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Extraordinary Fidelity: John Downey and Richard Fecteau

On March 12, 1973, CIA officer John Downey walked across the Lo-Wu Bridge from the People’s Republic of China into the then-British Crown colony of Hong Kong. He was a free man after more than two decades of imprisonment.

Communist Chinese forces captured Downey and fellow CIA paramilitary officer Richard Fecteau when their plane was shot down in Manchuria in November 1952. Both men were riding in a C-47 operated by a CIA proprietary airline, Civil Air Transport, on an operation to retrieve an agent. The team planned to extract the agent with a device that involved a hook snagging a line between two upright poles on the ground. The agent was connected to the line by a harness. Once the hook caught the line, and the agent was jerked off the ground, Downey and Fecteau were to winch the man into the aircraft.

The Civil Air Transport plane, however, flew into a trap. The Chinese agent team on the ground, trained by Downey, had been caught and turned by the Communist Chinese. Antiaircraft fire downed the plane, killing its pilot and co-pilot, Norman Schwartz and Robert Snoddy. Downey and Fecteau survived.

Presuming there were no survivors, the U.S. government was surprised when Beijing announced Downey’s life sentence for espionage; Fecteau received 20 years. The announcement came in 1954, two years after the Civil Air Transport plane was shot down. After harsh interrogations, both men faced dismal conditions for most of their incarceration. But they learned to cope through patience, faith in eventual release, humor, and exercise.

The lack of official relations — and Washington’s continued insistence that the men were Department of the Army civilians and not CIA employees — ensured stalemate on the men’s fate. Throughout their imprisonment, Fecteau and Downey received their CIA pay and benefits in escrow, as well as periodic promotions. The CIA invested their savings and assisted their families.

When negotiations commenced in 1971, leading to President Richard M. Nixon’s opening of China, Fecteau was released. Soon after Nixon publicly admitted Downey’s CIA affiliation, his life sentence was commuted and he was released.

Fecteau and Downey have focused their lives on the future, not dwelling on the past. Fecteau returned to his alma mater, Boston University, as assistant athletic director; he retired in 1989. Downey returned home to Connecticut and became a respected judge; a New Haven courthouse is named for him.

For an in-depth look at the John Downey and Richard Fecteau saga, see “Extraordinary Fidelity: Two CIA Prisoners in China, 1952-73,” in Studies in Intelligence, Volume 50, Number 4 (2006).

Extraordinary Fidelity

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