Capt. Francis Gary Powers, the pilot of the Central Intelligence Agency U-2 spy plane that was shot down over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960 and created an international incident, has received a posthumous award of the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest decoration for valor, from the Air Force.
Powers was an Air Force captain who had been “sheep dipped,” or given an alternate identity as a civilian employee, to take part in reconnaissance flights over Russia. The U-2 surveillance missions were flown in great secrecy under the veil of a cover story that NASA was using the planes for weather research. In fact, U-2s were photographing Soviet intercontinental ballistic (ICBM) sites and other potential Cold War targets.
A missile shot down the U-2 over Soviet airspace on a flight that was supposed to take Powers from Peshawar, Pakistan, to Bodo, Norway. The pilot parachuted safely and was tried as a spy, imprisoned, and eventually swapped for a Russian spy in the United States. The shootdown sabotaged a summit conference between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The United States was caught lying about the spy flights.
The circumstances of the shootdown have been the subject of some debate. Powers was flying the U-2C known as Article 360, or serial number 56-6693, on a mission ironically dubbed Grand Slam. He was photographing ICBM sites near Sverdlovsk and Plesetsk when a barrage of SA-2 Guideline (S-75 Dvina) missiles was unleashed at him. One of the missiles downed a MiG-19 “Farmer” fighter that had been scrambled to intercept, even though MiGs would have been unable to reach Powers’ U-2 at its altitude of 70,500 feet. Today, most historians discount a claim that another fighter actually reached the U-2: It’s generally accepted that the U-2 was brought down by an SA-2 that exploded nearby, fragments of which struck the U-2 and ripped its wing off.
Powers bailed out. In Washington, officials assumed he’d been killed and propagated the cover story about the U-2 being on a NASA weather flight. The Soviets took Powers prisoner and did not reveal for several days that they were holding him. It was enough time for the Eisenhower administration to issue confusing and contradictory statements that looked foolish after the real purpose of the U-2 mission became known.
Exchanged for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (a.k.a. Col. Vilyam Fisher) in a dramatic swap at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, Powers came home to a nation that was suspicious of his conduct. It was said that he should have detonated an explosive charge that would destroy the U-2, even though the aircraft carried only a charge to destroy its camera and when Powers tried to use it, it didn’t work. It was said he should have committed suicide by swallowing a poison pill, even though the pill was never intended to be mandatory. Largely overlooked was the fact that Powers steadfastly resisted interrogation by his Soviet captors.
“In the 1960s a lot of officials within the government created the mistaken impression that he’s done something wrong,” said his son, Francis Gary Powers, Jr. in a telephone interview for this article. The older Powers was called Frank, the younger Gary. “Only in the 1990s was it revealed that his famous flight was a joint Air Force-CIA operation.” Even in later years, some criticized the U-2 pilot for writing a book, Operation Overflight, co-authored with Curt Gentry. Some argued that the book revealed too much.
Exonerated repeatedly of any wrongdoing while in Soviet hands, Powers was “in most respects a real American hero,” said Norman Polmar, author of Spyplane, in a telephone interview for this article. Powers was awarded the CIA’s Intelligence Star in 1963. He worked for Lockheed from 1963 to 1970, but reportedly lost that job because of his Operation Overflight memoir. Powers went to work piloting a traffic-reporting helicopter in Los Angeles. He had little rotary-wing experience when he lost his life in a 1977 crash of a Bell 206 JetRanger that the National Transportation Safety Board attributed to pilot error.
Most of the recognition heaped on Powers came after his death. Posthumously, he received the Prisoner of War Medal (which did not exist in 1960), the Distinguished Flying Cross, the National Defense Medal and the CIA Director’s Medal, all in 2000.
It took a dozen years longer for the Silver Star to be presented. “At the height of the Cold War, the nation called on extraordinary men like Captain Powers to undertake the most sensitive and dangerous missions,” said Air Force chief of staff Gen. Norton Schwartz at the June 15 Pentagon ceremony. “Captain Powers earned this Silver Star.” It was apparently the first time a senior official referred to the U-2 pilot by the military rank he held before transferring to the CIA. The Silver Star can be awarded to civilians. Powers “was a civilian with a commitment to return to military duty at his former rank,” said his son Gary.
Declassified documents released in 1998 by the CIA revealed that Powers “endured unmentionable hardships on a continuous basis” by his captors. “Although interrogated and harassed by Soviet Secret Police teams, he refused all attempts to give sensitive information or be exploited for propaganda purposes,” reads an Air Force press release.
“This award was well overdue,” said the younger Powers.