John Downey joined the CIA after college and was captured and held prisoner in Communist China for more than 20 years on espionage charges one of the most harrowing chapters of the Cold War for the US.
Downey’s imprisonment, which included long stretches of solitary confinement, lasted from 1952 until his release in 1973. Back home he was heralded as one of the country’s foremost symbols of patriotism and fortitude.
A newly minted Yale student-athlete when he was seized, he was a frail 42-year-old upon his liberation. But his resolve and endurance evoked adulation among old friends, neighbours and schoolmates, as well as those at high levels of the government. Catholic schools in Connecticut, his home state, prayed constantly for his release.
He quickly got on with his life, graduating from Harvard Law School, marrying and becoming a father. Although he was afflicted for years by illness, his outlook was essentially one of appreciation for the life he was able to lead after coming home. “I never expected to have any of this,” he told his son late in his life.
John Thomas Downey, who was known as Jack, was in 1930, in Wallingford, Connecticut. He moved to New Britain, Connecticut, when he was eight years old after his father, a probate judge, was killed in a car accident. His mother supported the family by working as a middle school teacher. He graduated in 1947 from the private Choate school in Wallingford, Connecticut, and in 1951 from Yale, where he was a member of the football, wrestling and rugby teams.
After a brief period of CIA training, Downey was sent to Japan to take part in the agency’s operations against China. At the time, the nation was embroiled in the Cold War, engaged in armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula, while Communism appeared to represent a worldwide menace. “It felt like the future of mankind was at stake,” Downey recalled.
Histories of the US intelligence effort in the early years of the Cold War reveal attempts to conduct operations inside areas under Communist domination, including the Soviet Union and China. Most, if not all ended in disaster.
Downey and another agent, Richard Fecteau, were flown in a C-47 into China. Their mission was to recover a spy working for the CIA in the Manchuria region of north-eastern China. They had been assigned to a covert programme that airdropped noncommunist Chinese exiles into the area to link up with disaffected communist generals, but the agent they were picking up had betrayed the Americans.
The plane was shot down over Manchuria on 29 November 1952, the two pilots, Norman Schwartz and Robert Snoddy, dying at the scene. “We were caught in a classic ambush,” Downey told People magazine in 1978. “I found out later at our trial that our Chinese radio operator had been forced to co-operate.”
Downey was well known to the Chinese operatives because he had trained them. When he was captured, a Chinese security officer pointed at him and said in English: “You are Jack. Your future is very dark.”
Months of solitary confinement in a 5-by-8-foot cell in Beijing followed. Then came a trial at which Downey was sentenced to life imprisonment; Fecteau received a term of 20 years. Years passed with only occasional interruption of his solitary confinement.
Based on an internal CIA documentary that was ultimately made public, a turning point in his psychological state occurred after about four years of captivity. “I just pulled myself together and said, ‘Enough of this crap,’” he recalled. “I really found the most pernicious thing in prison was feeling sorry for yourself.”
He and Fecteau also told the CIA that they learned not to complain about treatment. When Fecteau said tomatoes gave him indigestion, he’d get more tomatoes. If he said the weekly bath didn’t have enough water, he would get less water next time. Developing a strict routine, he took up a variety of activities including a fitness regime that sometimes included up to 10 miles of jogging a day, Bible reading and trying to learn Russian and French.
“I was given some pages from US newspapers, Sports Illustrated, the Yale alumni magazine and sometimes the New York Times book section,” he told People. “You get good at piecing together clues. I learned about the moon walk 18 months afterward from a little ad on a sports page, advertising 8x10 glossies of the astronauts on the moon.”
Matters began to change quickly between the US and China in 1971. It was the year of “ping-pong diplomacy”, featuring the table tennis competition in China between teams from each nation. After the matches, and the diplomatic developments that followed, Fecteau was freed and Downey’s sentence was reduced.
Still, China demanded that the US admit that Downey worked for the CIA. The government refused until President Nixon admitted to it in 1973 – at a press conference, with a seeming casualness that continues to raise questions as to whether it was artful or accidental.
Downey was released on 12 March 1973. At a news conference shortly afterward, he displayed the approach to his ordeal that he would continue throughout his life. “When you talk about 20 years in a lump sum, it sounds like a big deal,” he said. “On a day-to-day basis, you just learn to go along.”
He earned a law degree in 1976 and began a career largely devoted to public service before he went on the bench in New Haven, where he handled many cases involving juvenile offenders. He retired in 1997.
Over the decades, Downey and Fecteau, who became Boston University’s assistant athletic director, were given many CIA honours. They received the Distinguished Intelligence Cross, one of the highest awards for valour, in 2013. Downey said at the time, “We’re at the age where, if you want to call us heroes, we’re not going to argue any more, [but] we know better.”
John Thomas Downey, CIA agent and judge:born Wallingford, Connecticut 9 April 1930; married Audrey Lee (one son); died Branford, Connecticut 17 November 2014.
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