Extraordinary Fidelity

| April 12, 2014

Not all POWs are military personnel.  The Third Geneva Convention of 1949, Article 4, paragraph A.4., also accords POW status to civilian personnel serving with or accompanying armed forces in the field, provided that certain conditions are met.

In various conflicts, US civilians serving with US or allied militaries have been taken prisoner by hostile forces.  One such US civilian taken prisoner in Southeast Asia was held in excess of 7 years 10 months.

However, not all US personnel held by US adversaries technically qualify as POWs.  A number of US personnel taken captive while performing official duties during the Cold War were imprisoned by US adversaries for extended periods of time.  Yet few if any of them technically qualify as “Prisoners of War”.

This article is a brief account of two such individuals.  These individuals exhibited truly amazing perseverance and endurance while imprisoned because of their official duties.  Yet few have likely ever heard of them.

These individuals were Richard G. Fecteau and John T. Downey.  They were civilian employees of the Central Intelligence Agency.

What makes these individuals’ story worthy of note?  They were imprisoned by Communist China during the height of the Cold War.

In Fecteau’s case, he was held for just over nineteen years.

Of the two, Fecteau was the “lucky” one.  Downey was a prisoner for over two decades.

. . .

Downey and Fecteau were two young men in the early 1950s, just out of college.  Seeking adventure as well as employment, they joined the CIA – Downey in June 1951, Fecteau a few months later.

They were assigned to activities supporting the development of a “Third Force” in mainland China.  This “Third Force” was to be composed of alleged Chinese dissident military personnel, and was to be separate and distinct from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese forces on Taiwan.  The specific operations to which Downey and Fecteau were assigned involved linking these supposed dissidents with CIA-trained Chinese agents.

Yeah, I know you’re probably thinking, “Huh? What the . . . ?” about now.  In retrospect, the program obviously turned out to be a case of, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time . . . .”

Though it occurred during the Korean War, this “Third Force” program was not itself strictly a part of that conflict.  Rather, it predated the Korean War, having been initiated well before that war started.  The program began in 1949, during or shortly after the Communist takeover of mainland China.  Its long-term objective was to develop a mainland opposition to the Communist regime.

At the time of their ill-fated mission, Downey had been assigned to support the “Third Force” program for about a year; Fecteau was recently arrived.  For Fecteau, it was to be both his first and last operation with the program.

The clandestine operation that resulted in Fecteau’s and Downey’s capture today seems somewhat fantastic – if not borderline insane.  The operation would (1) fly into Manchuria in an ostensibly civilian C-47 cargo aircraft provided by Civil Air Transport (CAT), a CIA-front company; (2) proceed to a prearranged ground location marked by bonfires; (3) deliver supplies/equipment to agents on the ground via parachute; (4) perform a Fulton extraction of a courier bearing documents; then (5) return this courier and his documents to base. Downey and Fecteau were on board the aircraft to push out cargo being parachuted to Chinese agents and to operate the winch that would “reel in” the courier to the plane after extraction (and/or otherwise assist with his recovery).

Yes, I’m serious.  That really was the mission. Cojones muy grandes – de piedra.

During the night of 29-30 November 1952, the CAT C-47 penetrated Chinese airspace.  The pilots found the marker bonfires; the aircraft air-dropped its cargo.  It overflew the extraction location on a “dry run”; everything seemed to be in order.  So the pilots then circled around and came in “low and slow” to execute the Fulton extraction.

Unfortunately, the operation had been compromised.  When the CAT C-47 approached the extraction location the second time – flying at extremely low altitude and very slow (just above stall speed) – it was engaged by concealed Chinese .50 caliber antiaircraft guns.  Fire appeared to be primarily focused on the aircraft’s cockpit and engines; this fact likely saved Downey’s and Fecteau’s lives.

The aircraft was disabled, and belly-landed in an open field near where it had been ambushed.  The two CIA pilots – Norman Schwartz and Robert Snoddy – are believed to have died at the scene.  They were never seen alive again.   (Snoddy’s remains were recovered from the site in 2004, and identified in 2005.  Schwartz’s remains have yet to be located.)

Fecteau and Downey were not injured.  Instead, they were taken prisoner.

It was not long after midnight – the early morning of 30 November 1952.

. . .

Fecteau and Downey were held incommunicado under austere conditions for two years – first in Manchura, then in Bejing.  Other than being beaten during capture, they were not significantly tortured physically (they were on occasion physically manhandled).  However, they were interrogated at extreme lengths, sometimes for up to 20 hours daily, for a protracted period of time; were subjected to extensive sleep deprivation; and held in isolation.  Their fate was unknown outside of China.

Downey had it the worst, as the communist Chinese knew much about him and his role with the CIA.  (The Chinese had apparently captured and broken some of the Chinese agents Downey had trained.  This is also believed to be how the operation on which they were captured was compromised.)  Fecteau was new, and was thus an unknown quantity to the Chinese; he had more latitude to MSU and get away with it.  But he wasn’t treated much if any better by their captors.

