Manual Extraordinary Fidelity: Two CIA Prisoners in China, 1952–73

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This technique required specialized training, both for the pilots of the aircraft, provided by the CIAs 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 and were willing to undertake the mission.

Originally, Chinese crewmen were to be used, but Downeys 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 Snoddys olive drab C on an airfield on the Korean peninsula and took off for the rendezvous point in Chinese Communist Manchuria, some 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. Lilley describes the three prongs of CIA covert operations against the Chinese mainland at the time: the first was support of Nationalist efforts, the second was the Third Force program, and the third comprised unilateral operations.

Lilly, ibid.


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The aircraft pickup system in use in was not, as is sometimes asserted, the Skyhook system developed in the late s by Robert Fulton but was rather a more rudimentary arrangement known as the All American system that the Army Air Force had modified during World War II from a system to pick up mail bags. The agent team, unbeknownst to the men on the flight, had been captured by Communist Chinese security forces and had been turned. 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 C arrived at the pickup point. 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 snatch. Returning about 45 minutes later and receiving a ready signal, the C 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 SnodUnmarked C 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.

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As the C came in low for the pickup, flying nearly at its stall speed of around 60 knots, white sheets that had been camouflaging two anti-aircraft 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 due to gunfire, the impact, or the fire, the pilots died at the scene. The Chinese security forces with the nose in the air. Fecteaus harness broke, causing aus participation in the ill-fated mission. One of the most persistent myths shaken up, Downey and Fecteau were ex- was that the two must have been joyridtremely fortunate in being unhurt. The Chi- ing because their participation was, it was nese apparently had targeted the cockpit, thought, a violation of the rules The account also asserts erroneously that Downey and Fecteau came out firing small arms before surrendering.

In June , the team found bone and tooth fragments, which later were identified as Robert Snoddys. To date, no remains of Schwartz have been identified. CIAs Far East Division later assessed that the Chinese agent team probably had been caught and doubled immediately after its insertion in July. Twenty years later, after his return, Fecteau remembered the recognition signal as a flashlight signal; Downey thought it comprised three bonfires.

Both were used. 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. What they took in with them was the character and the values that they learned from their parentsintegrity 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.

Jacks widowed mother Mary Downey waged a fierce behind-the-scenes struggle for her sons release until her health gave out. Ironically, it was her stroke that became the basis for his eventual release. Nobody who met the indomitable Mary Downey will ever forget her. Phil and Jessie Fecteaudecent, downto-earth people with an abiding devotion to this countrybelieved 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 governmentin this Agency in particular. I pray that they never felt that their faith was misplaced.

John T. Downey

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.

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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, theyd 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 wouldnt 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. Dicks wife Peg regrettably couldnt be with us today, due to a very sore back. And, Dicks mother, Jessie, also is unable to be with us to share todays 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.

Richard Fecteau

Jacks wife Audrey is here. Audreys and Jacks marriage is a wonderful, life-affirm Jack Downey and Richard G. Downey and Fecteau were captured by the Chinese in while conducting agent resupply and pickup operations as part of our war effort in Korea. This was their first overseas assignment.

In , China sentenced Fecteau to 20 years and Downey to life imprisonment. Late in , nearly 20 years later, China released Fecteau and in March released Downey. Following their release they returned to work for the Agency and later retired. Below are DCI Tenets remarks on the occasion of the medal presentation.

Welcome back to the CIA! You have never left our thoughtsnot 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.


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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 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.

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It is the story of an ambushof a crash landingand 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. Audrey is a naturalized American citizen who was born in China, coincidentally ten miles from the place where Jack was shot down.

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We also welcome Jacks brother Bill, who worked tirelessly for his release, together with Bills wife Jean. It is wonderful to have multiple generations of the Fecteau and Downey families here today. Im sure that there isnt a day that goes by that Dick and Jack arent grateful to be surrounded by your love.