Two CIA Prisoners in China, 1952â€“73
â€śShot down on their first operational mission, Downey and Fecteau spent two decades in Chinese prisons. â€ť
This article draws extensively on operational files and other internal CIA records that of necessity remain classified. Because the true story of these two CIA officers is compelling and has been distorted in many public accounts, it is retold here in as much detail as possible, despite minimal source citations. Whenever possible, references to open sources are made in the footnotes.
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Beijingâ€™s capture, imprisonment, and eventual release of CIA officers John T. Downey and Richard G. Fecteau is an amazing story that too few know about today. Shot down over Communist China on their first operational mission in 1952, these young men spent the next two decades imprisoned, often in solitary confinement, while their government officially denied they were CIA officers. Fecteau was released in 1971, Downey in 1973. They came home to an America vastly different from the place they had left, but both adjusted surprisingly well and continue to live full lives.
Even though Downey and Fecteau were welcomed back as heroes by the CIA family more than 30 years ago and their story has been covered in open literatureâ€”albeit in short and generally flawed accountsâ€” institutional memory regarding these brave officers has dimmed. Their ordeal is not well known among todayâ€™s officers, judging by the surprise and wonder CIA historians encounter when relating it in internal lectures and training courses.
This story is important as a part of US intelligence history because it demonstrates the risks of operations (and the consequences of operational error), the qualities of character necessary to endure hardship, and the potential damage to reputations through the persistence of false stories about past events. Above all, the saga of John Downey and Richard Fecteau is about remarkable faithfulness, shown not only by the men who were deprived of their freedom, but also by an Agency that never gave up hope. While it was through operational misjudgments that these two spent much of their adulthood in Chinese prisons, the Agency, at least in part, redeemed itself through its later care for the men from whom years had been stolen.
The Operational Context
John Downey and Richard Fecteau were youthful CIA paramilitary officers: Downey, born in Connecticut, had entered CIA in June 1951, after graduating from Yale; Fecteau, from Massachusetts, entered on duty a few months later, having graduated from Boston University. Both men had been varsity football players, and both were outgoing and engaging with noted senses of humor. They were on their first overseas assignment when the shootdown occurred.
By late 1952, the Korean War had been going on for more than two years. Accounts often identify that war as the reason for the operation Downey and Fecteau were participating in. While largely true, the flight the men were on was part of operations that had antecedents in the US response to the communist takeover of China in 1949. In accordance with US policies, CIA took steps to exploit the potential for a Chinese â€śThird Forceâ€ť by trying to link Chinese agents, trained by CIA, with alleged dissident generals on the mainland. This Third Force, while anticommunist, would be separate from the Nationalists, who were assessed to be largely discredited on the mainland.
This Third Force project received new emphasis after the Communist Chinese intervened in the Korean War. At that point, the project aimed to divert Chinese resources from the war in Korea by promoting domestic antigovernment guerrilla operations. This was to be accomplished by small teams of Chinese agents, generally inserted through airdrops, who were to link up with local guerrilla forces, collect intelligence and possibly engage in sabotage and psychological warfare, and report back by radio. The operational model was the OSS experience in Europe during World War II, which assumed a cooperative captive populationâ€”a situation, as it turned out, that did not prevail in China.
By the time of Downey and Fecteauâ€™s involvement in the Third Force program, its record was short and inauspicious. Because of resource constraints, the training of Chinese agents at CIA facilities in Asia was delayed, and the first Third Force team to be airdropped did not deploy until April 1952. This fourman team parachuted into southern China and was never heard from again.
The second Third Force team comprised five ethnic Chinese dropped into the Jilin region of Manchuria in midJuly 1952. Downey was well known to the Chinese operatives on this team because he had trained them. The team quickly established radio contact with Downeyâ€™s CIA unit outside of China and was resupplied by air in August and October. A sixth team member, intended as a courier between the team and the controlling CIA unit, was dropped in September. In early November, the team reported contact with a local dissident leader and said it had obtained needed operational documents such as official credentials. They requested airexfiltration of the courier, a method he had trained for but that the CIA had never attempted operationally.
