because the families had to settle all of these affairs using these letters of presumed death. [Downing finishes speaking]

In January 1955, as the agency continued to find ways to support the families and preserve its secrets, Fecteau and Downey's world was about to be transformed.

[Downey speaking] I was taken down and told to go into a room. I walked in and the room was full of people. And I- I did a double take and then realized, they were westerners. And I- I was just—as one of the big moments of our time in China. [Downey finishes speaking]

The westerners were actually the 11 surviving officers and crew of a US Air Force B29 shot down on a leaflet dropping mission along the North Korean - Chinese border three months after Fecteau and Downey's flight. The B29 crew was also tried. But since they were considered combatants rather than spies, they received significantly shorter sentences. For three weeks the Americans lived together with little supervision and expanded privileges.

[Fecteau speaking] I wondered why they put us together. – then of course they took all the pictures and-and it made sense. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

[Dujmovic speaking] The Chinese filmed them playing volleyball outside -- trying to demonstrate a benevolence in the captivity of these Americans. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

[Downey speaking] The B29 guys were absolutely sure that we're going home. That's what this meant. I wasn't about to agree to that. I still kept my fears. [Downey finishes speaking]

The guards encouraged Downey and Fecteau to believe that the release of one group would result in the release of all. It wasn't true. But the Chinese weren't alone in separating the crew of the B29 from the case of the two CIA officers.

[Dujmovic speaking] A decision not to include Downey and Fecteau in the uh . . . general release of military prisoners, uh. . . because it was thought on the part of the U.S. government that if we insist on including Downey and Fecteau the civilian, the CIA people who were essentially guilty as charged, that we could uhm . . put at risk the entire prisoner release. And so they weren't included. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

"Eleven weary men trudged the last few yards after two and a half years of captivity and torture in Red China."

[Downey speaking] And that was another major reality check. I realized they were getting out and we weren't. [Downey finishes speaking]

Thrown back into solitary Downey tried to be upbeat, tried to take solace from surviving just one more day, or week, or month, or year.

[Downey speaking] Around the third or fourth year I was in prison, you know, I just pulled myself together and said, "Enough of this crap". . . the- the practical tool of coping was to be as busy as I could. I-I had my day scheduled right down to the last minute, you know. I really found the most pernicious thing in prison was feeling sorry for yourself. [Downey finishes speaking]

In addition to keeping his mind and body active, Dick Fecteau drew his strength from flouting the system.

[Fecteau speaking] I found a nail when I was walking outside, exercise. There was a nail on the ground. I stopped to fix my sandal, and I put the nail in the sandal. Brought it back to the cell and then, I think two years, to dig a little at a time. Finally I got a hole through. I looked. All I could see was feet. All that work, and all I could see was-- it was disappointing as hell. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

[Dujmovic speaking] An important coping mechanism that both men came to in their own unique way -- was keeping their minds occupied, with Downey it seemed to be more a matter of keeping to a busy routine, so he would construct an elaborate schedule for every day that involved everything from cleaning his cell, to preparing food, -- to physical exercise. Fecteau used his imagination more, he would sit on his bunk and just think about things, he would create stories. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

[Fecteau speaking] I'd think to myself, "Today I'm gonna drive to Gloucester," and I'd think all the roads I would take and the turns I would take. I could really take myself out of the cell that way. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

The one tangible consequence of being convicted as spies was that the Chinese finally allowed the men to communicate with their families.

Fecteau to his wife. "December 11th 1954, Peking, China. Dearest JoAnne, Over two years have crawled by, an eternity of days, and now at last I am allowed to write you. ...The memory of our short but so very happy life together has been my bright star throughout it all." But even this privilege compounded Dick Fecteau's ordeal. For two months he pleaded with his wife to write him back. Fecteau to his wife "February 10th 1955, . . . I still have yet to receive a letter from you but I hope to get one real soon. As each day comes I find myself hoping that it will be "the day."  Then his mother broke the news that JoAnne was dead. She'd died in a house fire a year and a half earlier.

It was 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, Elvis was drafted, and a young CIA personnel officer, Ben DeFelice, took over the Fecteau-Downey case and for the next 16 years, became an unwavering advocate.

