THE BOOK OF HONOR -- WAITING FOR GODOT
Through all those years and changes, a defiant Redmond remained in his cell in Shanghai, cut off from the world but not forgotten. The Yonkers Citizens Committee for the Release of Hugh Francis Redmond ceaselessly campaigned to keep his name before the public. Behind the scenes, orchestrating and financing many of those efforts, was the CIA.
In June 1956, the very month Boteler died in Cyprus, Redmond's fortunes began looking up. That month Redmond and four American priests were transferred from bleak prison cells to a private house, where they were given somewhat more freedom of movement, though, to be sure, they were still prisoners. And after five years of silence, Redmond was now permitted to write monthly two-page letters to his mother, though he was not permitted to discuss the conditions of his confinement, indoctrination, or other sensitive topics.
On July 23, 1956, Redmond sat down to write his mother of his improving situation. Even the food was better. No longer would he need her to mail him tins of meat or cheese. Instead, he asked for cartons of cigarettes -- Lucky Strikes -- as well as powdered milk and sweets. He also asked that she send him sports columns from the Daily News and the baseball standings. But there was no hint that his release was on the horizon. When baseball season ends, he wrote, he wanted news of football and boxing. His only way to mark the change in seasons, besides the encroaching damp and chill of winter, was to follow from afar the rotation of sports. Each time baseball season came around again it meant another year had passed.
By December 1956 the Yonkers committee, with the blessing of the CIA, had begun a massive letter-writing campaign. Adults and schoolchildren wrote tens of thousands of letters demanding Redmond's release. All of them were addressed to Mao Zedong. To show its continuing concern, the Agency's Ben DeFelice provided Ruth Redmond with emotional support and helped her with the inevitable bureaucratic and financial issues that arose in her son's long absence. Within the Agency, DeFelice had already gained something of a reputation for compassion as he championed the interests of those widowed, orphaned, and otherwise bereaved by losses suffered in performance of Agency duties. The CIA assured Ruth Redmond that her son would not be forgotten and that the government would not rest until he was home again.
But if elements within the government were dedicated to working for Redmond's release, other parts seemed too busy to take serious notice, or too inflexible to seize opportunities. The State Department made innumerable entreaties of the Chinese in talks in Geneva, resulting in the release of forty-one U.S. citizens -- but Redmond was not among them. Nor were Richard Fecteau and John Downey, the two CIA fliers shot down in November 1952. "Utterly false," was how the State Department had dismissed charges that Downey and Fecteau were spies. They had, it was said again and again, simply been on a routine flight between Korea and Japan. And while Eisenhower had consented to see other parents whose loved ones were held in China, he refused to see Ruth Redmond, even after the State Department recommended such a visit and she had sworn to keep any such meeting a secret. This hurt her deeply and led her to believe that her son's fate was not a priority.
Finally, and most galling of all, the United States had imposed a blanket prohibition on American citizens traveling to China. On May 23, 1957, Ruth Redmond met in Washington with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, an ambassador, and members of the department's China Affairs branch. But there was no giving-in on the issue of travel to China. It would be viewed as a violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act. Six years into Mao's regime, the United States continued to refuse to recognize the Communist government and acted as if the world's most populous nation were little more than a fiction. What tormented Ruth Redmond was that a year earlier, on January 6, 1956, Chinese authorities via Beijing Radio had extended an invitation to the families of those imprisoned to visit their loved ones. Whether it was merely a propaganda trick or a bona fide humanitarian gesture -- or both -- it had raised her hopes that she might at last see her son again. And now the State Department declared such a visit out of the question.
As much as Washington doubtless wanted to win the release of Redmond, Fecteau, and Downey, it was also determined, so long as they were being held, to take full political advantage of such an emotionally charged issue. The three Americans were repeatedly portrayed as innocents caught in the grasp of an inhumane and totalitarian state. The chorus demanding their release became a rallying cry against Communism, spilling over into the general tide of anti-Red hysteria. The powerful image of three young and falsely accused Americans held behind bars year after year became part of that larger collage that presented the Chinese regime as heartless and barbaric. In working-class Yonkers and beyond, the immensity of the injustice became a hallmark of the Cold War, one of those half-truths upon which all demonization is predicated.
