“Your Future Is Very Dark”

The incredible story of former CIA agent John T. Downey, the longest held American captive of war.

John Downey
John T. Downey, center, walks into Hong Kong from China, where he was imprisoned for more than 20 years, on March 12, 1973.

Photo by Bettman/Corbis

On Nov. 17, John T. Downey died in Branford, Conn., at the age of 84. In September, Slate published an account of Downey’s decades-long captivity in China after being captured as part of a failed CIA mission during the Korean War. Andrew Burt’s article, reprinted below, chronicled Downey’s harrowing experience, as well as the humility with which Downey described his ordeal. Reached by the Washington Post after Downey’s death, his son John Lee Downey said his father had, true to form, felt Slate’s account “made him sound too heroic.” We respectfully disagree. 

America was riding high in June 1951, and so was John T. Downey, a 21-year-old English major and football star, as he stood in the courtyard of Yale’s old campus one Monday morning beside his beaming mother. Downey had graduated from one of America’s most elite institutions, just as the Korean War turned 1 year old, with U.S. forces then pushing back a Communist offensive by the North Koreans and the Chinese. Armistice talks would begin as a result. The United States might soon be bringing its boys home.

But such hopes were premature. Two long, bloody years would pass before the war ended, and by that time John Downey would find himself shackled in a Chinese prison cell, confessing his status as an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency, which, along with the rest of the U.S. government, now presumed him dead. He would remain there for more than 20 years, making him the longest held captive of war in American history.

John Downey’s story has been told in bits and pieces since his release. In December 1978, five years after returning to the U.S. and then 48 years old, Downey gave his first major interview, to People, but relinquished only a few brief facts about his time in prison. Thirty years later, he entrusted more details to CIA historians for an internal CIA documentary on the mission that led to his imprisonment. Otherwise, Downey has largely kept his story to himself, abiding by his “self-imposed silence,” as the reporter for People described it in 1978, refusing in-depth interviews, book offers, and other chances at the limelight.

I first met Downey in the spring of 2013, in the chambers of a New Haven, Connecticut, courthouse. Having just finished my second year of law school, I had heard about the man who spent more than two decades in a Chinese prison; had been a CIA spy in the early days of the agency’s existence; and was now, improbably, working as a judge. At first, I just wanted to meet the man. But as I got to know him better, and began meeting with him more frequently, discussing, among other topics, my experience as a law student and my own professional ambitions, I asked him if he might share the details of his life and career with me, and allow me to recount his story for publication. It took some persuading, but Downey eventually agreed.

What follows is based on a year and a half of interviews between John Downey and myself, much of it recounted from the living room of his home. It marks the first time he’s sat down with a reporter to tell his story in full.

* * *

John Downey was recruited into the CIA in the spring of his senior year. He was the very model of the kind of credentialed, idealistic young man the agency was sweeping into its ranks. Downey had earned academic scholarships to Choate and Yale, excelling in his studies and in athletics. The son of a Connecticut probate judge and the grandson of a Connecticut state legislator, Downey had public service in his DNA. He postponed plans for law school and a life in politics for the glamour and intrigue of the CIA.

Fort Benning
Members of the Air Force’s 508th Airborne Regimental Combat Team board a C-46 at Fort Benning, Georgia, before making a parachute jump, circa 1950.

Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images

Downey began his training while still a senior at Yale, reporting to the Army base at Fort Benning, Georgia, to learn to parachute out of planes. At a CIA training facility just outside of Washington, he learned clandestine skills like weapons training and dead drops, a method of secretly passing information between spies. This was Downey’s entre into the secret world of spying. While his classmates attended senior prom, he was elsewhere, training for the mission to come.