[Downing begins] Ben was a tough taskmaster....  we considered him a benevolent dictator but many of us would say to Ben when are we gonna see the benevolence? But he was a very smart man. [Downing finishes speaking]

[Tenet speaking] You could just see him, in reading the narrative, doing everything he knows how to do to make sure these people are taken care of. Certainly it was early in the history of the organization. Everybody was learning. It wasn't rules and regul-- "This is what we need to do. These are our values. We need to find a way to make sure this works." [Tenet finishes speaking]

[Downing speaking] Ben said we've got to start providing strong support to the families, financial support."And towards that end, Ben developed programs that I don't think anybody would've thought about. [Downing finishes speaking]

Through trial and error, DeFelice and others finally hit on the idea of investing their salaries in a financial institution used for covert transactions. This way they could use the cover to build a nest egg without disclosing their identity or affiliation.

[Downing speaking] Well, they felt strongly that we needed to go right to the director of the Agency on something as serious as this. It didn't take him a minute to approve that. [Downing finishes speaking]

As Ben DeFelice navigated the bureaucratic maze; Jack Downey's mother became a force to be reckoned with.

[Dujmovic speaking] Mary Downey was an incredible woman, she was not shy about petitioning everyone in the U.S. Government, or the Chinese Government for that matter, on the issue of her son in prison. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

[Downing speaking] Mary thought that Ben should be capable of going to the Pentagon and single handedly telling them "Release my son." [Downing finishes speaking]

[Tenet speaking] You could see this woman not giving up on her son, ever. Probably not atypical of strong Irish Catholic families and- and . . . and she could a been my Greek mother. I mean, that's how tough she was. [Tenet finishes speaking]

[Dujmovic speaking] When the opportunity presented itself in 1958 to go to China and visit her son imprisoned. At first the U.S. government tried to dissuade her, uh. . . talked about the problems of even issuing her a passport for the trip. The State Department eventually relented, said that this is not an official trip, but as a humanitarian mission, we will pose no objection. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

The CIA even found a way to covertly pay for the trip that included Mary Downey, Jack's brother Bill Downey and Dick's mother Jessie Fecteau.

[Downey speaking] And I was of course, thrilled to see her, and- and my brother was with her. And thrilled to be able to put her mind at ease that I was okay. [Downey finishes speaking]

[Dujmovic speaking] CIA had briefed the mothers in advance, uh. . . that it would be unwise to talk politics, uh. . . certainly it would be uh . . disastrous to criticize uh. . . the Chinese government. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

[Downey speaking] They said, "You can talk about your crime to your mother, and you can-- you can tell her about that."And I figured they're gonna use this for propaganda big time [Downey finishes speaking]

[Fecteau speaking] They came to my cell and said, "Your mother is here to see you."I said, "What?"They said, "My mother-- your mother's here to see you. We're taking you out to see your mother."... I walked out, my mother's sitting there behind a table, there was a microphone on the table, they had me sit on the other side, we made it very difficult, and I go, "Oh, they're going to even turn this into propaganda, damn."But they let her take a couple of photographs of me and but I, you know, I felt really bad for her. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

[Dujmovic speaking] And at the end of it uh. . . Dick suggested that she not make the uh. . . trip again and he- he wrote to her later saying uh. . . "Wonderful to see you but it just takes so much out of me and I'm so depressed now uhm. . . that it- it'd be best if- if you didn't do this again." [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

Mary Downey would make other trips to China to press the case for releasing both men. But Jessie Fecteau reluctantly honored her son's request.

[Dujmovic speaking] She never went back. It was a dark time for Downey and Fecteau. They went back into solitary confinement. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

It was 1959 and outside the confines of their cells, Chinese society was reeling. Mao demanded the country transform itself from an agrarian to an industrial society with one "great leap forward." It unleashed a tsunami of change.

[Downing speaking] The Chinese communist leadership was trying to get control of China, this huge amorphous country. Uh. . . and uhm . . . and they were trying to get a hold of their minds as well as everything else. They were beginning- they were beginning to put the clamps down and to really, sort of, tighten the screws inside. [Downing finshes speaking]

Despite this, the Chinese authorities wanted Fecteau and Downey to appreciate the country's progress following a decade of communist rule. America had a distorted view of China. Mao Zedong, they insisted, was presiding over an economic miracle.

