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He joined the Central Intelligence Agency soon after Yale and became one of two CIA officers (the other was Richard G. Fecteau, a Boston University graduate) who survived the shoot-down of their mission over the People's Republic of China in November 1952, were captured, and spent approximately the next two decades in Chinese prisons before release. Today, the episode is less well known than that of Gary Powers, the United States Air Force spy plane pilot who was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.
During the Korean War, China was an ally of North Korea against the U.S.-backed South Koreans. Fecteau, Downey and fellow aircraft crew were trying to pick up an anti-communist Chinese agent when they came under fire in the sky over Manchuria on November 29, 1952. Initially, all of those on the aircraft were presumed by the U.S. Government to be lost. Downey was 22 years old and Fecteau was 25 at the time of their capture. The pilots, Robert Snoddy and Norman Schwartz, lost their lives.
Two years later, the men saw each other for the first time, and their survival was first confirmed to the world outside of China, when they were put on secret trial and convicted of spying. These developments drew strong protests from the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But because their status as CIA officers was a secret, the U.S. Government did not acknowledge their true affiliation for much of the period of their incarceration, saying instead that they were civilian United States Army employees, which necessarily complicated the efforts of U.S. officials, family members and others to press for their release, or even to make their plight widely known.
Due to efforts by Downey's mother, Mary Downey, and President Richard Nixon, Downey was released 21 years into his life sentence, in March 1973, the year after Nixon's visit to China. (Fecteau had been released in December 1971 after serving nineteen years of a 20-year sentence) The backdrop was President Nixon's early 1970s' historic opening to China. Three years later, at age 46, Downey graduated from Harvard Law School, ultimately becoming a judge.
Downey was married (in 1975, to a Chinese-born wife) and they have an adult son. (Richard Fecteau returned to his alma mater as assistant athletic director at Boston University, retiring in 1989.)
Downey's latter judicial career was honored when the New Haven, Connecticut Juvenile Matters Courthouse and Detention Center was named for him following his retirement after reaching the position of Chief Administrative Judge for Juvenile Matters. The courthouse ceremony occurred on September 25, 2002.
On June 18, 2007, the Connecticut Bar Association honored Downey with its highest honor for a judge, the Henry J. Naruk Judiciary Award, for his outstanding contributions to the judicial field in Connecticut.
In 2013, the CIA awarded John T Downey the Distinguished Intelligence Cross.
In late June 1998, CIA Director George Tenet awarded Downey and Fecteau the CIA Director's Medal for their service to their country, in a private ceremony described in an Associated Press article on July 3, 1998. The AP account quoted Ambassador James R. Lilley, a retired CIA officer and Yale classmate of Downey's who served as U.S. envoy in both Seoul and Beijing a speaker at the event, saying that Downey was released after Nixon publicly admitted he had been on a CIA operation.
The following books make reference to the incident:
Press accounts of the 1998 CIA ceremony include The Washington Post, 24 June 1998, Page A17 and Associated Press, 3 July 1998, "CIA Honors Its China Spies"