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The hard lessons learned by Dick Fecteau apply today to this nation

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The hard lessons learned by Dick Fecteau apply today to this nation

David Shribman

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LYNN,Mass. – Seventy years ago this week, a CIA paramilitary officer found himself strapped in the side of a C-47 aircraft over Manchuria on a top-secret mission when everything started to go wrong.

The CIA asset on the ground he was poised to extract had been turned by Chinese security forces. An anti-aircraft unit was moved to the rendezvous site with the intention of ambushing the American plane. At the moment of approach there began a merciless barrage that assaulted the American aircraft. A gaggle of Chinese military personnel burst from the snowy woods. The plane's engines cut off, the aircraft skidded into a copse of trees and broke in two. The two pilots were killed.

Richard George Fecteau survived and today, at age 95, lives here, 31 steps above a pond, in the city north of Boston where he " was born, as forgotten as he was during the 19 years and 14 days he was held prisoner in what was then called Red China.

Their plane a fiery wreck, their mission a flaming disaster, Fecteau and his partner in the extraction effort, John . Downey, quickly ascertained that they were, as they later reported, "in a hell of a mess." That view was swiftly confirmed when a Chinese officer a told Fecteau, in English, "Your future is very dark."

It was very dark indeed. He spent years f in solitary confinement, eating sparingly –rice, vegetables and bread, except on the day H he was handed a sparrow, uncleaned, that had been boiled in water. He kept his wits about him by constant exercise. On occasion he was able to exchange messages, in a secret language of controlled coughs or in messages etched in dust, with Downey.

When the Chinese pressed him to identify his CIA colleagues back home, he rattled off the names of his Boston University football teammates. He was ordered to focus on a black dot on the wall of his cell and reflect on his crimes. Sitting beneath a single light bulb, sleeping on a straw mattress, going five months without a bath, he was as isolated as any human on the face of the earth. Other military prisoners were released. The two CIA men remained in lonely captivity. Negotiations in Warsaw and Geneva brought no progress. For two decades the intelligence agency stuck to the story that the two were simply Army civilians traveling on an aircraft that diverted from its intended route.

From the first his Chinese captors told him that his country and family would forget him. The country did, his family didn't. The Chinese permitted occasional visits from relatives and packages from home but still he remained, 6,800 away in a country that regarded him as a mortal enemy. Only with the warming of Cold War tensions that took the form of Richard Nixon's decision to visit China was Fecteau shaken loose from the binds that kept him half a world away.

When he returned home he told his colleagues that he was in remarkably good shape, the beneficiary of "19 years without booze, broads, or butts." He shied away from press conferences; he had had enough experience facing interrogators and answering questions. He was reunited with his family, though he outlived his twin daughters, Suzon and Sidnice, who were 2 years old when he was captured. The CIA assured that the education of the two was covered by their father's accrued pay. When Fecteau was released, he was told his accumulated pay totaled $140,000, the equivalent of more than $1 million today.

Fecteau filled his later years with a devout sense of modesty, humility and privacy, so much so that his was a life of irony, its details known publicly only because of an indispensable report assembled by an intelligence agency steeped in secrecy.

"He was such so quiet and self-effacing that most of us knew nothing about what he had endured," said Dartmouth head football coach Buddy Teevens, who was an assistant coach at BU when Fecteau was assistant athletic director following his release. "He shared only bits and pieces, and none of the details, of what he had gone through. He would rather that we did not know."

For America did not know. Dick Fecteau was, for almost two decades, America's forgotten man. Indeed, in the decades that followed, he remains all but forgotten.

Today he is the last man standing of an episode so far in the past that it has the aura and tint of a long-ago tale. His paramilitary classmates at the CIA have died. Most of his Lynn Classical High and Boston University football teammates and classmates are gone. His wife and twin daughters have died. Mao, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Nixon are figures of history. Dick Fecteau and John Downey, who eventually became a district judge in Connecticut, are figures from a newsreel that stopped being shown, faint shadows in theaters that have been shuttered.

The ordeal wasted the men, and the two decades were wasted years in their lives. Wasted, except for the lessons they learned – about survival, about the value of humor, about how the mind can be harnessed to endure hardship. Wasted, too, except for the lessons their misery provide to us, all these years later. Because, 70 years after Fecteau and

Downey were captured, their story remains captivating, and illuminating. The men may have been forgotten, but the instruction they provide should be remembered forever.

"Their experience in China teaches many things: the importance of good decisions in the field and the costs of bad ones; the ability of men to say 'it's not over' when life seems to be at an end; the resilience to get through a bad day – 7,000 times in a row; and the strength gained from faith that one is still cared about," a former deputy CIA historian, Nicholas Dujmovic, wrote in the agency-commissioned assessment of the episode. "But their experience back home is also inspirational, for it teaches us that perhaps the most enduring lesson of all is the absolute necessity of making every day lived in freedom count."

And so with Thanksgiving in front of us and the December holidays drawing closer in the windshield, there is reason to reflect on the lessons and life of Dick Fecteau, whose courage and forbearance beckon to us at a difficult passage in the life of our country. David Shribman is editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Dick Fecteau was, for almost two decades, America's forgotten man. Indeed, in the decades that followed, he remains all but forgotten.

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