[Downey speaking] They took us around, showing us the- the achievements of socialism in the late '50s. [Downey finishes speaking]

[ Fecteau speaking] One week trip was around Beijing. Took us into the Forbidden City, going up to the Great Wall. . .Uh. . . and the whole deal was, you know, we're not as bad as you think and so forth, and they took us to some housing I remember that was recently built and they said, "You have anything like this in America?"And I said, "Well, it was a lot better, you know."And she screamed at me, "For you, even the moon over America is more beautiful. You will never learn. You're going to stay here a long time. You're a fool."She was shouting at me. I said, "I'm just telling you—answering your question." [Fecteau finishes speaking]

But there was also much the Chinese didn't want the Americans to see. The failures of the Great Leap Forward resulted in a widespread famine that took over 30 million lives. It wasn't long before the food shortage reached inside the prison walls.

[Fecteau speaking] A sparrow in a bowl. I looked at it. It had the feathers still on it, and the head—and the le-- and feet, what the hell do I do with this? I tried to pull out the feathers. There was nothing. I passed it back and later on in interrogation they said to me, "You didn't like that food."I said, "I-- just feathers and feet." [Fecteau finishes speaking]

[Downing speaking] It's not surprising that uh… the- the food that they would give to their uhm. . . detested uh. . . foreign, imperialist, spy prisoners would be even worse than the usual fare which I'm sure was not good." [Downing finishes speaking]

[Fecteau speaking] Gruel for breakfast for 19 years, nothing else. And the fall of the year, sometimes where they'd put some pieces of sweet potato in it, but that was it. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

Life for the prisoners was reduced to a mind numbing routine. Fecteau and Downey found the days dragged on but, to their surprise, the months and years rushed by.

[Dujmovic speaking] One thing that I'm struck by is there's a lot of detail uh. . . about what happened uh. . . to the men from the time of their uh. . . crash uh. . . in Manchuria, to those early years. . . then things seemed to settle into a long, almost featureless horizon. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

The news they received from home was heavily sanitized. The positive redacted, the negative emphasized. The CIA officers were sleep walking through one of the most turbulent decades in American history.

[Fecteau speaking] The assassination of President Kennedy, they came in and told me about that and the Kent State riots. That was it. The whole of the United States could have been under water, I wouldn't have known. They put a man on the moon and I- I had no idea. I got that when I came out. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

They were forced to listen to the Chinese view of the world broadcast on Radio Peking. "This is Radio Peking." We begin our program with a quotation from Chairman Mao Zedong". The news was heavily controlled by the Communist Government, but by the mid 1960's it brought news of a new war that would impact their lives. "Here are the headlines in today's news. The South Vietnam Liberation Armed Forces in Nam Boa have wiped out large numbers of enemy effectives."

On September 20th 1965 US Air Force Captain Philip Smith's F-104, took off from Da Nang heading out over the Gulf of Tonkin. It was to be his last combat mission. Chinese radar picked him up when he strayed into their airspace over Hainan Island. Radio Peking announced his shoot down and capture. The Army and People - - shot down six intruding U.S. gangster planes on Thursday ... Fourteen months later Phil Smith was transported to the same prison where Fecteau and Downey were being held. Smith was in solitary, but Downey wanted to assure him that he wasn't totally alone.

[Smith speaking] Downey was out mopping the hall and he came by my cell and he started whistling uh. . . the Air Force song Off We Go in the Wild Blue Yonder, like that, and he was doing it where I could hear and understand him, my what a--what a uh. . . uplift that was. [Smith finishes speaking]

The CIA men were subjected to an intense daily program of political re-education. By now Fecteau had a Chinese cellmate named Ma Ha who they suspected was spying on them for the Chinese. Initially the Americans feared they were being brainwashed. But quickly came to feel that was a myth. Instead the indoctrination was a welcome diversion from the monotony of their lives.

[Fecteau speaking] Then they brought me in some Karl Marx, Lenin, Mao Zedong. I read-- I read Karl Marx, "Das Kapital. " I'll read anything. I told them, "Give me it, I'll read anything."Something to get your mind off it, you know. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

In early 1966 a reluctant Phil Smith was forced to join the group.