Downey kept his new life secret from his friends and family. Even those closest to him were only vaguely aware of the career he had embarked on. His mother would later recall waving goodbye to him from a small Connecticut train station the winter after his graduation, knowing only that the job he’d taken was in Asia and had something to do with the Korean War. “A shudder went through me then,” Mary Downey confessed years later to a reporter, “and I have always felt it to be a premonition of the horrible thing that was to happen to Jack.” For Downey, however, there were no premonitions or outsized fears. There was just the excitement of a young man heading to war. “There was a sense of urgency because of the Korean War,” remembers Downey. “It felt like the future of mankind was at stake.”

* * *

Hidden on the fringes of a sprawling compound in East Asia was a small cluster of whitewashed buildings surrounded by barbed-wire fences. This was the home of Operation Tropic, a clandestine CIA effort to create a guerilla force in mainland China, aimed at fighting the communist government there and diverting its resources from the war in Korea. It would become home to Downey, who by the winter of 1952 counted himself as one among the stream of young men scrambling in and out of the compound, giving “an air of efficiency about the place,” according to one visitor’s account of the complex.

Downey was tasked with selecting and training a team of Chinese agents to make trouble from within its borders. He singled out a four-man team that parachuted into southern China in April of 1952, according to the CIA’s own official account. Once in Chinese territory, the team went silent. They were never heard from again.

But this initial failure did little to dampen the hopes the CIA harbored for Operation Tropic. Downey hand-picked another team, this time composed of five Chinese agents, who were air-dropped into Manchuria in mid-July. The second team quickly established radio contact with Downey.

The CIA soon decided to send a sixth member to act as a courier between the guerilla team and Downey’s CIA base. In September, an aircraft took the courier on the familiar path, letting him loose into the nighttime sky as he parachuted over Manchuria. Once on the ground, the courier established contact with Downey, saying he’d arrived safely and was beginning his mission.

Two months later, that mission—whose precise details remain classified even now—was complete. In November, the courier radioed Downey requesting extraction from China.

On Nov. 20, Downey’s CIA unit radioed back to confirm. An aircraft would pick the courier up in nine days, on Nov. 29. “Will air snatch approximately 2400 hours,” the CIA message read.

* * *

The snatch pickup was a bizarre maneuver, and an untested one. The process called for an aircraft flying at low altitude to hook a line elevated between two poles. Connected to the line would be a harness, into which an agent would be strapped. The contraption resembled a swingset, if that swingset was designed to be born aloft by a cargo plane. Two men in the back of the plane would operate a pulley, dropping the hook intended to catch the agent and then reeling in the line; both the operators and the pilots required extensive training. Describing the operation in his 1984 book Perilous Missions, a history of CIA covert operations in Asia, William M. Leary writes that the agent was forced to sit impassively in his harness, awaiting possible decapitation, among a litany of other potential injuries. The pickup of Downey’s courier would be the first time the CIA ever carried the plan into action. The Air Force deemed the operation too risky to try.

It wasn’t just the method that was untested—so were the operators. The original plan called for Chinese crewmen to work the crank. But there wasn’t enough time to train any Chinese. That left Downey and another junior CIA officer, 25-year-old Richard Fecteau, to operate the pulley. Fecteau, a former Boston University football guard, had arrived at Downey’s CIA base in early November; just three weeks into his first tour overseas, he was even more of a greenhorn than Downey. Two veteran pilots, Robert Snoddy and Norman Schwartz, were then selected for the flight. It would be their last.

* * *

Late on the night of Nov. 29, a cold Saturday in 1952, Downey and Fecteau boarded an olive-drab C-47 cargo plane and took off for Manchuria. The flight was calm and quiet, with a full moon casting its light onto a clear sky. At one point, Fecteau opened a survival kit in the cargo hold of the plane and noted that the .32 pistol inside had no ammunition. Still relative strangers, this would be the only conversation the men had onboard the flight.

Approaching the snow-covered drop point around midnight, the team on the ground lit three bonfires to signal that all was clear. As the plane made its first pass, Downey and Fecteau pushed out food and supplies for the guerilla team, along with the poles and harness needed for the air snatch. When the plane returned nearly 45 minutes later to carry out the operation, Downey could see the courier in the harness through the open cargo doors. He was facing the aircraft on the ground below, ready for pickup. Everything was set to go.

