December 9, 2013
- Judge Downey (L) and Mr. Fecteau (R)
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) last month recognized two retired officers with the Distinguished Intelligence Cross, the Agency’s highest honor for valor. CIA Director John O. Brennan, speaking before a capacity crowd at CIA Headquarters, awarded Judge John “Jack” Downey and Richard “Dick” Fecteau, both of whom endured two decades in Chinese captivity, with the honor in recognition of their sheer heroism and unflappable patriotism in the face of tremendous adversity.
“It has been 61 years since Dick and Jack took to the skies over North Korea and China during the Korean War, and their ordeal remains among the most compelling accounts of courage, resolve, and endurance in the history of our Agency,” Director Brennan said.
In November 1952, Mr. Downey and Mr. Fecteau embarked on a mission over China to retrieve an agent on the ground by hooking him mid-flight to their low-flying plane. The agent, who unbeknownst to CIA had been compromised by the Chinese, had promised valuable information in clandestine messages to his Agency handlers. Just as the plane swooped down to snag the agent, Chinese antiaircraft fire erupted, causing pilots Norman Schwartz and Robert Snoddy to perform a controlled crash. Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Snoddy perished in the crash and are honored by two stars on the Agency’s Memorial Wall.
Mr. Downey and Mr. Fecteau survived the landing but were outnumbered by Chinese troops, who took them prisoner. Their CIA colleagues, meanwhile, were not aware of the ambush and, as the days and weeks passed, assumed the entire team had perished. Mr. Downey and Mr. Fecteau’s families received letters of condolence from CIA the following month, stating that the men were passengers on an overdue commercial flight and were presumed deceased. Their fate did not become clear until their highly publicized show trial began in Beijing two years later. The court sentenced Mr. Downey to life in prison, while Mr. Fecteau received a term of 20 years.
Both men remained in captivity until their release in the early 1970s, an experience that tested—but ultimately proved—their mettle. For example, when pressed for names of his CIA colleagues, Mr. Fecteau provided plenty of physical descriptions and names, all which happened to belong to members of the Boston University football team. “This was the crucible that brought out each man’s strength, ingenuity, and decency—virtues that enabled these two young Americans not only to survive, but to prevail,” Director Brennan said. “Ultimately, both of our honorees would emerge from two decades of relentless persecution with their spirits unbroken, their integrity untouched, and their patriotism strengthened.”
In accepting the award, Judge Downey expressed gratitude for the deceased pilots, whose heroic maneuvering allowed him and Mr. Fecteau to survive the shootdown, for the support of family during his captivity, and especially for the love and support of his wife Audrey and son Jack in the years since his return. Mr. Downey also offered his gratitude to his Agency family, including one fellow officer in particular. “I do want to thank my good friend Dick Fecteau; he couldn’t be a better guy to spend 20 years together with. If we had to do it again, you’d be the only one I’d want with me,” Mr. Downey said. Mr. Fecteau, for his part, displayed his trademark humility, confessing that he was proud to receive the honor but unsure if he deserved the award.
While more than six decades have passed since Mr. Downey and Mr. Fecteau were taken prisoner, their heroism continues to resonate with the current generation of Agency officers. As Director Brennan told the assembled audience, “And as our officers confront the challenges of our profession, they will forever be inspired by the fortitude and grace displayed by these two men under the direst of circumstances. For no matter what their captors were taught to believe about Americans, Dick and Jack taught them something else: what it means to be undefeated.”