Had the full truth come out -- that the three Americans were covert CIA operatives caught in the act of espionage, that they were part of a broad and aggressive U.S. secret campaign against the Chinese government -- then the American public might have been forced to reexamine the issue of their incarceration. No government goes easy on those engaged in espionage or seeking to topple it by force. And there was an even stickier problem for the United States: once Washington had so passionately denied that the three were U.S. intelligence agents, any subsequent admission would tarnish American credibility and render suspect all future protestations of innocence. No one understood this better than Redmond himself. The three were not only prisoners but pawns in the Cold War.
There was the additional complication that throughout the very years that the three were being held, the CIA was stepping up covert actions against the Chinese designed to badger the regime of Mao Zedong, Some took the form of support of remnant Nationalist groups in China, providing materiel and personnel within the mainland. Others worked on the borders.
In 1957 the Agency began an elaborate program of recruiting Tibetan refugees from India and Nepal who were flown to a top secret CIA training base in the Colorado Rockies. There they were trained in paramilitary techniques and prepared to unleash a wave of sabotage against the Chinese. Colorado had been selected because it most closely approximated the high altitude of Tibet. CIA pilots recall many of the refugees meditating or working their prayer wheels on the entire flight to the United States. All along China's extensive border -- Burma, Nepal, Vietnam -- for years to come, the United States would engage in covert mischief-making, a kind of deadly tit-for-tat exchange characteristic of the Cold War.
Not even the most sanguine of Agency planners imagined such pinpricks would bring down Mao's regime, but it was hoped that it might distract Chinese war planners and stretch thin military resources just enough to prevent the Communists from expanding their choke hold to the rest of the subcontinent. And there was another reason such covert operations persisted. The thorny Chiang Kai-shek, so adept at wringing massive resources out of the U.S. government during World War II, was equally successful in exploiting American fears of an unrestrained mainland. The more cynical Agency operatives came to see these covert operations against the mainland as little more than a sop to the Generalissimo, Chiang Kai-shek.
Such incessant heckling would have done little to soften Beijing's heart or convince the regime that it was time to relent and release the long-suffering Redmond, Fecteau, and Downey. Instead, it increased the toll of casualties. Some within the Agency were troubled by the continued covert assaults on the mainland. One of these was Peter Sichel. Hardly squeamish, he was a veteran of the OSS, had spent seven years in Berlin, and from 1956 until 1959 was the CIA's station chief in Hong Kong.
But the efforts to infiltrate the mainland and the risks taken by both Americans and Chinese Nationalists made little sense to him. His assessment: "It was a total waste of time and a total death mission for anyone who got involved." In 1959 he quit the Agency, disenchanted with what he saw as a "cowboy mentality" and mounting casualties. He was decorated with the prestigious DIM, the Distinguished Intelligence Medal.
Sichel, as Hong Kong station chief had been well aware of the plight of Redmond, Downey, and Fecteau, but there was little he or anyone else in the Agency could do to effect their release. By September 1957 six years of prison had taken its toll on Redmond. He had survived his bout with beriberi, but the poor diet and lack of access to a dentist had become every bit as potent a torment as any devised by his captors. For months his teeth and gums had ached. He was only thirty-seven, but already he was nearly toothless, his gums inflamed. He was finally taken to the St. Marie Hospital, where the last of his decayed teeth were extracted, and where, in the weeks ahead, he would have repeated oral surgery. Doctors worked to fill in his jawbone. With no teeth and a mouth full of stitches it was nearly impossible to eat. He began to shed even more weight. His hair was falling out, and his right eye was afflicted with a twitch.
But there was no evidence of his surrendering to self-pity in any of his letters. "It suddenly struck me," he wrote in a September 10, 1957, letter, "when I wrote the date on the heading of this letter that today is Ruthie's [his sister's] birthday. Please give her my regards. When a fellow has a kid sister who is 26 he doesn't feel so young anymore."
Nine days later Redmond was awakened and given five minutes to ready himself to be interviewed by a group of young Americans who had gone to China in defiance of the State Department's travel ban. Standing before them, Redmond appeared sullen and hostile. He went out of his way to deny, once again, any link to the CIA. One of those visiting Redmond described him as ''100 percent American and hard as nails."
"Did you ever consider yourself to be politically conscious?" one of the young Americans asked.
"What is that -- a Marxist question?" fired back Redmond. "I've been reading a lot of Marxist books and that seems familiar."