[Fecteau speaking] And they brought him in for uh. . . political discussions. And he was funny, "I'm not  talking to any damn-- well, my God, I'm not going to have a damn thing to do with it."You know, and I'm trying to tell "Hey, just go along with it, no harm."You might learn something about what they're talking about, that's why they are. When I read Marx, hey, I find out what the hell they mean. But he- he was adamant, you know, they're not going to-"name, rank and serial number, damn them."I- I got a kind of a kick out of him, like a country boy, you know. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

There was one consolation. Once the indoctrination was over for the day, they were left alone and could sneak brief conversations.

[Smith speaking] My initial reaction was wow, what- what a great relief it is to finally be able to talk to somebody. Their physical condition was great and their mind was great. And when they told me what they'd been through I thought, my, my, how in the world can they do that? I was just amazed. [Smith finishes speaking]

The three Americans suspected it was only a matter of time before they'd be thrown back into solitary confinement. Part of a process Fecteau called "the whipsaw."It was a familiar pattern. Their captors improved conditions-providing better food, access to books and magazines, or a luxury such as soap-only to take them away again. So beating the system kept the prisoners going.

[Smith speaking] You want to talk, and the fact that they don't want you to makes you want to do it even more. I came up with this plan, and I wrote it in a- on a little piece of paper. Got between uh. . . Maha and Fecteau and cupped my hand and touched his hand. He looked down. I dropped that piece of paper in his hand, which established- our communication system. The piece of paper said that uh. . . we could drop notes in the latrine, back up underneath the, the wash basin. There was a space up there. Uh.. . You would be able to see it if you got down on your hands and knees and looked up, but just walking in you wouldn't see it. [Smith finishes speaking]

A rusty nail attached to the screen in the window alerted the men to a hidden message. Turned to the 3 o'clock position it indicated that Smith wanted to send a message. The 6 o'clock position was the return signal indicating it was safe to do so.9 o'clock was the crucial marker. That indicated a note had been left and was ready for pickup.  The messages exchanged were often as trivial as football scores. But that wasn't the point.

[Smith speaking] We were flouting the- the prison system. We were- we were- uh. . . we were figuring out a way to beat them, and that uh. . . boosts your morale. [Smith finishes speaking]

Outside the prison, --China was going through another revolutionary spasm. In 1966 Mao initiated a radical program of political purification. The Cultural Revolution was the most chaotic period of all uh. . . in the history of the Chinese communists in power, uh.. up to this very day. . . It started because Mao feared the people had lost - - their revolutionary fervor and Mao had given too much of himself to this and he was determined not to let this happen. These young Red Guards, as they were called, - - ran rampage all over China.

The cadres that ran the prison were overthrown, and some of the rank and file took their places. The interpreter who we all hated . . . she was overthrown and she was being denounced out in the courtyard.

[Fecteau speaking] I told my cellmate and he "A-ha, they caught up on the cultural revolution." [Fecteau finishes speaking]

As the country ripped itself apart, the confines of a Chinese cell block seemed strangely comforting.

[Smith speaking] If they break through the walls and overcome the guards - they may go through there and--with guns and start shooting the people they don't want, like Americans."So, I had mixed emotions about whether I wanted this- this turmoil on the outside of the wall to succeed or not. And I figured I was probably better off in the prison locked up than I was out there. [Smith finishes speaking]

Eventually, even the distraction of the Cultural Revolution passed. After 17 years Jack Downey found solitude a blessing rather than a curse.

[Downey speaking] I reached a point where, in the last several years, I preferred to be alone. The problem is, when you're in prison with somebody, his problems are your problems. I had enough to do to cope with my own situation." [Downey finishes speaking]

Fecteau and Downey insist they always knew the agency wouldn't forget them. But they couldn't have imagined how their plight consumed Ben DeFelice. For 16 years they remained his primary focus.

[Downing speaking] We had some naysayers along the years that "Why are we doing all this? Why do we need to do these special investments? Uhm . . These men are never going to be released." Ben would come out of his seat on that. He loved these men as if they were his sons. [Downing finishes speaking]

DeFelice argued that, while the agency could never give back the years, it could provide financial security if Fecteau and Downey ever did come home by promoting them along with their peers.

[Downing speaking] That was significant because he'd promoted them from early years, roughly $4,000 a year -- I think that was a GS5 salary -- up through the journeyman level for an operations officer, which was GS13. [Downing finishes speaking]

Ultimately both men reached GS 14 in recognition for service on a mission that stretched over 20 years.

