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The 'Jerk for Jesus' pickup

In 1952, the CIA rediscovered a system for retrieving agents from the air. The snatch pickup had been regularly used during the Second World War for picking up gliders, so it wasn't much of a step to adapt it to human beings. A C-47 would fly overhead and drop supplies to the men on the ground, along with a bundle that could be assembled into two vertical poles with a line between them and a harness for the man to be picked up. The C-47 flew off into the night, returning 45 minutes later. The poor bastard sat on the ground, facing the approaching aircraft, with his harness attached to a nylon rope laid out on the ground behind him and ending in that raised line. The C-47 approached at 90 knots and 30 feet of altitude, with a hook deployed from its loading door. The hook caught the line stretched between the two poles, and the nylon rope paid itself out, stretched, and SLUNG the guy into the air while the pilots climbed steeply up and away, and a CIA operative winched him aboard. Did it work? Well, it could. Here's Captain John Sadler, testing it out at Johnson AFB in Japan in the summer of 1952. It was dubbed the "Jerk for Jesus":

Capt Sadler executing the 
Jerk for Jesus

It was first tried for real in Manchuria, dropping supplies to a previously inserted group of Nationalist Chinese operatives, who had been recruited from the PW camps. The C-47 (a wartime version of the fabulous DC-3 airliner) belonged to Claire Chennault's Civil Air Transport, or CAT, which he had formed in 1946 to ferry relief supplies in China, but which evolved into a paramilitary arm of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces in their civil war with Mao Zedong's Communists. In 1950, the Central Intelligence Agency bought the airline and used it to support American forces in Korea even while it continued commercial passenger flights. (Eventually, CAT became the Air America spook force used to great effect in the Vietnam War.)

On November 29, 1952, a CAT C-47 flew into Manchuria at night by the light of a "bomber's moon" and dropped supplies for the previously inserted guerrillas, along with the Jerk for Jesus retrieval system. The C-47 flew off and returned 45 minutes later. Of course the operatives had been compromised, or maybe they had turned themselves in; and what awaited the plane was a unit of the People's Liberation Army and two .50-caliber machineguns. The C-47 was shot down, killing the two men in the cockpit, Robert Snoddy and Norman Swartz. The CIA lads in back, John Downey and Richard Fecteau, were captured and imprisoned for almost twenty years before they were released as part of Nixon's opening to China in 1972.

Downey was Class of 1951 at Yale. Of a thousand men in his class, ONE HUNDRED had joined the CIA. Following his release, he went to Harvard Law School (Yale curiously did not accept him) and became a lawyer and eventually a judge in Connecticut. His memoir of his prison years will be published in August 2022 by Columbia University Press as Lost in the Cold War: The Story of Jack Downey, America's Longest-Held POW. The memoir is well worth reading, though sadly burdened by more than you wanted to know about the history of American-Chinese relations.

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! — Daniel Ford

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