But Redmond was reading more than Marx. The bare-fisted lad who had dropped out of college after a semester and had never demonstrated any great intellectual craving, was becoming a voracious reader. Prior to prison, as a former commando and paratrooper, he had concentrated largely on developing his physical skills. Now, within the cramped confines of a cell, he showed no less energy expanding his mental horizons. It began with an interest in magazines, among them Scientific American, Popular Science, Science Digest, and Harper's. Next he set about learning other languages -- first Chinese and, later, Russian, Spanish, Italian, and French. In each language he read literary classics. Oddly it was not these often provocative works that troubled the Chinese, but Reader's Digest they confiscated.
And still Redmond maintained an insatiable interest in sports. "The world series is all over," he lamented, "and I don't know yet who won the pennant in the National League. The Yankees looked like a cinch in the American League. Please send me some clippings on the series if you haven't already done so. Who won the Patterson-Rademacher and Robinson-Basilio fights?" A copy of Sports Illustrated was perennially on his request list to his mother.
Still irked by the visit from the young Americans, which he viewed as a traitorous act, he wrote his mother asking her not to make any effort to see him. It offended him that any American would challenge the travel ban, an act that implicitly recognized what he viewed as an illegitimate regime.
But on December 6, 1957, the State Department suddenly changed its mind and announced that an exception to the travel ban would be made. Ruth Redmond and close relatives of five other American prisoners still held by the Chinese would be permitted to travel to China to see their loved ones.
"I certainly am going to China even if I have to walk," declared a jubilant Ruth Redmond that very night. She had been told the cost of the trip would be about $3,000, far more than she could afford on the salary of a cafeteria worker, but local civic groups quickly offered to raise the money. The C1A also quietly made its own hefty donation. Ruth Redmond immediately cabled Chinese Premier Chou En-lai asking for an entry visa. It had been eleven and a half years since she had last seen her son. Fecteau's and Downey's mothers sent similar cablegrams to the Chinese. Just eleven days later, on December 17, the Chinese approved the request.
While Ruth Redmond readied herself for the long trip, preparations for her visit were also being made in Shanghai. At thirty-eight Redmond had almost become accustomed to life without teeth. Then, suddenly, with the prospect of his mother's visit and the attendant public attention it would bring, the Chinese took a renewed interest in Redmond's oral problems and his appearance. On Christmas Day 1957, six days before Ruth Redmond's slated departure for China, Hugh Redmond was finally fitted with a set of false teeth.
Four days later, on December 29, 1957, Redmond's wife, Lydia, paid an unexpected visit to her mother-in-law in Yonkers. Lydia, then a thirty-year-old emigre who spoke with a thick Russian accent, was struggling to make a living. She had not seen her husband in more than seven years. There had always been a rift between Redmond's mother and his wife. Redmond had written his mother that it had been more than two years since he had heard from Lydia, whom he called Lily. Now, suddenly, Lydia Redmond appeared on the eve of Ruth Redmond's departure, asking that her mother-in-law convey her love to the husband she had known for so short a time so long ago. Ruth Redmond remained deeply suspicious and resentful of her.
On January 1, 1958, three mothers -- Ruth Redmond, Jessie Fecteau, and Mary V. Downey -- as well as Mary Downey's son, William, gathered at New York International Airport, Idlewild, Queens. Fecteau's father decided not to go. He told the CIA's Ben DeFelice he was unsure that he could control his anger. "I would spit in the eye of the first Chinese I see," he told DeFelice.
Each of the three mothers carried a precious cargo for their sons: cigarettes, candy, socks, fruitcakes, oranges, vitamins, family photographs. They arrived in Hong Kong on January 6 and were escorted by British Red Cross representatives to the Chinese border. At the stout Lowu Bridge linking the New Territories with the mainland, the mothers were received by Chinese Red Cross officials. But when the women presented their passports, the Chinese scowled at the documents. The officials were intent upon protesting the U.S, refusal to recognize their government, and they objected to the term "Communist China." There was, after all, from their perspective, but one China. From Beijing's perspective the Republic of China, as Taiwan was known, was nothing more than another province, albeit one in rebellion.
Once across the bridge, Ruth Redmond was taken to Canton. At 6:15 the morning of January 8 she boarded a rickety two-engine plane. There was one other passenger on board, a Chinese woman carrying a large bunch of green bananas. Her name was Mrs. Ling and she would mysteriously appear in the background at nearly every stop during Ruth Redmond's three weeks in China.
From Canton it was a grueling eight-hour flight to Shanghai. Ruth Redmond shivered from the cold. There were no seat belts and she was not even offered a glass of water. Finally the plane landed in Shanghai and she was taken to the Ward Road prison.
