This is an incredible story of two CIA officers – John Downey and Richard Fecteau – who were imprisoned in China. They were trapped by the Chinese and the US Air force flew right into the trap and these guys got trapped for 20 years.
Beijing’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 literature—albeit in short and generally flawed accounts— institutional memory regarding these brave officers has dimmed. Their ordeal is not well known among today’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.
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