After two years in prison, Fecteau and Downey were tried together by a Chinese military tribunal.  It was the first time they had seen each other since shortly after their capture.

Downey – deemed to be the “Chief Culprit” by the Chinese – received a sentence of life imprisonment from the tribunal.  Fecteau – deemed to be the “Assistant Chief Culprit” – received a lesser sentence of “only” 20 years.

They were returned to prison.  Each endured long periods of isolation.  In one case, one of the two (it’s not clear which, or if this pertained to both) was held in solitary confinement for six years.  Their cells were drab, small, cold, drafty – and constantly lighted.

When US POWs held by China from the Korean War (there were 11) were returned to US custody in 1955, Downey and Fecteau were not released.  They remained in China.

During their captivity, they were usually not permitted to communicate with each other.  And the Chinese played substantial “mind games” with them – alternately relaxing conditions, then making conditions much more severe – on an irregular basis.  They attempted to “reeducate” each in the “goodness” of Marxism.

This went on and on, for literally years – first 5, then 10, then 15.  Their captivity simply . . . continued.

No, they didn’t endure the extreme physical abuse that many US POWs in Vietnam endured.  But they also didn’t get released after a few years in captivity, either.  Take the longest-held US POW ever, add a decade to his captivity – and that doesn’t equal the length of their imprisonment.

Unfortunately, progress concerning negotiating their release was glacial. The years dragged on and on; nothing much happened regarding their release.  Diplomatically, securing their release from China was a “non-starter”.

Then came the US-Chinese diplomatic “thaw” of the early 1970s.  A Chinese tribunal convened during that thaw authorized Fecteau’s release; he entered Hong Kong from Canton on 13 December 1971.  The same tribunal reduced Downey’s sentence from life to time already served plus an additional 5 years.  He was retained by the Chinese until after his mother had suffered a severe stroke in early March 1973.  Downey was released not long afterwards, on 12 March.

At the time of his release, Fecteau had spent 19 years 13 days as a prisoner.  Downey had been imprisoned for 20 years 3 months 12 days when he was released.

. . .

Contrary to some published accounts, the CIA did not “abandon” Downey and Fecteau.  When they were revealed by the Chinese to be still alive, both were reinstated on the CIA payroll at full pay.  Their cases were championed by the CIA’s then Chief of Casualty Affairs (and later Deputy Director for Personnel), Ben DeFelice.  Each was promoted while imprisoned to the level it was reasonably expected they would have attained at that point in their career as Agency employees, eventually reaching the journeyman level (which at the CIA was GS-13 for Intelligence Officers).  They were also promoted one additional grade (each retired as GS-14s).  Comprehensive efforts were made to manage their financial affairs in their absence; their families’ financial needs were taken care of, and their pay invested on their behalf.  On release each had a substantial net worth ($140,000 for Fecteau, $170,000 for Downey – in the early 1970s).  Further, US officials consistently worked to secure their release from Communist China.

Downey and Fecteau were extensively debriefed after their release from captivity.  Afterwards, each was restored to full CIA employment.  The Agency engaged in a bit of “creative personnel management” to allow each to recuperate from their imprisonment, and to retire from the Agency if they desired.  Maximum possible service credit was given to each.  All of their technically-forfeited leave was restored, and they were also each granted a full year of additional paid “convalescent leave”.  (The same was common practice at the time for military POWs released from captivity.) While convalescing, Downey went to Harvard Law School.  Fecteau chose to work on various home projects, supported his aged parents, and worked temporarily as a probation officer.

Downey retired from the Agency in 1976; Fecteau, in 1977.  Each was honored by the CIA with the Distinguished Intelligence Medal.  In 1998 – 25 years after Downey’s release – they were further honored by being awarded the Director’s Medal.

Both men lived full, productive post-Agency lives.  Downey received his law degree and later became a judge in Connecticut, specializing in juvenile matters.  He’s now retired from that second career, but as of 2006 was still hearing cases 3-4 days weekly on an as-needed basis.

Fecteau sought permanent employment as a parole officer after his retirement from the CIA.  (Ironically, Fecteau was disqualified from permanent employment in that field because he’d spent 19 years in prison – and he was not hired.  “Teh stoopid” regarding government hiring rules is apparently not a recent development.)  Fecteau was hired by his alma mater, Boston College; he eventually became their assistant Athletic Director.  He reconnected with his then-adult daughters (they were 2 when he was taken prisoner), and also remarried his first wife.  Like Downey, Fecteau has now retired from his second career.

Both men are still alive today.

. . .

An unclassified, official CIA account of Fecteau’s and Downey’s ordeals from 2006 can be found here.  It’s fascinating reading, and is IMO worth the time.

