John T. Downey, a former C.I.A. agent who became the longest-serving American prisoner of war by surviving more than 20 years in Chinese prisons after he was shot down over Manchuria in 1952, died on Monday at a hospice in Branford, Conn. He was 84.
John T. Downey in Hong Kong in 1973 after his release from China. He said his captors told him: “Your future is very dark.”
His family announced the death.
After his release in 1973, Mr. Downey graduated from Harvard Law School at 46, served in the Connecticut state government, including a term as commissioner of the Public Utility Control Department, ran for the United States Senate and became a juvenile court judge.
He said many times that he did not want to be defined only as a war captive, but his story was so compelling that the Central Intelligence Agency gave him its highest awards and, uncharacteristically, made them public.
Mr. Downey was captured in November 1952, during the Korean War, while on a mission in Manchuria, in northeast China, to rescue a courier who had worked for American spies.
Mr. Downey and another C.I.A. paramilitary operative, Richard F. Fecteau, were aboard a C47 transport plane, on their way to make the rescue, when it was shot down by Chinese artillery. According to a C.I.A. history written in 2007, the courier, turning his back on his American associates, had tipped off the Chinese about the rescue plan. The pilot and co-pilot were killed. Mr. Fecteau and Mr. Downey were captured.
In their first interrogation, a security officer who had clearly been briefed by the courier pointed at Mr. Downey. “You are Jack,” he said in English, according to the C.I.A. “Your future is very dark.”
More interrogations followed, but the men gave up as little intelligence as possible, the C.I.A. said.
At the time, the United States was engaged in covert operations in China in the hopes of organizing resistance to the new Communist government of Mao Zedong and fomenting a rebellion there. A revolt, the Americans hoped, would divert Chinese forces from the Korean Peninsula, where they were helping Communist forces from the north in their struggle with South Korea and its United Nations allies, most of them American troops.
Mr. Downey and Mr. Fecteau were put in leg irons. Nobody outside of China knew what had happened to them, and in December 1953, Allen Dulles, the director of central intelligence, wrote to their families saying they were “presumed dead.”
They remained imprisoned until relations between China and the United States warmed in the early 1970s, culminating with President Richard M. Nixon’s groundbreaking visit in 1972. Mr. Fecteau was released in late 1971, after serving 19 years and 14 days.
Nixon personally intervened to secure Mr. Downey’s release after the prisoner’s mother, who had visited China five times to plead on her son’s behalf, suffered a severe stroke. He was freed on March 13, 1973, shortly after the United States acknowledged for the first time that Mr. Downey had been connected to the C.I.A. On his release — 20 years, three months and 14 days after his plane had been shot down — China said he had “confessed to his crimes.”
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Because they were seized during the Korean War, Mr. Downey and Mr. Fecteau have long been described as prisoners of war, though they were not uniformed service members. Col. Floyd Thompson, who was imprisoned for nearly nine years during the Vietnam War, is America’s longest-serving uniformed serviceman taken prisoner.
“It has been 61 years since Dick and Jack took to the skies over North Korea and China during the Korean War,” Mr. Brennan said, “and their ordeal remains among the most compelling accounts of courage, resolve and endurance in the history of our agency.” In 2010, the C.I.A. commissioned a documentary film on the men’s experiences that was intended for internal training purposes. The movie, “Extraordinary Fidelity,” has since been released to the public and is available online.
John Thomas Downey was born on April 19, 1930, in Wallingford, Conn., and graduated from the Choate School, where he was voted the “most popular, most versatile and most likely to succeed.” He went to Yale with the idea of becoming a lawyer like his father, John E. Downey, a probate judge who died in a car accident when his son was a boy. Instead, he accepted an offer to join the C.I.A. after an agency recruiter contacted him in the spring of his senior year.
His first assignment was to go to Korea to help train a team of Chinese agents inside China. While there, he was ordered to participate in the rescue of the courier, who had asked to be taken out of China. The C.I.A. history refuted suggestions over the years that they had jumped on the flight as a sort of “joy ride.” The C47 took off from Korea.
The plan was for the courier to be strapped into a harness that would be hung from a line strung high off the ground between two poles. The idea was that the plane would fly low and slow enough to be able to drop a cable and hook the line. Mr. Downey and Mr. Fecteau would then hoist the courier up with a pulley. As the plane swooped in, however, it was hit by antiaircraft fire.
As a prisoner, Mr. Downey said, he spent much time in solitary — six years in one stretch. He studied Russian and French and was given books and magazines in English. He did not study Chinese, he said, because he felt that would have amounted to an admission that he was not going to get out. He said he was not tortured. And he came to certain conclusions as his imprisonment stretched on, year after lonely year.
“You have to come to terms with some very hard facts and learn to narrow your expectations,” he told People magazine in 1978. “You face the fact that this is where you’re at, and where you may well be for the rest of your life. You discover the world can get along very nicely without you.”