[Tenet speaking] We absolutely, unassailably can look you in the eye and say, "If you are one of us and part of our family, we won't forget you, we won't forget your family. We will take care of you, no matter what the circumstances." And, you know, this is living proof to everybody, that the Central Intelligence Agency looks after its people. [Tenet finishes speaking]

By the early 1970's America was emerging from its own political upheavals. After a painful decade, a new president promised to bring the country together.

[Nixon speaking] It can be and it will become the great young generation. That's what I believe and that's what you are going to make it become. [Nixon finishes speaking]

Out of chaos, a new global vision was taking shape. Richard Nixon, the implacable anti communist, was about to play the China card.

[Downey speaking] I was called out and they read the communiqué, which indicated that Henry Kissinger had made a secret visit to Beijing and arranged so President Nixon would be coming to China. And I just packed my bags right-- I knew this was the- the break I'd been waiting for, and if I lived, I was gonna get home. [Downey finishes speaking]

The initial signs were good. For the first time in over a decade Fecteau and Downey were taken out of the prison and driven to the heart of Beijing.

[Fecteau speaking] Well we were both surprised at being taken to a department store, what the hell is going on? We got new suits, and I said to Downey "It could be very good or it could be very bad. Either we're going to get out or we're going to stay another 20." And he agreed. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

It was, in fact, very good news, at least for Dick Fecteau. In December 1971 he went before a military tribunal.

[Fecteau speaking]And one of them said to me "You are going to be released. You should be very grateful to the Chinese people and to Chairman Mao. You may not speak to anyone on the way out and you must behave yourself or you will come right back again."And I said, "What about Downey?"He said, "Never mind Downey, this is-- we're talking about you. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

Downey made a separate appearance before the tribunal. His life sentence was reduced to time served plus another five years. In the end Fecteau was spirited away from prison in the middle of the night. His departure revealed, not through an announcement, but rather a break in the endless routine.

[Smith speaking] You're listening to everything that goes on out there. And they come down and feed me and then they go down and uh. . . you know, open Flynn's door and then they go to Fecteau's door and -- they didn't do that. They bypassed his door. Then you hear the footsteps and they go down to Downey's door."What happened to Fecteau? What-- is he not in there?" So, that's how I first noticed that I thought he was missing. [Smith finishes speaking]

Fecteau was quietly taken by train to Canton and sent across the bridge to Hong Kong. It was the morning of December 10th, 1971

[Downing speaking] For someone in 1971, an American, to cross the Lo-Wu Bridge in a Mao suit uh. . . and to pop up out of nowhere would've been, really, quite an eyeful uh. . . really quite amazing and quite unusual; it would've raised some eyebrows. [Downing finishes speaking]

[Fecteau speaking] I got to the other side there was a Hong Kong policeman. He says, "Who are you?" And I told him, I said, "My name is Richard Fecteau, I was shot down during the Korean War." He said, "What war?""During the Korean War." He said, "That was a long time ago."I said, "I know." [Fecteau finishes speaking]


[Dujmovic speaking] At that point the CIA evacuation plan, which had been in- on the books for a long time, uhm goes into effect. We sent an aircraft and we bring Fecteau back to the United States. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

At the Valley Forge Hospital doctors were astounded by his physical condition. But at first he was withdrawn, found it difficult to hold extensive conversation or displace emotions. 20 years in captivity had taken a toll.

[Fecteau speaking] How about seeing my daughters, they were two when I left. Now, they were 22.That was tough, tough for them, too, tough for my parents, my mother especially. Fecteau reluctantly uh. . . undergoes a- a uh. . . a media event, a press conference, uh. . . at the uh. . . the hospital at Valley Forge I didn't want to see the press at all. Uh... somebody came in and said, "Do us a favor and just go up and talk to them." I walked down, I looked at the reporters, what guys with beards or guys with crazy hairdos, funny--strange clothes and I thought it was like being on Mars. I'm looking around, where is his? [Fecteau finishes speaking]

His overwhelming concern was to avoid saying anything that would adversely affect his friend Jack Downey who was still being held by the Chinese.

