Francis Gary Powers Jr. was often questioned about his father, but the answers were lacking.
The son of the most famous Cold War pilot, Francis Gary Powers Sr., who was shot down in a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in 1960, wanted answers so he decided to find them.
“I didn’t do research to vindicate my father,” said Powers, 52, founder and chairman emeritus of The Cold War Museum in Warrenton, Va. “I was doing research to find out the truth, so I knew how to answer questions and the more I learned the more questions there were.”
Powers will speak at 3 p.m. Friday in a lecture entitled, “The U-2 Incident: A Son’s Search for the Truth,” in the Carney Auditorium at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
“I was able to show he did everything right,” said Powers Jr., who co-authored the book, “Letters From a Soviet Prison,” a collection of his fathers’ letters home and a journal while held captive by the Soviets. “He followed orders, he did not collaborate with the enemy, and it was no fault of his own that he was caught or captured.”
Powers Sr., who for a time was a Lockheed test pilot and toured the lecture and talk show circuit after writing a book, “Operation Overflight,” about his experience, died in a Los Angeles TV station helicopter crash in 1977.
The U-2 incident gained renewed notoriety in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” a 2015 film that Powers Jr. served as a technical adviser after he contacted a producer concerned with how the U-2 pilot might be portrayed.
If the film was based on information reported in the time period, Powers Jr. said. “they’d be painting him in a negative light. If they based it on declassified information that’s come to the surface the last 50 years, they’d be painting him a hero to our country.”
Powers Jr. had a cameo role in the film, walking his father to the spy plane before his fateful flight. “Very surreal,” he said.
Shoot down and capture
On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers took off in a U-2, flying from Peshawar, Pakistan on a CIA reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union. He expected to land in Norway, but bailed out after a Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile exploded near the jet at 70,500 feet over the city of Sverdlovsk.
The aviator who once flew Air Force fighters was captured by the Soviets and interrogated for months while he was held in prison and put on trial.
The incident raised tensions between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev days before a summit between the two was set in Paris.
Powers told his son as a child about the incident that put the U-2 spy pilot in the history books.
After seeing a bright orange flash, the jet’s nose pitched forward, the long, glider-like wings tore off “and he finds himself spinning down towards the ground in the wreckage,” Powers Jr. remembers his father telling him.
He parachutes to earth from about 30,000 feet and is captured and imprisoned.
A week after the shoot down, the Soviets declare the CIA pilot is alive and display wreckage of the U-2.
Powers faced months-long Soviet KGB interrogations. His captors used “sleep deprivation, bright spotlights, grueling questions and threats of death” to try to pry secrets, Powers Jr. said. But it didn’t work, his son said.
“He tells the full truth when he knows (the Soviets) can verify information in the press,” his son said. “It gives him credibility. He lies to them outright when he knows there’s no way they can verify the information,” such as names of pilots, number of U-2 missions and equipment data.
“Then he gives a part truth, part lie, dances around the subject when he knows something about the question they’re asking but not enough to contradict the answer,” he said. “This is how he got through the three months of interrogations.”
Powers was released in a prisoner exchange in Germany for a captured KGB spy, Soviet Col. Rudolph Abel, on Feb. 10, 1962. The two walked across the Glienicke Bridge connecting East and West Berlin over a lake.
Powers Jr. said misinformation in the press at the time fueled misconceptions about the Cold War incident. Some reportedly believed the pilot should have committed suicide to avoid capture.
“My father was a little shocked to discover that some people in America considered him less than a hero or would even consider him a traitor,” Powers Jr. said.
“But he didn’t let that affect him. He knew that what he did were right things to do under the circumstances he found himself in and he was often quoted as saying he would do the exact same things again, given the exact same set of circumstances.”
A congressional hearing exonerated Powers. The aviator posthumously received the Prisoner of War medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, CIA director’s medal and the Silver Star, the New York Times reported.
Powers Jr. started The Cold War Museum in 1996 after giving lectures to high school students who thought about the Irish rock band when he mentioned U-2, and knew little about the period of hostility between rivals East and West. “That was the first clue that something had to be done to preserve Cold War history,” he said.