The C-47 began its descent, swooping in low and slowing down over the harness. But just then snow-colored sheets snapped back to reveal two anti-aircraft guns on either side of the plane, which started to fire simultaneously. Bullets crisscrossed through the body of the plane, disabling the engines. The aircraft’s nose tilted upward. The C-47 began a long crash into a nearby forest, breaking through the tops of trees and emerging, finally, in two pieces. Back in the cargo hold, Downey and Fecteau slid along the floor of the aircraft, cushioned by their winter clothes and emerging, miraculously, with only scrapes and bruises, though one bullet had managed to singe Downey’s cheek. The two CIA officers tried to get to the cockpit to check on the pilots, but with the aircraft on fire, and with the plane’s fuel beginning to ignite, they were quickly forced to abandon the aircraft.

Shot down in a country the United States was at war with, whose communist government the two men were secretly attempting to overthrow, the CIA agents were, as Fecteau would later recount, in a hell of a mess. A crowd of Chinese men emerged from the woods, guns drawn.

“Your future is very dark,” a Chinese security officer said, in English.

Beside the still burning wreckage of the C-47, one of the agents Downey had trained was brought in and asked, “Who is Jack Downey?” The agent pointed at his former handler. The CIA’s Far East division would later conclude that the agents had been turned immediately after being dropped into China.

* * *

A few hours after midnight, Downey’s CIA unit received a message from the guerilla team, notifying them that all had gone as planned with the pickup, and that the flight was back en route to the CIA base. The risky operation had proved worthwhile in the end, or so it seemed.

Later that morning, when the C-47 was nowhere to be found, the CIA began scrambling. The agency quickly came up with a cover story for the missing men: A commercial flight from Korea to Japan had disappeared somewhere over the Sea of Japan. Snoddy and Schwartz were piloting the plane, and Fecteau and Downey were said to be Defense Department civilian employees on board. The U.S. military itself would conduct a search of the area for the downed plane in response to the story. The military, of course, came up with no leads.

CIA Director Walter Bedell Smith soon signed letters to the families of Downey and Fecteau, confirming that both men had disappeared. Downey was a passenger on a commercial flight between South Korea and Japan, which is now overdue, he wrote. “There is grave fear that he may have been lost.” Analysts at the CIA quickly concluded that the likelihood the men were being held by the Chinese was negligible—had the Chinese discovered them alive, the analysts reasoned, they would have used them for propaganda purposes, telegraphing to the U.S. and to the world what the CIA was doing, and that both men were alive.

On Dec. 4, 1953, more than a year after their flight took off, and with no signs that either Downey or Fecteau were still living, Smith once again wrote to both men’s families—this time to confirm the worst. They were now officially presumed dead.

* * *

A Grieving American Soldier
An American soldier comforts a fellow infantryman whose close friend was killed in action, Haktong-ni area, Korea, August 1950.

Photo by U.S. Army via Interim Archives/Getty Images

Back in China, Downey may have been in hell, but he was alive. In the early hours of Nov. 30, 1952, just after the crash, the two Americans were bound and tied at the drop site, and then taken to a nearby prison. From there, a dozen armed guards brought them by truck, and then by train, to another prison, this one nearly 400 miles away in Shenyang, the largest city in Manchuria.

The prison in Shenyang was housed in the basement of a tall, ornate building with a big courtyard. There, both men were taken to cells below ground and placed in isolation, where they were shackled with heavy leg irons. It was here that the long period of interrogation began.

Interrogations lasted up to 24 hours a day, sometimes for days at a time. The Chinese tried to break both men as quickly as possible and to learn as much as they could about the CIA, its operations, and its agents. Downey was probed for everything he could remember—names, faces, no detail was insignificant. Downey remembers being asked to draw a map of the airfield they came from. “I wound up drawing a Christmas ornament kind of thing,” he recalls. “I was trying to deceive them, trying not to draw the true airfield. They were not impressed.”

