John T. Downey

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John Thomas Downey (April 19, 1930 – November 17, 2014) was a Central Intelligence Agency operative who was held captive in China from November 1952 to March 1973. After release, he studied law and became a Connecticut Superior Court Judge.

Downey was appointed to the bench in 1987 by Governor William O'Neill, and he became Chief Administrative Judge for Juvenile Matters in 1990. He served in that capacity until 1997, when he elected to take senior status.

Early life[edit]

Originally from Wallingford, Connecticut,[1] Downey graduated from the Choate School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) and in 1951 Yale College.[2]

CIA career[edit]

He joined the Central Intelligence Agency soon after Yale and became one of two CIA Paramilitary Officers in the Special Activities Division (the other was Richard Fecteau, a Boston University graduate) who survived the shoot-down of their mission over the People's Republic of China in November 1952.

Both were captured and spent approximately the next two decades in Chinese prisons before release.


During the Korean War, China was an ally of North Korea against the U.S.-backed South Koreans. Fecteau, Downey and fellow aircraft crew were trying to pick up an anti-communist Chinese agent when they came under fire in the sky over Manchuria on November 29, 1952.

Initially, all of those on the aircraft were presumed by the U.S. Government to be lost. Downey was 22 years old and Fecteau was 25 at the time of their capture. The pilots, Robert Snoddy and Norman Schwartz, were killed.[3]

Two years later, the men saw each other for the first time, and their survival was first confirmed to the world outside of China, when they were put on secret trial and convicted of spying. These developments drew strong protests from the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. As their status as CIA officers was a secret, the U.S. Government did not acknowledge their true affiliation for much of the period of their incarceration, saying they were civilian United States Army employees, which necessarily complicated the efforts of U.S. officials, family members and others to press for their release, or even to make their plight widely known.[3]

The CIA has posted a background piece on its website describing the mission, the capture, and, ultimately, the release of agents Downey and Fecteau,[4] along with a video documentary on its website.[5][6]


Thanks to efforts by Downey's mother, Mary Downey, and President Richard Nixon, Downey was released 21 years into his life sentence, on March 12, 1973,[7] the year after Nixon's visit to China. (Fecteau had been released in December 1971 after serving nineteen years of a 20-year sentence.) The backdrop was President Nixon's early 1970s' historic diplomatic opening to China. Three years later, at age 46, Downey graduated from Harvard Law School, ultimately becoming a judge.[3]


Downey and his Chinese-born wife were married in 1975; they had a son. Fecteau returned to his alma mater as assistant athletic director at Boston University, retiring in 1989.[3][8]

In late June 1998, CIA Director George Tenet awarded Downey and Fecteau the CIA Director's Medal for their service to their country in a private ceremony.[8]

Downey's latter judicial career was honored when the New Haven, Connecticut, Juvenile Matters Courthouse and Detention Center was named for him following his retirement after reaching the position of Chief Administrative Judge for Juvenile Matters. The courthouse ceremony occurred on September 25, 2002.[9]

On June 18, 2007, the Connecticut Bar Association honored Downey with its highest honor for a judge, the Henry J. Naruk Judiciary Award, for his outstanding contributions to the judicial field in Connecticut.[10]

In 2011, the CIA released publicly its agency-made documentary featuring Downey and Fecteau.[11]

In 2013, the CIA awarded Downey the Distinguished Intelligence Cross.[12]


Downey died in hospice care at Branford, Connecticut, on November 17, 2014, aged 84, from pancreatic cancer and Parkinson's disease.[13][14]


  1. ^ Burns, Robert (2013-06-19). "CIA Ambushed in China". Hartford Courant. AP. Archived from the original on October 20, 2012. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  2. ^ Moran, David, "John Downey, judge and longest held POW in US history, dies at 84", Hartford Courant, (Reprinted in Stars and Stripes), November 18, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d Burt, Andrew (September 24, 2014). ""Your Future Is Very Dark" - The incredible story of former CIA agent John T. Downey, the longest held American captive of war". Slate. Retrieved September 25, 2014. 
  4. ^ "Two CIA Prisoners in China, 1952–73", Apr 05, 2007, CIA
  5. ^ "Extraordinary Fidelity", Apr 05, 2007, CIA
  6. ^ "Extraordinary Fidelity", June 5, 2013 (transcript), CIA.
  7. ^ Burt, Andrew (2014-11-19). "John T. Downey, CIA agent captured by China during the Korean War: The story of the longest held American POW". Retrieved 2017-01-24. 
  8. ^ a b Dujmovic, Nicholas (2006). "Two CIA Prisoners in China, 1952–73". Studies in lIntelligence. 50 (4). 
  9. ^ "New Haven Juvenile Courthouse Named After Judge Downey" (Press release). State of Connecticut, Judicial Division. 2002-09-25. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  10. ^ "Annual Meeting Awards". Connecticut Bar Association. 2007. Archived from the original on November 29, 2007. 
  11. ^ "Two CIA Prisoners in China, 1952–73 — Central Intelligence Agency". Retrieved 2017-01-24. 
  12. ^ "Cold War arrest of US spies offers lesson for Iran diplomacy". Retrieved 2013-12-30. 
  13. ^ John Downey, Judge and former POW, dies at age 84. The Associated Press, via Newsday, November 17, 2014.
  14. ^ Weil, Martin John Downey, CIA employee held 20 years in China during Cold War, dies at 84 The Washington Post, November 18, 2014.

Further reading[edit]

The following books make reference to the incident:

  • William Colby and Peter Forbath, Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA.
  • James Lilley, China Hands (New York: Public Affairs).
  • John Ranelagh, The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA (Simon & Schuster).
  • William Leary, Perilous Missions: Civil Air Transport and CIA Covert Operations in Asia (University of Alabama Press).
  • Press accounts of the 1998 CIA ceremony include The Washington Post, June 24, 1998, Page A17, and Associated Press, July 3, 1998, "CIA Honors Its China Spies"John T. Downey RIP-November 17, 2014
  • Jerry L. THIGPEN, The Praetorian STARship: the untold story of the Combat Talon 9Air University Press.
  • Ted Gup, The Book of Honor: The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives, Anchor Books, 2007.

External links[edit]