Remarks of the Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet on Presentation of the Director's Medal to John T. "Jack" Downey and Richard G. Fecteau
June 25, 1998
On June 25, Director of Intelligence (DCI) George Tenet presented the Director's Medal to Judge John T. "Jack" Downey and Richard G. Fecteau. Downey and Fecteau were captured by the Chinese in 1952 while conducting agent resupply and pickup operations as part of our war effort in Korea. This was their first overseas assignment. In 1954, China sentenced Fecteau to 20 years and Downey to life imprisonment. Late in 1971, nearly 20 years later, China released Fecteau and in March 1973 released Downey. Following their release they returned to work for the Agency and later retired.
Below are DCI Tenet's remarks on the occasion of the medal presentation.
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I know that I speak for everyone in this room, and everyone in this Agency, when I say, welcome home, Jack Downey and Dick Fecteau -- two great heroes of the CIA! Welcome back to the CIA!
You have never left our thoughts -- not during your long years of imprisonment, and not during the decades following your retirement from the Agency. We are forever proud that you are our colleagues. You have been an inspiration to the intelligence officers who served with you, and to the generations who followed you.
Your story, simply put, is one of the most remarkable in the 50-year history of the Central Intelligence Agency.
It is the story of a daring flight over Manchuria during the Korean War. The mission: to swoop down and snatch out our imperiled agent. It is the story of an ambush -- of a crash landing -- and of capture. Of being declared missing and presumed dead, only to reappear very much alive two years later for a Red Chinese "show trial", where Dick was sentenced to twenty years and Jack received a life sentence.
Even more remarkable is the story of how these brave men endured decades of imprisonment, regained their freedom, and went on to live full and active lives, marked by service to their communities and their country.
Shortly after his return to the United States, Jack told his debriefer: "you come out of captivity basically about the same as you go in." Jack Downey and Dick Fecteau went in as young men -- Jack was all of 22; Dick was 25. What they took in with them was the character and the values that they learned from their parents -- integrity and honor and commitment to country.
Jack and Dick, I know that your parents are in your hearts and thoughts today, as they are in ours. The medals we present to you today in honor of your unmatched service to our country are given also in honor of your extraordinary parents.
Jack's widowed mother Mary Downey waged a fierce behind-the-scenes struggle for her son's release until her health gave out. Ironically, it was her stroke that became the basis for his eventual release. Mrs. Downey personally petitioned four Presidents beginning with Eisenhower, successive Secretaries of State, Senators, Congressmen, the Catholic Church, and the United Nations. Nobody who met the indomitable Mary Downey will ever forget her.
Phil and Jessie Fecteau -- decent, down-to-earth people with an abiding devotion to this country -- believed deeply that what their boy was doing was important to US security and that they must do nothing to jeopardize that. Throughout nineteen cruel years of waiting, they put unquestioning faith in their government -- in this Agency in particular. I pray that they never felt that their faith was misplaced.
There is no adequate way to describe the uncommon grace and fortitude with which the Downey and Fecteau families bore their burdens of grief. And to that awful weight of worry was the added burden of silence. Thank God, Mary Downey and Phil Fecteau went to their rest in peace, knowing that their sons were free.
Just imagine what it was like to hear that your son was missing and presumed dead, only to learn years later that he is imprisoned in Red China.
Imagine what it was like to have your hopes for his release raised and dashed and raised again.
Imagine what it was like Christmas after Christmas knowing that your son was spending it alone in a cold cell.
Imagine a mother assembling care packages, lovingly filling the cartons with cookies and warm socks and issues of Sports Illustrated, not knowing when, or even if, they'd be delivered.
Imagine turning over and over in your mind all the political and personal considerations, then deciding to make the long journey to China for a prison visit. And all the while you knew that your time with your son would be agonizingly brief, that you wouldn't be able to have a private conversation, and that when you left, you might never see him again.
We cannot imagine. We can only stand in admiration of such courage [DCI leads standing ovation for the parents.]
I know that Dick and Jack feel deeply blessed to have had such wonderful parents, and to have such wonderful families. Dick's wife Peg regrettably couldn't be with us today, due to a very sore back. And, Dick's mother, Jessie, also is unable to be with us to share today's honor with her son, but we send them both our warmest good wishes and know they are with us in spirit. Twin daughters Sidnice and Suzon are here. The girls were three years-old when their father was captured.
Jack's wife Audrey is here. Audrey's and Jack's marriage is a wonderful, life- affirming story in itself. Jack met Audrey Lee when he went back to New Haven after his release to visit Yale, his alma mater. Audrey is a naturalized American citizen who was born in China, coincidentally ten miles from the place where Jack was shot down. Their son, John Lee Downey, starts Wesleyan University this Fall. We also welcome Jack's brother Bill, who worked tirelessly for his release, together with Bill's wife Jean.
It is wonderful to have multiple generations of the Fecteau and Downey families here today. I'm sure that there isn't a day that goes by that Dick and Jack aren't grateful to be surrounded by your love. I salute you all.
But beyond your immediate families, we would like to think that you also feel that you have another family -- your extended Agency family. There are folks here today who kept in touch with your loved ones and managed your personal affairs all those years. I know that they saw it not as a duty, but as a sacred trust.
We also have here today a large representation of officers from our China desk in the DO. You are true legends to them.
And there is a contingent of fellow officers, many of whom you haven't seen since your training courses in the early 1950's, who are thrilled to join you today. As your former colleagues will attest, training camp is a bonding experience, and I know you've been swapping stories as you would at any reunion. I understand, Jack, that when they evaluated you at the end of your training, you got a pretty low grade in, of all things: "Survival"!!!
