John Downey, judge and longest held POW in US history, dies at 84
By DAVID MORAN | The Hartford (Conn.) Courant (TNS) | Published: November 18, 2014
(Tribune Content Agency) — John T. Downey, a renowned Connecticut judge and former CIA agent who had the distinction of being the longest held prisoner of war in American history, died Monday at age 84.
Those who knew him said he was a remarkable man, who was accomplished, caring, compassionate and humble. Chief Justice Chase Rogers said Downey's life story "was perhaps the most inspirational of anyone I have ever met."
A Wallingford, Conn., native, Downey graduated from Choate Rosemary Hall — then Choate School — in 1947 and Yale University in 1951. He was a member of the football, wrestling and rugby teams at Yale and was inducted into the Choate Rosemary Hall Athletic Hall of Fame in 2004.
Downey joined the CIA after college. He was sent on an airborne mission over the China and his plane was shot down. He was taken prisoner in November 1952 along with CIA officer Richard Fecteau. He was sentenced to life and spent the next 20 years in Chinese prisons. When President Richard Nixon re-established relations with China in 1971, Downey's sentence was commuted. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger negotiated Downey's release on March 9, 1973, and Downey was reunited with his sick mother, Mary Downey. Three years after his release, Downey graduated from Harvard Law School at the age of 45.
His son, Jack Downey, recalled his father Monday as a patient and humble man who might have been a little "rabid" about Yale football, but who never dwelled on his years of captivity.
"For a lot of people, especially of a certain generation, he was this enormous, larger than life person," Jack Downey said. "But he never made it a big thing. There was very little fanfare. He would just tell me a story about it like he was talking about baseball."
Downey gave only a few interviews about his time in captivity, but discussed it in detail with People magazine in 1978.
"I felt like I was embarking on an unknown journey," he told the magazine. "There was no way for anyone to know we had crashed. The Chinese waited two years before they told anybody we were alive. The first couple of weeks scared the hell out of me — the possibility of being executed was very real."
Downey said in published interviews with The Courant that after awhile, his years as a prisoner became essentially boring. Jogging, up to 10 miles a day, and "picayune daily chores" helped him get through his long captivity. He tried to do some writing, but his work was confiscated. He attempted to befriend his captors and said he did not become hopeless. "God is merciful," he said. "I never got a feeling of hopelessness or being abandoned."
Still, he told The Courant, the long years in prison took a toll.
"My temper grew short. You toughen up a bit in prison, but you dry up too. In the later years I was keeping my own act together and that was all I could handle. I was pleased to be in solitary. I had days of no conversation with anyone. I never forgot how to talk, but I did develop the habit of talking to myself. I still do sometimes, like when I'm preparing cases alone in my study."
Upon his release and return to the United States, he delighted in drinking Coke and having ice cream with his bacon and eggs for breakfast. He said he refused to let the difficult years behind bars ruin his life. He had no regrets, no resentments, he said.
"That's something that's behind me. I got out when I was reasonably young and in good health. I know it's clichéd, but I tend to look forward. I don't waste much time glowering about the past."
One way or the other, life goes on, he said.
"By all rights, I ought to wake up every morning singing. But I stagger to that first cup of coffee and get bogged down in the daily routine like everybody else."
Downey was appointed a judge by Gov. William A. O'Neill in 1987 and became chief administrative judge for juvenile matters from 1990 until he retired in 1997. He continued to work part-time as a trial referee until this past winter. He was awarded the CIA's Distinguished Intelligence Cross, the agency's highest honor, in 2013.
Rogers called him "one of the greats."
"I am saddened to hear today of Judge John T. Downey's passing. He was truly one of the greats. Judge Downey was assigned to juvenile court for years, and I had both the honor and pleasure of discussing juvenile matters with him," Rogers said Monday in a statement. "He was always positive and thoughtful, and wanted to do the right thing to make the world a better place for young people in particular. His fellow judges had tremendous respect for him, and we were honored to call him our colleague."
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy ordered all U.S. and Connecticut flags in the state to half-staff Monday to honor Downey.
"Judge Downey was a remarkable man who not only served this state's judicial system with distinction, but also served his country with honor, risking his life and enduring two decades of hardship as a Cold War prisoner in China," Malloy said in a statement. "He has a clear reputation in Connecticut as a caring and compassionate leader, who to this day continues to be a role model for so many in our state. He is leaving a lasting legacy in Connecticut."
Downey is survived by his wife, Audrey Lee Downey, his wife of 40 years, his brother, William F. Downey, and his son.
Calling hours will be Wednesday from 4 to 8 p.m. at Wallingford Funeral Home at 809 N. Main St. and a burial Mass will be held on Thursday at 10 a.m. at Most Holy Trinity Church at 84 N. Colony St. in Wallingford.
©2014 The Hartford (Conn.) Courant. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
In this March 13, 1973 file photo, John T. Downey, a former Central Intelligence Agency agent who spent 20 years as a prisoner in China during the Cold War, speaks during a news conference in New Britain, Conn. The office of Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said that Downey, who later served as a Connecticut judge, died Monday, Nov. 17, 2014. He was 84.