[Fecteau speaking] "I appreciate your interest but I don't care for a press conference at this time . . . I'm in good health . . . but I'm a little tired of being questioned... And I'd like to take a little rest on that." [Fecteau finishes speaking]

[Downing speaking] He refused a number of thrusts from the outside world "Tell your story. We'll pay you very significant sums. Write a book. Uh. . . Tell us what happened." Dick never did that – he was not willing to jeopardize Jack's treatment or release by simply writing a book. [Downing finishes speaking]

Two months later, on February 17,1972, President Richard M. Nixon made his historic visit to Beijing. This staunch anti communist had pulled down the bamboo curtain. Even the prison guards sensed that history was being made.

[Smith speaking] They brought in a TV from someplace and ... we watched Richard Nixon on the TV. Gave us a-a great boost to know that the US and China were talking. And if he was actually in Peking then he - and we were too and everybody knew it, I thought, "Well, maybe he's gonna be able to pull some strings." [Smith finishes speaking]

Nixon met with Mao, the diplomatic prize that may have helped him win re-election, but not the release of Jack Downey. The Chinese demanded one final act of contrition.

[Downing speaking] The Chinese def-- uh. . . wanted their adversary, to come clean and to tell them, and the world, that which they already knew. That these two people that they were hol-- had been holding all these years really were CIA spies. [Downing finishes speaking]

Finally, on Jan 31, 1973, Nixon called a press conference to announce a peace treaty had been reached with the North Vietnamese. American boys were finally coming home.

Nixon press conference: The war is over...many Americans paid a very high price to serve their country." In a remark buried at the end of the press conference, Nixon finally came clean. He was asked if Downey would come home with the rest of the POW's.

[Nixon speaking] "Downey is a different case, as you know. Downey involves a CIA agent. And we have also discussed that with Premier Zhou En Lai...we feel that would be a very salutary action on his part." [Nixon finishes speaking]

Nixon spoke over the heads of the reporters to an audience seven thousand miles away.

[Dujmovic speaking] It wasn't an absolute uh . . . confession that Downey had been CIA all along, it said that there was a CIA connection and that complicated the case. It was enough for the Chinese. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

[Downing speaking] There was a lot of second guessing, especially in the now East Asia Division by operations officers who had grown up with these two men, about we should've said - we should've declared this years ago. They would've been released. I don't believe there was any- any proof that had we done this, that it would've resulted in their release but there was great discussion about it. [Downing finishes speaking]

[Tenet speaking] You read this story, you'd say, "Well, we shoulda given it away at the beginning, got the men out."It may not have made a difference. It may not have made a difference. This may have been just about time, politics, the opening, Kissinger, ping pong diplomacy. It may have had nothing to do with it. [Tenet finishes speaking]

Twenty years of back channel diplomacy and official denials had given way to the subtlety of saving face. On February 21, 1973 a triumphant Richard Nixon made a call to Jack Downey's brother Bill.

[Bill Downey] "Hello, Mr. President?"

[Nixon] "Mr. Downey?"

[Bill Downey] "Yes sir"

[Nixon] "I just had a conversation with Dr. Kissinger and we have some good news for you. In his talk with Chinese officials and they have said that, at the end of this year positive action will be taken and that your brother will be released. And I wanted you to tell your mother, I understand that she is not well, but I wanted her to get the news before she heard it on the television."

In fact, it was Mary Downey's stroke that helped break the diplomatic deadlock. The Chinese now had a reason for clemency. Two weeks after Nixon's call Jack was alone watching a ping pong game on Chinese TV when a guard came in.

[Downey speaking] And he said "Downey, I have good news for you. You're going to be released. Our government has agreed to release you, send you home. He said "You'd better get back to your cell and get your things together because when it happens, it will happen quickly. And I said "Well, if it's all right with you, I'd like to see the end of the ping-pong match," and uh. . . he was somewhat disconcerted by that, but I was just telling it like it was. I had my expectations extremely tightly controlled by that time. I never uh. . . had any vain hopes about anything. [Downey finishes speaking]

But this time optimism would have been justified. On March 1, 1973 after 20 years, 3 months, 14 days, John Downey began his long journey home. Like Fecteau, he was released on the Communist side of the Hong Kong border. The world was waiting as he crossed into freedom.

[Downey speaking] There's this British ... police officer standing on the other side...Well he threw me a salute like I'd uh. . . never seen before and uh … in fact never have seen afterward either. My one time I was saluted, and it was just a- a real thrill. I- I knew then that I was- I was back with friends [Downey finishes speaking]

But he was also back with journalists anxious to probe his CIA connection.