Kept in isolation from each other, the two men had no idea what the other was saying. The Chinese would compare their stories, confronting the men with contradictions and inconsistencies, making it harder for each to keep up their covers, which were nonexistent. So ill-prepared were both men for capture that each created fake stories explaining their presence onboard the flight on the spot. Meanwhile, physical pain became an integral part of the interrogations. Downey was allowed to sleep for no more than 30 minutes at a time for weeks. At times, he was forced to stand for hours on end.

Confusion, not to mention terror, quickly descended upon Downey, who tried to hide his CIA affiliation and the details of Operation Tropic from his captors, at least initially. “I found it very difficult to keep track of my false story,” he would later say, as he blended different stories he’d told to different interrogators, who became increasingly skilled at separating fact from fiction. It quickly dawned on Downey that there was no way he could keep his stories straight, especially given what the agents he’d trained had already confessed to the Chinese. “There was no end to what I was facing,” says Downey. By his 16th day in isolation, he finally admitted he was in the CIA. Downey burst out crying in front of his captors after the admission, convinced that he’d betrayed his country. He was 22 years old.

* * *

After five months of captivity in Shenyang, Downey was moved to a prison in Beijing, where he was kept in solitary confinement and where sensory deprivation remained the norm. A single 15-watt light bulb burned above his head day and night, surrounded by four cement walls in a cell measuring roughly 5 feet by 8 feet. The only window was covered over, obscuring the outside world. A thick wooden door stood between Downey and the hallway—a small eyehole in the door, covered from the outside, would jostle every few hours, reminding him he was being watched.

For the first two years of his imprisonment, this was Downey’s home. Kept in isolation, denied any human contact and with the guilt of his confession growing stronger, this was one of the few times Downey remembers coming close to breaking down.

Time itself seemed to slip away. “I just had no means of memory or counting,” he tells me. “There was no information whatsoever. There were no magazines, no news.” Before long, Downey lost track of the days and the months. A deep form of disorientation set in.

Downey had other concerns—worries that might seem strange today. Chief among them was the fear of brainwashing, of being turned into a double agent, sent back to America only to secretly, even unconsciously, work for the Chinese, a fear captured later that decade in the popular novel The Manchurian Candidate. So great, and so commonplace, was this worry that in 1957 Walter Cronkite would uncontroversially proclaim on network television that brainwashing, and the broader question of Americans’ mental “preservation as individuals,” had already become “one of the underlying themes” of the century. Indeed, in the decade spanning 1950 to 1960, more than 200 articles in major American magazines like Time and Life were devoted to the subject, according to one major study.

But the more time Downey spent with his captors, the more he realized that communists didn’t have the power to refashion his mind. They might be able to scare him and manipulate his emotions, but they couldn’t change who he was. This realization was one of the first real moments of relief Downey experienced from inside his prison cell.

Still, the horror came in cycles, with nothing but the monotony of solitary confinement to drain, slowly, the days as they passed. Anxiety, fear, and depression began to set in. Downey was moved between cells in an attempt to further disorient him; his weight dropped 30 pounds. Studying communist prison systems in the 1950s for the Department of Defense, psychiatrists Lawrence E. Hinkle Jr. and Harold G. Wolff wrote that the experience was designed to leave men like Downey feeling defeated, humiliated, and with a desperate need for human interaction. Lack of sleep, changes in diet, the cold of the cell, and the pain produced by unusual postures, they explained, lead “to a steady disorganization of the prisoner which, in the case of new prisoners unfamiliar with the routine, is usually well advanced within three to six weeks.” The standard result was a dulling of the senses, a gradual lowering of expectations, and a weakening of the mind—effects that would only worsen with time.

Downey was stuck, for how long nobody knew. As the days passed, his enemy became not just his Chinese captors, but his own mind.

