More than half a century after his plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, the heroism Air Force Capt. Francis Gary Powers displayed while piloting his U-2 aircraft was finally recognized during a Pentagon ceremony June 15.
Powers, who died in a helicopter crash in 1977, was posthumously awarded the Silver Star — the nation’s third-highest award for combat valor. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz presented the medal to Powers’ grandson, Francis Gary “Trey” Powers and granddaughter Lindsey Berry.
The downing of his plane on May 1, 1960 was one of the most famous incidents of the Cold War. Powers was flying a clandestine mission in a U-2 over the former Soviet Union. The program, a Joint Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency mission, was a top-secret effort to monitor Soviet nuclear and missile programs.
Powers took off from Peshawar, Pakistan, and headed over the Central Asian Soviet republics. The U-2 cameras gathered invaluable information for the United States and its allies at a time when the Soviet Bear seemed to be on the ascent.
The Soviets had launched Sputnik – the world’s first satellite – in 1957. John F. Kennedy – then running for president – deplored the “missile gap” between the United States and Soviet Union. It was the height of the Cold War with schoolchildren conducting “duck and cover” drills in case of nuclear attack. Most buildings had signs indicating the location of fallout shelters, rooms designed to protect against radiation contamination.
Powers’ mission was to overfly Soviet missile sites, nuclear plants and rocket-launching facilities. Over Sverdlovsk his plane – flying at more than 70,000 feet – was hit by a SA-2 missile and brought down. Soviet forces captured Powers and he was held by the Soviet secret police, the KGB, in Lubyanka Prison in Moscow.
The shoot down sharply increased tensions between Washington and Moscow. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to admit that the United States was flying over another sovereign nation. Protests over this broke out in Japan and Europe. Relations with Pakistan deteriorated. A Big-4 Summit – leaders of the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and the United States – scheduled for Paris was canceled. The Soviet Union made propaganda of the incident at the United Nations.
And the Soviets wanted more. Teams of KGB interrogators worked on Powers to get him to give up information or turn against his country. While they never beat him, they constantly threatened him with death, said his son Gary Francis Powers Jr.
Powers spent 21 months in a Moscow prison, Schwartz said. “For nearly 107 days, Captain Powers was interrogated and harassed by numerous Soviet secret police interrogation teams,” the chief said. Powers also was held in solitary confinement.
“Although weakened by lack of food and denial of sleep and mental anguish of constant interrogation, Captain Powers refused all attempts to glean from him sensitive information that would have proved harmful to the defense and security of the United States,” Schwartz said.
In February 1962, the Soviets exchanged Powers for Soviet spy KGB Col. Rudolph Abel. The handover was conducted on “The Bridge of Spies” in Berlin.
It was a sign of the times that Powers’ return home was fraught with uncertainty and questions. A teacher told Dee Powers, the captain’s daughter, that her father should have killed himself rather than getting captured. The program was still top secret and what Powers went through was classified. The captain received the CIA Intelligence Star for Valor in 1965 and the Senate Armed Services Committee declared that Powers had conducted himself, “as a fine man under dangerous circumstances.”
The younger Powers started researching his father’s case in the late 1980s. Much of it was classified. “I would speak about the U-2 incident at classes and people would think I was talking about the rock group,” he said.
It wasn’t until 1998, seven years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that the CIA declassified records of the program and Powers’ full heroism became known, said young Gary. At that point, the captain posthumously received the CIA Director’s Award for Extreme Fidelity and Courage, the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross and the Prisoner of War Medal.
Today’s award of the Silver Star puts to rest the idea that somehow the captain behaved poorly in captivity, his son said.
“He loved his family, he loved flying and he loved his country,” he said.