By Lynne Baranski
December 18, 1978 12:00 PM

John Downey was among the best and the brightest. The son of a Wallingford, Conn. probate judge (and grandson of an Irish saloonkeeper-politician), he won scholarships to the exclusive Choate School (’47) and to Yale (’51), where he played guard on the football team and wrestled. His goal was law school, but the Korean war intervened. He was recruited into the CIA, crashed on a secret mission over Communist China and spent 20 years in prison there. Six months after his release in 1973, he enrolled in Harvard Law School and graduated at the age of 45. Now living in New Haven, he practices law with a boyhood friend, and he is married to Audrey Lee, 39, a Chinese-born biochemist at Yale. Jack Downey, now 48, tried for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor of Connecticut earlier this year but lost out early in the convention balloting. Recently he broke his self-imposed silence and talked with Lynne Baranski of PEOPLE about his life in prison and today.

Why have you decided to talk at last?

When I got out in 1973, I gave one press conference. I was determined not to make a career out of being the guy who had been in prison 20 years. But if I want to be in politics, it’s a new ball game. There’s no way I can run for office without people knowing that I had been in China.

Why did you join the CIA?

During the Korean war there was a big mix of idealism and self-interest. I certainly had no doubt we were still the good guys—Communist North Korea had invaded South Korea. CIA was a new outfit, rumored to be red-hot.

Were you warned CIA work might be dangerous?

A CIA official visiting Yale told us we might be parachuting behind enemy lines to help set up a resistance network. Hey, that was as glamorous as anything we could hope for. A large number of the outstanding people in my class applied.

What led up to your capture?

After three months of training at Fort Benning, Ga. I was a GS-7, which is like a second lieutenant, at $3,100 a year. I was assigned to Japan, where we began training groups of Chinese to be dropped on the mainland, not as superspies, but to create a resistance movement if they could.

How were you captured?

Dick Fecteau, who is now assistant director of athletics at Boston University, and I were three hours from Seoul in a C-47. Our mission was to contact Chinese agents in Manchuria, and we were caught in a classic ambush. I found out later at our trial that our Chinese radio operator had been forced to cooperate. When the plane was shot down by small-arms fire, our two pilots were killed. Fecteau and I were captured and kept in separate cells.

What were the first days like?

I felt I was embarking on an unknown journey with no end. 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.

How did you pass those first two years?

After four months we were transferred to Peking. I was put in a cell with four whitewashed walls to look at. I had nothing to read, no interpreter apart from interrogation. They wanted to know everything about the CIA. Fortunately, I didn’t know much. It was grim. I hadn’t toughened up yet.

What do you mean?

You have to come to terms with some very hard facts and learn to narrow your expectations. 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.

What was your trial like?

At the end of two years, I was called out of my cell and handed an indictment in English. I think “inciting armed riots” was a phrase. They read an account of our actions and asked if it was true. We said, “Yeh,” and my Chinese lawyer said, “But he’s so young, it’s not his fault”—a real Clarence Darrow performance. I was sentenced to life. Dick Fecteau got 20 years.

Did conditions worsen after the trial?

No, they improved radically. For those first two years, we had meat only twice a month. After the trial we had it twice a day. The Red Cross sent in food packages and vitamins from our families. We were allowed paper and pencils and some reading materials.

Were there other American prisoners?

Two weeks after the trial I was moved into a cell filled with people. It took a few minutes to register that they were Americans, a B-29 crew accused of violating China’s airspace. To my amazement, I discovered the Korean war was over. Fecteau and I lived with them for three weeks and it was the only fun we had for 20 years. Then, boom, we were put in solitary again. They were released in nine months; I heard from most of them 18 years later.

What about those 18 years?

I became very busy, and that’s the whole secret. I was the busiest guy in Peking. I had a very tight schedule. I studied Russian grammar. I jogged in the small yard or ran in place. I had to clean my cell, wash my clothes, teach myself to sew. I have 10 thumbs, but I learned what it means to clean a padded winter cap—ripping out all the stitching, washing the cotton pieces by hand and resewing it.

As a Catholic, was your faith of help?

Yes. I was fortunate to get a Catholic missal and Bible. I read a chapter every night, year after year.

Did the Chinese try to convert you?

I was never abused physically or tortured. I was an object of contempt and scorn, but the general attitude was “correct.” I had to listen to radio broadcasts and I was supposed to be undergoing reform. They wanted me to go back and join the American revolution on the side of the peasants. They had a very global view of the class struggle. I was a failure as a student.

Did you get news from outside?

I was given some pages from U.S. newspapers, Sports Illustrated, the Yale Alumni Magazine and sometimes the New York Times book section. You get good at piecing together clues. I learned about the moon walk 18 months afterward from a little ad on a sports page, advertising 8×10 glossies of the astronauts on the moon.

Did you learn Chinese?

I picked up phrases to communicate with the guards. But I feared that if I ever started learning Chinese, it was an admission I wasn’t going to get out. I was determined to beat them by out-waiting them. I never accepted the idea that I might not get out, but I accepted the fact that this might well be so. You bleed inwardly every day.

Did you ever speak to Fecteau?

We were very isolated. But I always knew Dick Fecteau was around; I’d know his cough and footsteps anywhere. Occasionally we were sent to factories as part of our reform, and for years he would say, “Watch the haircuts.” An unscheduled haircut meant you were going home. It became a standing joke. Then sure enough, one day I heard the barber come and put his stool down outside Fecteau’s door—and it wasn’t the scheduled day! He was released as a goodwill gesture before Nixon’s visit in 1972. I got out 18 months later.

How did you feel when you were told?

My interpreter was very excited because he had certified me as reformed. He said I could go into Peking to buy some souvenirs, but I said no thanks. He was completely surprised and probably thought: “My God, this guy has acted as though he’s not hostile for so many years and now his true colors show.” I’m sure he was worried he had fouled up. I was sorry afterward I hadn’t gone.

What did you take with you?

A pocket chess set, a music box shaped like a Yale football, clothes that had been sent to me. I left behind a ton of books. I gave the Chinese suit I wore to my sister-in-law and had her burn it.

What changes surprised you most when you got home?

Music, of course, because reading about it doesn’t explain it. The superhighways, which hadn’t been built when I left. I knew I was home when I got lost on I-91 near New Haven. And the colors people now painted their homes. Drugs were one of the baffling things; I didn’t know where they came from or what they meant.

Did others find you changed?

At first my attention span was very short. Oddly enough, there was some feeling of depression, a kind of “Is this all there is?” But once I got home, it was like dropping a coat. It was as if those years had never intervened. China just wasn’t the real world. I haven’t read a page of the Bible since. Even getting up at 5:30 a.m. for 20 years didn’t establish a pattern. I do still talk to myself, and I like my wife Audrey’s Chinese cooking, though it’s very modified—a frying pan and no wok.

How do you think you’ve changed?

I’m more patient and have fewer hangups. I can tackle things that don’t come easy, and my capacity not to get overexcited about crises was enhanced by China.

How do you feel about China?

I have a strong liking for the Chinese people and some understanding of them. It’s a great nation and they have accomplished great things. But their experience just doesn’t have much relevance to us.

How do you feel about the CIA?

On balance, my mission did not serve the long-range interests of the U.S. There is a need for the CIA to gather intelligence, but the less intervening in foreign affairs in a clandestine way, the better. They needed to clean house.

What motivates you to go into politics?

I had 20 years of being bombarded with the argument that our system was bad. Well, it’s not. I came back determined to make the system work.