* * *

But Downey wasn’t entirely without hope. He expected a trial. The Chinese, he thought, would haul him in front of a judge and use his conviction as some sort of propaganda stunt. Maybe he’d get sentenced to 10 years and then released. Either that or the Chinese would have killed him already, he figured, and they were clearly intent on keeping him alive.

It took just under two years, but in November of 1954, Downey was finally given the chance he’d been waiting for. His captors gave him a new uniform to wear—a black suit, new shoes, and what resembled a beanie hat—in a clear sign that they wanted him to look good for the coming spectacle, for the lights and cameras that were to pack the courtroom. Downey and Fecteau were soon brought together in front of a Chinese military tribunal, their first encounter since being separated. Upon seeing Downey, Fecteau took notice of his new suit, whispering into his ear, “Who’s your tailor?” For the first time in nearly two years, Downey cracked a smile.

Aside from that one light moment, things were deadly serious. On trial with Downey and Fecteau were nine Chinese agents, part of the team that Downey had supervised and trained. Both Downey and Fecteau quickly pleaded guilty, as did the Chinese. The judge then began to sum up each of the defendants’ crimes, declaring Downey the “arch-criminal of all American prisoners.”

When the sentencing began, four of the Chinese agents were sentenced to death, four to life imprisonment. “Life, life, death, life, death,” Downey later recalled, remembering what he heard as the sentences come down. “I went from fearing 10 years to being grateful for life.” 

Downey was sentenced to life imprisonment. As for Fecteau, the Chinese recognized his rookie status as a spy, having arrived in Asia just a month before his capture, and gave him a lesser sentence of 20 years. On Nov. 23, 1954, the New China News Agency broadcast the men’s fates to the world. Two years after their flight had gone missing, and one year after the CIA had pronounced both men dead, the U.S. government, and the men’s families, learned that both were still alive.

* * *

After the sentencing, Downey was returned to solitary confinement, where he again came close to breaking down. The night that followed was long and sleepless, with the burden of his loneliness growing heavier by the second. Downey remembers “sitting in my cell with the weight of the reality that I’d just been sentenced to life in prison, and I just felt leaden spirits. It hit me fully.”

But Downey would soon receive good news—news that would, at the very least, put his hopelessness in perspective. It came from an unexpected source. Since arriving in Beijing, Downey had been assigned an English interpreter, charged with taking care of Downey on a day-to-day basis. Downey knew the official simply as Wu—a scrawny man of medium height, with delicate features and a fierce commitment to communist ideology. Downey remembers him as being well-read, capable of serious intellectual debate, and a man who “took a very obviously expansive view of his powers and position and prestige.”

The day after Downey’s sentencing, Wu came into his cell, beaming with joy. “Of course your sentencing is final,” Wu told Downey. “It cannot be commuted, and you’re going to spend your life in prison.”

As Wu did his best to convince Downey that his circumstances were hopeless, however, Downey took the opposite message—Wu was compensating for something. “I knew he was lying,” remembers Downey. “The fact that he was making this great emphasis reassured me that they were keeping me for bargaining purposes.” From that point on, he hoped for his freedom. 

* * *

Despite his newfound confidence, Downey had to face the grim reality that he was still trapped in a Chinese prison, with no end to his captivity in sight. He would be forced to adapt to a life deliberately designed to make him swing from hopefulness to frustration to degradation and back again. Just as Downey was getting used to some semblance of a routine, Wu and his captors would alter his diet, his surroundings, or his daily schedule—always just enough to keep him angry, to further disorient him, to remind him who was really in control.

Richard J. Fecteau
Richard J. Fecteau is weighed and measured by a nurse on Jan. 21, 1955, during his captivity in China.

