NEW HAVEN – This year, at its May 19 commencement exercises, Albertus Magnus College bestowed an honorary degree on Judge John T. “Jack” Downey, who retired as Connecticut’s chief administrative judge for juvenile matters in 1997.
For his exemplary leadership on the bench, the Connecticut Judicial Branch renamed the New Haven Juvenile Matters Courthouse the John T. Downey Courthouse in 2002. Today, at age 83, he continues to contribute to the judiciary by serving three days a week as a judge trial referee.
However, another extraordinary story about the early life of this graduate of the Choate School and Yale University is one that was not well known for many years.
In March of 1973, he walked out of a Chinese prison after serving 20 years, three months and 14 days of a life sentence.
It was at the height of the Korean War in 1952 when the aircraft in which he was flying with three other CIA officers was shot down over Manchuria. The two pilots died. Downey and the other officer, Richard Fecteau, were captured, imprisoned, mostly in solitary confinement, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Initially, the aircraft was presumed to be lost. So for two years, their families heard that the two men were “presumed to be dead.”
It wasn’t until two years after their capture that the two officers saw each other for the first time. It was also the first time that their survival was confirmed by the Chinese.
Complicating their release was the United States government’s denial of their status as CIA officers; instead, they were reported to be civilian U.S. Army employees.
While other captures and imprisonments of servicemen grab headlines, such as that of pilot Gary Powers, freed two years after his plane was shot down in the Soviet Union in 1960, Mr. Downey and Mr. Fecteau were held captive for two decades with no groundswell of support to get them out.
“I was scared at first,” Judge Downey told The Catholic Transcript, “because I didn’t know what they were going to do with me.” Both men were put in leg irons and held in a temporary shelter before being moved from place to place over the years, usually in the same facility and corridor, but in different cells.
Often within hearing range of each other, they developed a system of distinctive coughs to communicate. “We were never alone together, but I’d know his cough anywhere,” said Judge Downey. “We had interpreters and guards monitoring us. So we always kept in touch by listening and interpreting the sounds we heard.” He still communicates with Mr. Fecteau, who lives in Massachusetts.
A huge source of hope for Judge Downey was his mother, Mary Downey, who doggedly pursued officials for years with weekly phone calls. She made four trips to China. On one of the trips in 1960, she was escorted by the relatives of other American prisoners, including the brother of Bishop James Walsh, the Maryknoll priest who was sentenced by the Chinese in 1959 to 20 years in prison.
“She kept pressing in every way she could to act on our behalf,” said Judge Downey about his mother, who was allowed to send him packages. “She even went to see the president. She was relentless.”
Judge Downey said he never wrote a book about his ordeal because “I found it painful to think about writing it down.”
But in a CIA document, a researcher wrote about some of the “lessons learned” from their captivity. Among them are: never give up hope, lower expectation, keep to a daily routine, exercise, create a secret space for yourself in your mind, use humor, be patient, care for each other and remember that a brain cannot be washed.
The CIA also created an hour-long account of the men’s story, entitled “Extraordinary Fidelity,” available on YouTube.
“It’s hard to say how you do it,” said Judge Downey about living through captivity. “But there’s not much alternative. You’re there and you do your best. One thing is to stay as busy as you can; and don’t feel sorry for yourself. That’s easy to say, but difficult to overcome.”
He said that in his later years in captivity, he was treated well. Food, he said, varied according to two factors, politics and the harvest. “When relations with China were bad, the food was not so good,” he said. Neither officer was physically tortured.
Another coping mechanism was his faith. “I prayed. I certainly did,” said Judge Downey, who now attends St. Mary Church on Hillhouse Avenue. “My mother sent me a Bible, so I had a Bible to study; and I read a chapter every night. God was with me in my cell.”
The break for freedom finally came in 1973, after his mother suffered a stroke and United States-China relations thawed.
Because of the mother’s illness, President Nixon appealed to Beijing on humanitarian grounds, and also publicly admitted that Mr. Downey was a CIA employee.
“My mother got me home,” said Judge Downey, who was at her bedside the day after he walked across the border to Hong Kong. “She was a woman of faith.”
He spent his first week of freedom in New Britain General Hospital. “I didn’t go to sleep for a week, I was so excited to be home,” he recalled. “They gave me sleeping pills, but it didn’t work.”
That spring he applied to Harvard Law School, started the next September, passed the bar three years later and began working for a firm in Wallingford, where he was born. He was named to the bench in 1987 and asked to take a juvenile justice assignment in New Haven the following year.
In 1973, he met his future wife Audrey, a Chinese American who was born in Manchuria. The couple was married in 1975 at St. Thomas More Chapel on the Yale University campus. A moment of pride for them came the same weekend that Judge Downey was presented with his honorary degree from Albertus Magnus, when his son received his doctoral degree in theology from Fordham University.
Honored with awards by his colleagues for his contributions to the judicial field, the CIA also celebrated Judge Downey and Mr. Fecteau as heroes in 1998. Presenting them with the Director’s Award, George Tenant, director of central intelligence, called their story one of the most remarkable in the history of the CIA.
Judge Downey harbors no anger or animosity toward his captors or his imprisonment; and emerged from his captivity with no physical or mental impairment.
“Generations have come and gone and never thought of us,” said Judge Downey, who speaks with a quick-witted yet humble style. “But the memories are still very vivid to those of us who were involved at the time…my friends and family.”
“It’s hard to describe,” he said about the experience, “but it’s there as part of my life and background. I was never one to dwell on it because I’d rather move on.”