[Downey speaking] "Well no, I don't feel I can discuss my mission. I realize that is an interesting question and I hope you'll bear with me. I just feel that the answer to such questions would have to come from some other source." [Downey finishes speaking]

Downey found it hard to relate to his contemporaries. In his mind he was still a 24 year old on the threshold of his adult life.

[Downey speaking] Weeks after the first arrival home, the o-odd thing was the feeling of somewhat of depression. As though, this is all there is? [Downey finishes speaking]

Even though both Fecteau and Downey were now safely back home, neither wanted to relive the experience. They both refused offers to tell their story, they wanted to move on. The CIA was ready to have them back. But the excitement and adventure had lost its allure.

[Dujmovic speaking] We had offered them their old jobs, Downey I think put it very well when he- he said, you know, "I just don't think I'm cut out for this kinda work." [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

Both wanted to retire from the agency, but even after receiving employment credit for previous government employment, their debriefings and consultations after their return, and for all of the vacation and sick leave they had to forfeit during their captivity, their accumulated service left them just one year short of the 25 years they needed. But then, for one last time, Ben DeFelice came to the rescue.

[Downing speaking] He was ecstatic when we came in that next morning and said "I found a way. I found a way. I know we can do this." He found that for POWs in the military, almost always they would allow a year's reorientation leave.. . And Ben said we can do that for our guys and he did. He gave them each a year. [Downing finishes speaking]

And with that both men retired from the CIA. But neither slipped quietly away. Dick Fecteau was surprised when he didn't qualify to be a parole officer because of the time he spent in prison - even though that time was spent in a Chinese prison while serving his country. But he was honored when Boston University invited him to return to his alma mater as the assistant athletic director.

[Dujmovic speaking] He also uh. . . reconnected with ... his first wife that he had divorced. Uh. . . she had kept a flame going for him all the time, and they eventually remarried. [Dujmovic finishes speaking]

John Downey received a law degree from Harvard. He fell in love with a Chinese American, born just a few miles from their Manchurian crash site. He returned to Connecticut where he served as a respected judge.

Both men ensured their lives would not be defined by the confines of a Chinese prison. The Agency moved on as well. Their story could have remained buried if not for George Tenet's decision in 1998 to award both men the Director's medal.

[Tenet speaking] You ask people for a lot. You ask of them a great deal of sacrifice, sometimes at risk, uhm. . . in the world we live in, great risk, and it's- it's important for them to know uhm. . . that the foundation of history that we're built on, these are our values, and we're gonna stick to them. "I know that I speak for everyone in this room and everyone in this agency when I say welcome home to Jack Downey and to Dick Fecteau-- two great heroes of the Central organization. The Central Intelligence Agency, we are so happy that you are home with us today." [Tenet finishes speaking]

[Fecteau speaking] "So I know in my heart it means this is still my outfit and it always will be. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

[Downey speaking] "I want to pay my respects and tell you how proud I am to be one of you. Thank you." [Downey finishes speaking]

[Downing speaking] They were the most significant Agency employees perhaps ever I don't think anybody would be able to say "I could've done that." No one certainly expected them to come out of prison with the strength and- and the personal resolve that they showed the fact that they were truly heroes. These were extraordinary men by any standard we had in the agency. [Downing finishes speaking]

And, they were men determined that that we not forget those on that flight in November 1952 who didn't come home.

[Fecteau speaking] "You sensitively and accurately touched upon those people and those names, our pilots Bob Snoddy and Norm Schwartz who died on that mission." [Fecteau finishes speaking]

Their sacrifice is recognized on CIA's Memorial Wall, honoring those who paid the ultimate price in service to this country.

[Downey speaking] They were highly regarded by the uh – the flyers among us --- they considered these guys the cream of the crop. [Downey finishes speaking]

[Fecteau speaking] I never felt bad about flying the mission, never. [Fecteau finishes speaking]

John Downey and Richard Fecteau are survivors who insist they simply did their duty. But their story defines the essence of the Agency that sent them into China and never stopped trying to bring them home.

Posted: Jun 05, 2013 02:29 PM
Last Updated: Jun 05, 2013 02:29 PM