Photo by AP Images

In January of the following year, for example, the Chinese took Downey and Fecteau out of solitary and placed them in shared living quarters with 11 American crewmen of a U.S. Air Force B-29, shot down over China just weeks after Downey’s crash. In one of the highlights of Downey’s time in China, the 13 Americans began to live together with expanded privileges, playing volleyball outside and socializing indoors. Downey would describe the period to People as “the only fun we had for 20 years.” It was during this time that Downey, to his amazement, learned that the Korean War had been over for nearly three years. The men shared their stories of interrogation and imprisonment—one airman, Downey learned, had been forced to stand for so long that he collapsed from exhaustion.

“Boy, you have guts,” Downey remembers telling the airman.

“I just didn’t know the answer to the question,” he responded, in what passed for humor under the circumstances.

After a period of three weeks living with the airmen, who were shortly released, Downey and Fecteau were sent back into solitary confinement, where the two agents remained for years. Downey spent the following months “shaken up, nerve-wracked, and fearful,” he recalls. By 1956, four years after the night of his plane crash, he felt as if he was reaching rock bottom yet again. But it was near rock bottom that things began to turn around. “I just pulled myself together and said, ‘Enough of this crap,’ ” he later told CIA documentarians. (The CIA documentary, initially made exclusively for the agency, was eventually released in 2011 through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Associated Press.) “I really found the most pernicious thing in prison was feeling sorry for yourself.”

Downey responded to his circumstances by creating a strict routine, one that he would stick to as closely as possible for the next 16 years. His standard day began shortly before 6 a.m., followed by calisthenics and tidying up his cell. Before breakfast, Downey would read a chapter from the Bible. Then came mandatory “instructional persuasion,” or indoctrination sessions, usually guided by Wu, which consisted of anti-Western propaganda on Radio Peking, along with reading and discussion of Marxist literature. Next came lunch. Steamed bread or rice was the staple food; vegetables and meat were offered with some meals. Key nutrients came in the form of peanut butter and vitamins sent monthly by the Red Cross. After lunch was an afternoon nap.

Later in the day, Downey was permitted to leave his whitewashed cell to exercise in a small courtyard. Jogging became his main activity. Downey also read voraciously, attempting to teach himself Russian and French, and keeping up with the news back home to the extent possible from what his captors allowed him. This was limited, usually, to a few pages from U.S. newspapers, Sports Illustrated, and the Yale Alumni Magazine, most of it received from care packages. “You get good at piecing together clues,” he once explained. Downey learned about the moon walk the year after it happened, from an ad on a sports page, advertising collectible pictures of astronauts on the moon. Less triumphant moments, like the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, the Chinese were more than happy to report to their prisoner, as evidence American society was in steep decline.

On better days, Downey was ordered to mop the corridor outside his cell or to clean the toilet at the end of the hall, tasks he viewed as opportunities to get outside his cell—such chores were “delightful,” he recalls, giving him a chance to walk the corridor of the prison where both he and Fecteau were housed. At such times, Downey and Fecteau were able to communicate through the prison walls by simple coughing, just to let the other know that each was still alive. “I could recognize Fecteau’s cough from anywhere to this day,” Downey says.

Downey also made ample use of his imagination. He spent countless hours reliving past experiences like football games and trips, dredging up as many details as he could remember. One summer in college he lived in Alaska working on the docks, months he would replay over and over in his mind.

Downey did all he could to keep his spirit up, but his confinement was taking a toll. “As years go by,” explains Terry Kupers, a clinical psychiatrist and expert on solitary confinement, “what happens progressively is more and more isolation and more and more numbing.” Downey put it this way: “You toughen up a lot in prison, but you dry up too.” Eventually there came a point when Downey was just happy to be alone.

* * *

Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger, right, meets with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in July 1971 in Beijing.

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

On April 10, 1971, nine American ping-pong players, four officials, and two of their spouses stepped across a bridge from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland, ushering in an era of “ping-pong diplomacy,” and for the first time since the communist revolution, a thaw in U.S.–China relations. Three months later, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a secret trip to China, arranging a follow-up visit by President Nixon the next year. So excited were the Chinese by these developments that prison officials had Wu call Downey out of his cell to read a Chinese government press release announcing the news.