In 2011, the CIA took the unusual step of publicly releasing an hour-long film detailing Fecteau and Downey’s ordeal.  The film is entitled “Extraordinary Fidelity”; it is available for viewing on YouTube.  A full transcript of the film is also available here.  If you watch the film, it might be a good idea to have a handkerchief or tissue handy.

No Downey and Fecteau weren’t military.  And I guess they weren’t technically POWs, either.  But IMO they deserve the same respect as is due any POW.  YMMV.

The film’s title is IMO apropos.  “Extraordinary Fidelity”, indeed.

. . .

This is inadequate as hell, but I’ll say it anyway.  Thank you, gentlemen.  Thank you.

And thank you as well, Ben DeFelice – for making sure these men were not forgotten.  May you rest in peace.


Author’s Notes:

1.  Except as noted below, sources used are linked in the body of the article.

2.  The DPMO list of US personnel who were unaccounted for after Cold War incidents may be found here.  Including Downey and Fecteau, only 18 of these 172 individuals returned to US control alive.  Though all are now presumed dead, some have still not been fully accounted for today.

Six civilian personnel – all employees of the CIA – are on that list.  (A seventh individual on that list is listed as “CIV”, but this appears to be an administrative error.  That individual is also listed as having a service number, having the the rank of “ENS”, and was lost in an incident involving  the shootdown of a USN PV2 having a military crew over the Formosa Strait on 18 January 1953.) 

Four of these US civilian personnel – Downey, Fecteau, Snoddy, and Schwartz – are discussed in the article above.  The other two Cold War civilian MIAs were Wallace Buford and James McGovern, CIA civilian pilots who were lost in the crash of a CAT C-119 at Dien Bien Phu, North Vietnam, on 6 May 1954.

McGovern’s and Snoddy’s remains have been located and repatriated.  Buford’s and Schwartz’s remains have not.

3.  Two US military pilots were held captive in China during the Vietnam war – Capt. Philip E. Smith, USAF, and LT Robert J. Flynn, USN.  Both were shot down over Chinese territory during the Vietnam War.  (Smith was held captive for a time with Downey and Fecteau).  Both were released on 15 March 1973.  Like Downey and Fecteau, they were released in Canton and walked across the border into Hong Kong.

Since both Smith and Flynn were military personnel participating in military operations of the Vietnam War when they were captured, both are formally recognized as former POWs by the US Government.  To the best of my knowledge, all personnel on the Cold War list – civilian and military – who were taken captive and later repatriated are not.

Category: Historical, We Remember

Comments (10)

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  1. AW1 Tim says:

    Thank you, sirs, indeed. It seems, as you say, wholly unqualified, but it’s all we can do.

    Well, there is one other thing. We can do our very best to remember them and their suffering, and make certain that our children understand the vales they were defending, and why they are so important to us today.

    Thanks for the links, and the post, Hondo. It’s a good start for my weekend.

  2. 2/17 Air Cav says:

    Yes, it is good to remember these men. There were others, too, as you indicated. Frank Buckles, America’s last WW I Veteran, spent much of WW II in a POW camp after the fall of Manila. He was a civilian. Then there were the Catholic bishops and priests held by China, the best known of which was Bishop Ed Walsh who was held by the Reds for 12 years.

  3. OWB says:

    Thanks, Hondo, for another excellent piece about our history. It is so easy to forget that it took the collective sacrifice of many to get us to where we are today.

  4. Valkyrie says:

    Thank you Hondo for another well written and meaningful article.

  5. Richard says:

    Hondo, thanks for the article.

    In your Author’s Notes, you mention “James McGovern”. He was also known as “Earthquake Magoon” after a popular comic strip figure of the time. He was an interesting character of the day. He was a big man with small feet and an aversion to walking that he developed after crashing a plane in the bush. Read more in “Hell in a Very Small Place” by Bernard Fall, still the best history of Dien Bien Phu. CAT became Air America, another company with an interesting history in Laos and other places. Attend the Air America reunions that take place in May or June every year. Don’t wait, fewer guys show up every year. The Central Intelligence Agency does a presentation or speech at every reunion. In this age of “what have you done for me lately”, the CIA still remembers their people. It is refreshing. UT Dallas has a room dedicated to Air America; it is well worth the time to visit.

  6. Sparks says:

    Thank you Hondo. I don’t know what to say except to thank these men. To offer my deepest respect to them for serving our country and enduring what I cannot imagine.

  7. LIRight says:

    Great job on this article, Hondo. It’s a good thing when one learns something new….today I learned a lot.

    Happy Easter, guys….and Happy Passover to our Jewish friends.

  8. Toasty Coastie says:

    Thank you Hondo, and thank you Gentlemen…You are among the reasons we do what we do.

    Best to all.

  9. Green Thumb says:


    Great post.

  10. OldSoldier54 says:

    Holy Moly! Can’t add to what the others have stated.

    Great post, Hondo. May the Good Lord bless all the unsung heroes …