At that time, the technique for aerial pickup involved flying an aircraft at low altitude and hooking a line elevated between two poles. The line was connected to a harness in which the agent was strapped. Once airborne, the man was to be winched into the aircraft. This technique required specialized training, both for the pilots of the aircraft, provided by the CIAâ€™s proprietary Civil Air Transport (CAT), and for the two men who would operate the winch. Pilots Norman Schwartz and Robert Snoddy had trained in the aerial pickup technique during the fall of 1952 and were willing to undertake the mission. On 20 November, Downeyâ€™s CIA unit radioed back to the team: â€śWill air snatch approximately 2400 hoursâ€ť on 29 November.
Illustration of snatch pickup, from 1944 US Army Air Forces manual.
The question of who would operate the winch, however, was still unresolved. Originally, Chinese crewmen were to be used, but Downeyâ€™s unit chief decided that time was too short to fully train them. Instead, two CAT personnel trained in the procedure were identified for the pickup flight, but the CIA unit chief pulled them four days before the mission because they lacked the requisite clearances. Downey, who had been at the unit for about a year, and Fecteau, who had arrived in the first week of November, were directed to fill the breach. They were hurriedly trained in the procedure during the week of 24 November.
Late on 29 November, Downey and Fecteau boarded Schwartz and Snoddyâ€™s olive drab C47 on an airfield on the Korean peninsula and took off for the rendezvous point in Chinese Communist Manchuria, some 400 miles away. It was a quiet, uneventful flight of less than three hours. The moon was nearly full and visibility was excellent. At one point, Fecteau opened a survival kit and noted that the .32caliber pistol therein had no ammunitionâ€”joking about that was the only conversation the men had on the flight.
Mission Gone Awry
The C47, with its CAT pilots and CIA crew, was heading for a trap. The agent team, unbeknownst to the men on the flight, had been captured by Communist Chinese security forces and had been turned. The request for exfiltration was a ruse, and the promised documentation and purported contact with a local dissident leader were merely bait. The team members almost certainly had told Chinese authorities everything they knew about the operation and about the CIA men and facilities associated with it. From the way the ambush was conducted, it was clear that the Chinese Communists knew exactly what to expect when the C47 arrived at the pickup point.
Reaching the designated area around midnight, the aircraft received the proper recognition signal from the ground. Downey and Fecteau pushed out supplies for the agent teamâ€”food and equipment needed for the aerial pickup. Then Schwartz and Snoddy flew the aircraft away from the area to allow the team time to set up the poles and line for the â€śsnatch.â€ť Returning about 45 minutes later and receiving a ready signal, the C47 flew a dry run by the pickup point, which served both to orient the pilots and to alert the man being exfiltrated that the next pass would be for him. Copilot Snoddy came back momentarily to the rear of the aircraft to make sure Downey and Fecteau were ready. On the moonlit landscape, four or five people could be seen on the ground. One man was in the pickup harness, facing the path of the aircraft.
As the C47 came in low for the pickup, flying nearly at its stall speed of around 60 knots, white sheets that had been camouflaging two antiaircraft guns on the snowy terrain flew off and gunfire erupted at the very moment the pickup was to have been made. The guns, straddling the flight path, began a murderous crossfire. At this point, a crowd of men emerged from the woods. Whether by reflex or purposefully, the pilots directed the aircraftâ€™s nose up, preventing an immediate crash; however, the engines cut out and the aircraft glided to a controlled crash among some trees, breaking in two with the nose in the air.
Downey and Fecteau had been secured to the aircraft with harnesses to keep them from falling out during the winching. On impact, both slid along the floor of the aircraft, cushioned somewhat by their heavy winter clothing. Fecteauâ€™s harness broke, causing him to crash into the bulkhead separating the main body of the aircraft from the cockpit, which, he later said, gave him a bump on his head â€śyou could hang your coat on.â€ť...