For the first time in more than a decade, Downey and Fecteau were escorted outside their prison and taken to a department store to get new suits. In early December, the Chinese announced that they had changed their policy toward the two CIA men. Soon, a barber walked down the wing of the prison and headed toward Fecteau’s cell, but he didn’t cut anyone else’s hair on the corridor. “Bingo,” says Downey, remembering the sound of the barber’s footsteps. “We knew something serious had taken place.” This was how Downey first surmised that Fecteau was being released. Fecteau was soon taken by armed guards to the Lo Wu border bridge, linking communist China to British-controlled Hong Kong, and told to walk across. Without any warning, Fecteau was returned to freedom. His release being unannounced, however, there was no one on the other side to greet him. Fecteau was forced to find a policeman and ask to be taken to American military authorities, who then rushed him back to the States.

At the same time, the Chinese announced their leniency toward Downey. The communist government would shorten his prison term from life imprisonment to time served plus the next five years.

So, on Dec. 14, 1971, Downey woke up to a new day in Chinese prison, facing the prospect of another five years in his cell. Wu would eventually tell him of Fecteau’s freedom, but this Downey already knew. After 19 years, he was truly alone.

Richard M. Nixon
President Richard M. Nixon, center, sits with Zhou Enlai, left, and Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) in Beijing in 1972.

Photo by Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

* * *

Officials in the Nixon administration had not yet given up on securing an earlier release for Downey. During Nixon’s historic visit to China in February of 1972, Downey’s status arose in discussions between the Americans and the Chinese. The Chinese demanded an official acknowledgement that Downey was an agent of the CIA. The United States, the communists insisted, would have to admit to the world that it had been lying about Downey all these years. For the time being, however, the U.S. government was unwilling to lose face, just as it was not yet willing to fully trust the Chinese. The Americans fell back on the official line that Downey was a Defense Department employee.

It took less than two years from the date of Nixon’s visit for the administration to change its mind. On Jan. 31, 1973, four days after the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords ending the war in Vietnam, Nixon held a wide-ranging White House press conference. Included among the topics of Nixon’s remarks were the fate of U.S.–Vietnamese relations and interest rates on agricultural loans. Then, toward the end of the conference, Nixon took one last question from a reporter who just happened to ask about the fate of John Downey. “Downey is a different case, as you know,” said Nixon. “Downey involves a CIA agent.”

And with that the U.S. government reversed its 20-year position on the status of Downey’s status, admitting to the Chinese and to the world that it had been lying all along. Whether the question was planned in advance or just miraculous timing, nobody knows. But two decades after Downey’s flight crashed in Manchuria, it was a stroke of luck for him nonetheless. Three weeks later, in a sign of goodwill, the Chinese announced that Downey would be released by the end of the year.

* * *

On March 7, 1973, roughly two weeks after the Chinese announced their latest plans for his release, Downey’s 75-year-old mother suffered a severe stroke. After Mary Downey was checked into a New Britain, Connecticut, hospital in critical condition, Nixon made a personal plea to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai asking that Downey be discharged as a humanitarian gesture. With relations between the U.S. and China improving by the day, it did not take the Chinese long to reach a decision.

Back in China, Downey was watching a ping-pong match on television when Wu interrupted him to deliver the news. “You’re going to be released,” said Wu. “You better go back to your cell and get your things together, because when it happens, it’s going to happen very quickly.”

After two decades of being strung along by his captors, Downey wasn’t taking the bait. “Well, if you don’t mind,” responded Downey, “I’d like to see the end of the match.”

This time, however, Wu meant what he said. On the night of March 11, 1973, Downey, now 42 years old and slightly balding, was taken by plane and then train to the border town across from Hong Kong. Just before 11 a.m. the next morning, he was told to walk across the Lo Wu border bridge. Wearing a blue Chinese suit and cap, carrying an overcoat and a black suitcase, Downey complied. After 20 years, three months, and 14 days, he was finally free.

