A CIA officer from Massachusetts who was captured during the Korean War and held for two decades by the Chinese gave plenty of names and physical descriptions when they asked him to name his colleagues, but the names and descriptions all belonged to his onetime football teammates at Boston University, the CIA said.
Richard Fecteau, 86, was given the Distinguished Intelligence Cross, the agency’s highest honor for valor, the Central Intelligence Agency announced Thursday. John Downey, 83, who was captured with Fecteau, also received the honor.
Fecteau and Downey were captured in November 1952 when they were flying over China on a mission to pick up an agent. The agent had promised valuable information, but, unbeknownst to the CIA, had been compromised by the Chinese, the agency said.
The CIA officers’ plane was hit by antiaircraft fire and forced to make a controlled crash. The two pilots died, the agency said. Fecteau, of Lynn, and Downey, of New Haven, remained in captivity until the early 1970s.
Fecteau was 25 when he was captured; he was 44 when he returned home. He later returned to his alma mater, becoming assistant athletic director at BU before retiring in 1989, the agency said.
The two men received their awards at a ceremony last month at CIA headquarters.
“It has been 61 years since Dick and Jack took to the skies over North Korea and China during the Korean War, and their ordeal remains among the most compelling accounts of courage, resolve, and endurance in the history of our agency,” CIA director John O. Brennan said in a statement.
Their 20-year ordeal “was the crucible that brought out each man’s strength, ingenuity, and decency, virtues that enabled these two young Americans not only to survive, but to prevail,” Brennan said. “Ultimately, both of our honorees would emerge from two decades of relentless persecution with their spirits unbroken, their integrity untouched, and their patriotism strengthened.”
During the ceremony, Downey expressed gratitude for the deceased pilots, Norman Schwartz and Robert Snoddy, whose heroic maneuvering allowed him and Fecteau to survive the plane being shot down. He also thanked his family for their support during his captivity, the CIA statement said.
Downey, who went to law school and became a judge after his release, thanked Fecteau for his support in prison.
“I do want to thank my good friend Dick Fecteau; he couldn’t be a better guy to spend 20 years together with,” Downey said. “If we had to do it again, you’d be the only one I’d want with me.”
Fecteau, according to the CIA statement, said he was proud to receive the honor, but unsure if he deserved the award.
After returning to the United States, Fecteau reconnected with his adult daughters, who were 2 years old when he was shot down. He also remarried his first wife, the agency said in an account on its website.
Fecteau told the Globe in 1983 that he did not have nightmares, but his ordeal had affected his personality.
“I have a twin brother, Phil,” he said. “When we were kids, I was outspoken, gregarious. He was quiet. Now we’re just the opposite. He’s the party type, and I’m the quiet one. When I returned home, I had difficulty conversing with people. I was so used to thinking of what to say before saying it, knowing that anything said, even to my cellmate, would be reported to the warden.”
He also said his football experiences — he played at Lynn Classical before BU — had helped him endure.
“Football teaches you not only how to win, but how to lose,” he said. “Believe me, that was a losing situation in China. I had no cards at all. If I couldn’t keep my head, I was in serious trouble. And athletics taught me that discipline better than any other experience.”
The Intelligence Cross is awarded “for a voluntary act or acts of extraordinary heroism involving the acceptance of existing dangers with conspicuous fortitude and exemplary courage,” the CIA said.
The BU football program was shut down in 1997. Fecteau could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@