And Dick, although your evaluators thought your great sense of humor was an asset to morale, they were concerned about your lighter side and thought that, for your own good, you should "be more serious." Like Jack's survival marks, the graders got this one wrong too. The following is classic Fecteau.
Shortly after Dick and Jack were captured, they were separated, and spent two years in solitary confinement, much of the time under interrogation and in chains. But Dick's sense of humor never left him.
On the day of their "show trial" in 1954 -- remember Dick and Jack had not seen one another for two years -- Dick is marched into the courtroom through a battery of lights and cameras. Jack is already standing in the dock. For propaganda effect, Jack has been outfitted in a new, black padded suit, clothes, shoes, and a beanie hat. Dick sees that Jack is looking rather down and figures he needs cheering up. They order Dick to go stand next to Jack. He walks over to Jack and whispers: "Who's your tailor?!"
Until Dick's release in 1971, and Jack's in 1973, the two men were listed in our personnel files as serving on "Special Detail Foreign" at "Official Station Undetermined." And serve they did. Not in the ordinary way, of course -- but in a most extraordinary way. How did they serve? By keeping their faith in our country, and by being faithful to it no matter what.
When Dick was debriefed upon his release, he said he never lost his sense of Agency affiliation. He said that he felt he was engaged in a struggle between the Agency and the Security Bureau in Peking. He said that his country was much more than an abstraction to him. When his jailers kept trying to drum it into him that the US was an imperialist country, and that Americans were the scum of the earth, he said he "resented the crap out of it" and "sort of took it upon my shoulders as a representative of my country and my people" to be the opposite of how they portrayed us.
One of the many things we all admire about you is that neither of you have let your experiences make you bitter. When a reporter asked Jack how he'd describe the 20 years he spent in prison, he answered: "They were a crashing bore!" "I won't dwell upon the past because I'm too preoccupied with the present and the future." Since their release, both Dick and Jack have made every day count.
Just imagine being taken right from a Red Chinese jail and finding yourself back home in the United States after a twenty-year absence. Dick and Jack remarked about the rush of colors, the variety and number of cars, the radical change in fashions -- it was the seventies after all.
But both men saw more than the superficials. Dick took great joy in the simple pleasures of freedom that all of us take for granted: he told his debriefer: "to me, just to get up and make a nice breakfast and take a shower is beautiful, it makes my day." Jack observed changes in American society -- rural Connecticut being overrun with housing developments and suburbia, the positive effects of the civil rights movement.
Dick elected to retire from the CIA in the mid-1970s, after over 25 years of service. He had to be convinced to stay that long. In Dick's words: "I did not want them to make work for me. It would embarrass the life out of me." As if he hadn't done enough for this Agency and this country already! Dick later joined the staff of his alma mater, Boston University, and became Assistant Director of Athletics. He retired from the university in 1989.
Jack also opted for retirement. When he was offered the opportunity to stay, he quipped: "You know I just don't think I am cut out for that kind of work!" After leaving the Agency, at age 43, Jack enrolled in Harvard Law School. He practiced law privately for a number of years, was appointed by the Governor of Connecticut to a number of public service positions, and even started a run for Senator of Connecticut. (Jack calls it his other crash!) In 1987, Jack became a Judge, like his father before him.
Both of these great men refuse to consider themselves heroes. They are not the sort. Their parents and their New England upbringing have a lot to do with that. When Mary Downey was reunited with her beloved Jack in her hospital room, she wagged her finger at him and said: "You're a celebrity now -- don't let it go to your head!"
Jack was not about to let himself, as he put it: "be one of those guys who goes through life making a career out of being a CIA agent who was imprisoned in China." And the most Dick will say on that subject is that he supposes that he "did the best he could under the circumstances."
Dick and Jack, you can be as modest as you like. But we cannot see it that way. What you did -- the way you did it -- is a proud part of our history that we will never forget.
You demonstrated one kind of heroism when you signed on to that perilous mission in wartime and crash-landed and survived and endured those early interrogations.
You demonstrated heroism of a whole other magnitude during those dark decades of captivity that followed. In those endless years, heroism meant getting through another day, and then another, and then another, with your dignity, and your humanity, and your will, and your wit, and your honor, and your hope intact.
Both men would argue that others in this room would have done what they did under the same circumstances. Maybe. We'd all like to think we would. But the fact is, it wasn't somebody else in that prison. It was you. It fell to the two of you to do a hard, hard thing. And you did it. For two decades. Magnificently. Gallantly. With extreme valor.
When they came in 1971 to tell Dick he was being freed, his first question was: "What about Jack Downey?" And after his return home, when Dick was offered piles of money to tell his story, he refused the offers -- despite his family's modest means -- for fear that publicity would harm Jack's chances of freedom.
Two years after Dick's release, Jack's day of freedom finally arrived. Jack has described his reaction as thinking to himself: "Well, Christ, it's about time."
In this -- our 50th anniversary year-- it is also about time that you and Dick received the small tribute we confer today by presenting you with the Director's Medal. I do this on behalf of all my predecessors because all of us know that at the end of the day men like the two of you -- with wonderful families behind them -- have sacrificed everything with grace and courage and in absolute anonymity to serve this agency and our country. We have been truly blessed to call you our colleagues and friends.
The words inscribed on the back of the medal are simple, yet direct -- Extraordinary Fidelity and Essential Service. Better words were never written or spoken to describe Jack Downey and Dick Fecteau.
We will always be grateful to you and to your extraordinary families for all that you did for our country.
I would now invite you both to come forward for the presentation of the medals. I would also ask Ben DeFelice, the man who knows better than anyone in this Agency what you and you families went through, and who so caringly handled your affairs during your long captivity, to read the citation.