* * *

Back in Connecticut, Mary Downey was slowly recuperating from her stroke. By the time that Downey reached her the next day, she had recovered just enough to recognize her eldest son, and to realize that after 20 years he was finally back in Connecticut. Quickly acclimating to her surroundings, she also began to harbor new worries about her son. “You’re a celebrity now,” she told him from her hospital bed. “Don’t let it get to your head.”

John T. Downey
John T. Downey on March 13, 1973, in New Britain, Connecticut.*

Photo by Bettman/Corbis

On March 13, Downey held a news conference in the New Britain hospital where both he and his mother were being treated, during which he downplayed his time in captivity. “When you talk about 20 years in a lump sum, it sounds like a big deal,” he told a crowd of reporters. “But on a day-to-day basis,” he said, “you just learn to go along.” When a reporter asked if Downey would ever write a book about his experience, he shrugged off the suggestion, saying it would consist of “500 blank pages.” Downey would diligently refuse interviews for years to come.

The doctors found Downey to be in good physical health, sustained by his jogging and the nutrients sent to him by the Red Cross, and he was soon released to an America far different than the one he had left years before. “In some ways, it was almost a disappointment,” he would later tell a reporter from the Hartford Courant, remembering how much change he confronted in American culture and in daily life. There was, for example, the traffic—or as Downey once put it, “the speed of all those cars.” The American highway system was created under Dwight Eisenhower with the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, four years after Downey’s plane crashed in Manchuria. It would take Downey years before he was comfortable driving again. He even spent an entire summer driving around the country, acclimating to the new roads. In the wake of the turbulent 1960s, Downey was also surprised at the cynicism and disillusionment he saw in those around him. “I just thought it was nonsense,” he remembers. “It was a strong impetus for reinforcing my desire to get into public service.”

So Downey picked up where he left off, his plans for a career in government and in politics as intact as they had been when he graduated from Yale in 1951. In the fall of 1973, less than six months after his release, he enrolled in Harvard Law School, where he would graduate three years later. The summer before law school, he registered for a Russian course at Yale to see how well he’d taught himself the language in prison, and found himself pleasantly surprised. While in New Haven that summer, he also met a Chinese-American research assistant in chemistry named Audrey Lee, born just miles from the prison in Shenyang where Downey was first held and who emigrated from China a few months after his capture. The two would marry in May of 1975. In 1980, Audrey gave birth to a boy.

By 1978, Downey was ready to try his hand in politics, running unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of Connecticut and later senator, eventually settling on a career as a judge, a calling that he continues to this day. His chosen area of expertise is juvenile detention. Now in his mid-80s, Downey drives to the John T. Downey Courthouse in New Haven a few days a week, presiding as a part-time judge over delinquent teenagers and troubled youths. The courthouse was named for him in 2002.

Downey, humble as ever, refuses to admit that there’s anything special about his life or career. Sitting in his judge’s chambers—a small, dimly lit office adjacent to the courthouse’s hearing room—he demurs when I ask him how he managed to survive all those years in China. Downey responds that he got caught spying and then he simply “did not die” for more than 20 years.

As for the impact his time in China had on his professional life, Downey says that it helps him empathize with the defendants in his courtroom, and that he understands the stress of being a prisoner—what he calls, understatedly, “not a normal way of living.” In one instance, for example, Downey recalls watching a young girl, about 15 or 16 years old, passionately object to her prison sentence. “She got up in court and gave an eloquent speech as to why she should go home and not be in prison. And then she said, ‘You don’t know what it’s like. You can’t imagine.’ ” Downey, quietly resisting the temptation to correct her, remembers sympathizing. “I do feel I know the restrictions on a prisoner’s life,” Downey says. “Prison is a lousy experience, whether you’re there for a month or 20 years.”

Correction, Sept. 25, 2014: The caption on this article’s final photo misstated where it was taken. It was in New Britain, Connecticut, not New Britain, Papua New Guinea.