Judge Recalls 20 Year Imprisonment in Communist China|
Jack Downey 76
Shortly after 9 p.m. on November 28, 1952, as the Korean War raged, a CIA plane took off from Korea, headed for Manchuria to pick up an anti-Communist Chinese agent who had been air-dropped to the mainland to build an intelligence network in the area. Aboard the plane was young Jack Downey, a 22-year-old CIA agent fresh out of Yale. A few hours later, Downeys plane was shot out of the sky by Communist Chinese, killing the pilots and landing Downey in a Beijing prison with a life sentence for espionage.
Twenty years later, a historic breakthrough in Chinese-American relations led to his release, and in 1998, he and his CIA colleague Dick Fecteau, who had also survived the wreck only to be shut away in the same Beijing prison, were honored as heroes by the CIA. In a special ceremony on June 25 of this year, CIA director George Tenet described Downey and Fecteaus imprisonment as "one of the most remarkable stories in the 50-year history of the CIA."
Named to the bench in 1987, today Downey 76 is a senior judge of the Superior Court in Connecticut, his home state. He entered HLS in 1973 at the age of 43, five months after his release from prison. "I felt some trepidation, as a CIA agent entering a mid-1970s academic milieu," he says, "but I had three good years at Harvard Law School."
Downey speaks candidly about his prison experience. Confined 23 hours a day to a 12' x 15' cell, he was terrified for the first few years. "But you learn to live with uncertainty and to stop feeling sorry for yourself. After all, if this is going to be the balance of your life, you have to make the best of it."
He was allowed an hour a day in the small exercise yard, where he did chin-ups and jogged44 laps to cover a mile. He received "a reasonable amount of food," the serving-size and quality varying according to the plenitude of Chinas harvest. He was neither beaten nor tortured, and remained in good health.
Downey read 19th-century American and European novels. He got access to some Russian grammar books and learned to read Russian. His captors gave him Communist and Socialist periodicals to encourage his "ideological reform." While Downey discounted the political bias, he was grateful for the material, because it gave him a window into current events. Over the years he was allowed a few visits from his mother and brother.
"I always had a hunch Id get out," he says. But he had to wait many years. The first inkling he felt was in 1971 when the U.S. ping pong team was invited to tour China. Soon thereafter, cocaptive Dick Fecteau was released. Then, in 1973, not long after visiting China, President Nixon asked Zhou Enlai to consider freeing Downey, because Downeys mother had suffered several strokes.
"One Friday when I had been allowed out of my cell to watch a ping pong match on TV, an interpreter appeared and said I was going to be released," Downey recalls. "I said, If you dont mind Id like to finish watching the match. I had a tight rein on my expectations."
On Sunday Downey was indeed driven to the airport in Beijing to begin his journey homeward. The first stop was Canton, where, "after hearing a speech about my high crimes, I shuffled across the bridge into Hong Kong and the waiting arms of British and U.S. officials." From Hong Kong he flew to the Philippines, where his brother met him, and then on to Hartford, Conn.
"I was absolutely elated," says Downey, who spent a few months "hanging around" his mothers house in New Britain and visiting with old friends before heading off to law school.
"Days go by when I dont think about it. Maybe Ive gained some patience from the experience. My sense of time is differentfour years doesnt seem like much any more." Adds Downey, "I have a wonderful wife and son and a rewarding job. Im very fortunate to have had 25 good years since I got out of prison."