Decades later, CIA learns from failed spy mission in China
WASHINGTON — Detail by painful detail, the CIA is coming to grips with one of the most devastating episodes in its history, a botched cloak-and-dagger flight into China that stole two decades of freedom from a pair of freshfaced American operatives and cost the lives of their two pilots.
In opening up about the 1952 debacle, the agency is finding ways to use it as a teaching tool. Mistakes of the past can serve as cautionary tales for today’s spies and paramilitary officers taking on terrorists.
At the center of the story are two eager CIA officers on their first overseas assignment, John Downey of New Britain, Conn., and Richard Fecteau of Lynn, Mass., whose plane was shot from the night sky in a Chinese ambush.
At 22, with one year of agency service, Downey was destined to spend the next 20 years, three months and 14 days in Chinese prisons. Fecteau, who was 25, was behind bars for 19 years and 14 days.
Both survived. Their pilots, Robert Snoddy, 31, a native of Roseburg, Ore., and 29-year-old Norman Schwartz of Louisville, Ky., did not.
Three years ago, the CIA declassified an internal history of the affair. And it hired a filmmaker to produce an hourlong documentary. The CIA doesn’t plan to release the film publicly, but the agency premiered it for employees last month at its Langley, Va., headquarters.
Downey and Fecteau declined through CIA officials to be interviewed for this story. They attended the film screening and were flooded with applause and agency autograph seekers.
Their tale forms part of the backdrop to today’s uneasy U.S.-China relationship, especially Beijing’s anger about American military support for China’s anti-communist rivals in Taiwan.
In the early years of the Cold War, Downey and Fecteau were assigned to a covert program called Third Force, intended to create a resistance network in China. Small teams of noncommunist Chinese exiles were airdropped into China’s Manchuria region to link up with Richard Fecteau was released from a Chinese prison in December 1971. He had been captured at age 25 and spent more than 19 years behind bars, with long stretches in solitary confinement. disaffected communist generals.
The goal was to destabilize Mao Zedong’s new government and distract it from the Korean War, which Chinese forces had entered two years earlier. The plan failed — badly. “The CIA had been ‘had,’” the late James Lilley, who helped train agent teams for insertion into China, wrote in his 2004 memoir, “China Hands.” There were no dissident communist Chinese generals to be found, and the Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong who sold the idea turned out to be swindlers, Lilley wrote.
“The whole program smacked of amateurism,” CIA historian Nicholas Dujmovic said.
On Nov. 29, 1952, above the foothills of the Changbai mountains, Downey and Fecteau flew into Chinese air space in an unarmed C- 47 Skytrain plane. They planned to swoop low over a rendezvous point marked with three small bonfires and use a tail hook to pick up a Chinese agent off the ground without landing. Downey was to reel in the agent with a winch aboard the plane.
As they descended, the sky suddenly exploded in bursts of gunfire. The agent had lured the Americans into a Chinese ambush.
After the C-47 slammed through a grove of trees, the cockpit burst into flames and skidded to a halt near the village of Sandao.
Downey and Fecteau, stunned and bruised but alive, were captured on the spot. They were hauled off to prison — first in the city of Mukden, then in Beijing — interrogated and isolated in separate cells. Each spent long stretches in solitary confinement, alone with their fears.
It was an intelligence bonanza for the Chinese. Both Americans, after a psychological battering, spilled the beans, to varying degrees.
Here lay one of the lessons: Agency officers with close links to a covert action program shouldn’t fly on such missions.
Another blunder: At a CIA base on the Pacific island of Saipan, the Chinese agent teams lived and trained together, inevitably learning of each other’s missions. So the capture of one team risked compromising the rest.
Also, 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.”
For two years, until China announced that Downey and Fecteau had been convicted of espionage and sentenced — Fecteau to 20 years, Downey to life — neither the CIA nor the men’s families knew their fate. The families had received letters saying the two men were “presumed dead.”
The CIA concocted a cover story, telling the families that the four had disappeared on a routine commercial flight from Korea to Japan on Dec. 3, four days after they were shot down.
After China announced that Downey and Fecteau were being held as spies, Washington publicly denied it, claiming they were civilian employees of the Army.
China released Fecteau in December 1971 and Downey in March 1973, after President Richard Nixon publicly acknowledged Downey’s CIA connection.
Both said after their return that to cope with their confinement, they stuck strictly to a daily schedule. Downey said he would rise each morning and begin a series of activities in his cell: calisthenics, cleaning, eating, reading, listening to the radio and reviewing an occasional package of letters, books and magazines. Fecteau had a similar approach but varied his routine by the day of the week.
Remarkably, once home, they resumed normal lives. Downey earned a law degree from Harvard and became a judge. Fecteau returned to his alma mater, Boston University, as assistant athletic director.