John Downey, judge and former POW, dies at 84

AP News
|
Posted: Nov 17, 2014 5:37 PM
John Downey, judge and former POW, dies at 84

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — John T. Downey, a former CIA agent who survived more than 20 years in Chinese prisons during the Cold War before becoming a Connecticut judge, died Monday. He was 84.

Downey was diagnosed with cancer a month ago and died at a hospice facility in Branford, according to his son, Jack Downey, of Philadelphia.

The elder Downey had graduated from Yale University and joined the Central Intelligence Agency a year before his plane was shot down during a botched cloak-and-dagger flight into China in November 1952. He spent the next 20 years, three months and 14 days in Chinese prisons. He was released in March 1973 shortly after President Richard Nixon publicly acknowledged Downey's CIA connection.

After returning to the United States, he graduated from Harvard Law School and was appointed to the Connecticut bench in 1987.

Jack Downey, 34, said his father's years of imprisonment shaped his life in every possible way.

"He could have very justifiably come out of this extremely bitter and cynical about human nature and all things. He miraculously wasn't," said Downey, whose mother was born in China and met his father in Connecticut.

John Downey, of New Britain, and another CIA paramilitary officer, Richard G. Fecteau, of Lynn, Massachusetts, were on their first overseas assignment when their plane was shot from the night sky in a Chinese ambush. Both survived, and Fecteau was kept behind bars for 19 years. Their pilots, 31-year-old Robert C. Snoddy of Roseburg, Oregon, and 29-year-old Norman A. Schwartz of Louisville, Kentucky, were killed in the crash.

The secret mission was smothered in U.S. government denials, but bits and pieces of the story emerged over the years, revealing a tale of personal triumph, tragedy and CIA miscalculations from the early years of the spy agency's existence.

Their mission was to recover a spy working for the CIA in the Manchuria region of northeastern China. Downey and Fecteau had been assigned to a covert program 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.

Downey was well known to the Chinese operatives because he trained them. When Downey was captured, a Chinese security officer pointed at him and said in English: "You are Jack. Your future is very dark."

Downey and Fecteau were hauled off to prison, interrogated and isolated in separate cells. Each spent long stretches in solitary confinement.

After their release, Fecteau said they would visit occasionally during Downey's time in law school and split a pint of ice cream, because neither of them drank. He said he admired his friend's mental strength during their time in captivity.

"He never weakened. He never felt sorry for himself," Fecteau, 87, said Monday. "What happened happened and he lived with it as best he could, and I liked that."

A nephew of Schwartz, Erik Kirzinger, said he became friends with Downey in the 1990s as the pilot's family worked to have his remains repatriated to the United States.

"I can't exaggerate the high regard I hold him and Mr. Fecteau in for the example that they set for all of us," said Kirzinger, of Madison, North Carolina.

The CIA in 2011 released a film, "Extraordinary Fidelity," which blends documentary footage and re-enactments to tell the officers' story. The film details efforts by CIA officials in Washington, throughout the men's imprisonment, to keep their financial affairs in order and provide assistance to their families, who did not even know the men were alive until a show trial was held in Beijing two years after the crash.

In 2013, Downey and Fecteau received the CIA's Distinguished Intelligence Cross, the agency's highest honor of valor.

____

Associated Press writer Pat Eaton-Robb contributed to this report.