In the hours before Ruth Redmond's arrival at the prison, the warden had carefully explained to Hugh Redmond that his mother would be arriving, that she would be asking if he was guilty of espionage, and that he should prepare a brief statement of confession so that the sound cameras could record it. Ever defiant, Redmond coolly explained that such a statement would be forbidden under prison rules, which prohibited inmates from discussing their cases before visitors.
Trying to maintain his composure, the warden offered to waive the provision in Redmond's case. Nothing doing, replied Redmond, who then noted that when Chinese prisoners received visitors there were no cameras present. If he could not see his mother in private, he threatened not to see her at all. The enraged warden was forced to accept a compromise. The cameras and reporters would be present, but they would be kept at the opposite end of the meeting room. And there was no more talk of a confession. Once again Redmond had won.
As Ruth Redmond reached the main gate of the prison, she carried under her arm a homemade sweater, woolen socks, and a carton of Lucky Strikes. She walked past the guards and was led into a large room empty of furnishings but for a single table and chairs. Ringing the room were Chinese reporters and cameramen waiting anxiously to record the event. And there stood Hugh Redmond, the son she had not seen since he had left for China in 1946. They hugged for several minutes under the watchful eyes of guards and interpreters, who monitored every word that was said. Their embrace was featured on the front page of the New York Times.
Redmond was dressed in a business suit, a blue shirt, a tie, and a short woolen coat. It would be the first of seven meetings with his mother. At each meeting, mother and son would hold hands and speak softly. After two hours the guards would begin to fidget and the Redmonds knew their time together was over. Then Hugh would be escorted out of the room, and some five minutes later Ruth Redmond would be led from the prison. Only once were Hugh Redmond and his mother permitted to leave the room together. That was for a momentary walk to the prison's front gate, where a Chinese official snapped a photo of the two together.
The conversation was limited to talk of family, how Redmond's ailing father was doing, and news of his own friends back in Yonkers. He could also ask of conditions and fashions in the United States. There was superficial talk of his prison routine. He was living in what had been a caretaker's house at the far end of the prison. He had a single room, furnished with a bed, a chair, a dresser, and a desk. He was permitted one bath a week. In his room he had a radio and was permitted to listen to one hour a day of classical music. Breakfast consisted of Chinese mush, tea, and bread. He said he had little to read, though he had recently read of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Few of the books Ruth Redmond had sent had been delivered. Redmond said he had written her a letter every month. Ruth Redmond expressed surprise. She had not heard from her son in eight months.
At their last meeting the Red Cross representatives arranged for Ruth Redmond and her son to have dinner together. A special meal was prepared at a local hotel and served in the same sparse prison room where they had been meeting.
The last time Ruth Redmond visited her son he volunteered a cryptic message that she wrote down in the log recording her visit. "He said that he hoped it would not be twelve years before we got together again and that without hope one could not live. He added that I should 'trust in the airlines' and he would be seeing me soon."
Upon her return, Ruth Redmond learned that the Yonkers Board of Education had promoted her in her absence to manager of the cafeteria at Franklin Junior High. It was not much more money, but it was good to know the community was behind her. Meanwhile, in Washington, the CIA quietly continued to accumulate paychecks in her son's account and to promote him as if he were just another promising covert employee on assignment.
Redmond for his part continued to write letters, vainly attempting to keep in touch with the realities and icons of a changing America. "Tell Billy and Tommy [nephews] to make sure they do their homework," he wrote, "and don't sit up too late watching T.V. or they'll grow up to be like Elvis. Love to all -- Hughie." This from a man imprisoned so long he almost certainly had never heard a song by Elvis Presley.
At home in Yonkers, Ruth Redmond vowed to return to China one day and to see her son again. In the meantime she and her son would have to content themselves with letters. It was a cruelly superficial correspondence, censored at both ends. Ruth would write nothing that might upset her son, and he knew that his every word would pass before the prison censor. Still, it was the fact of their correspondence more than its content that sustained them for so many years.
Redmond rarely even hinted at self-pity. Instead, he ended almost every letter with the same thought -- a request that his young nephews be taken out for ice cream. Over the years, the arrival of a letter from "Uncle Hughie" came to be a joyous occasion associated with a visit to the ice cream parlor. Outside the Redmond home, memories of Hugh Redmond faded. It seemed that Redmond and his Agency compatriots, Fecteau and Downey, were destined to be relegated to history, a somber footnote in the annals of the Cold War. But the ordeals of these three men were far from over.