55 years later, son shares story of father’s sacrifice during Cold War
Published 8:57 am Thursday, April 30, 2015
In 1960, life in America was changing.
It was a time of social change as Congress passed and President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act and Sen. John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for president.
It was also in 1960 that Francis Gary Powers Sr., an alumnus of Milligan College, was shot down as he flew a spy plane over Russia to gather Cold War Intelligence.
Friday marks the 55th anniversary of the infamous U2 spy incident. To help preserve the memory of that time in America’s history and the importance of the incident itself, Milligan College invited Powers’ son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., to speak at the college this week about his father’s mission.
To begin his talk Tuesday evening, Powers Jr. set the stage by showing some of the civil defense and government films produced during the 1950s to show how Americans at that time perceived the threat posed by the Russians and communism.
“Communism was the enemy after World War II,” Powers Jr. said. “The U.S. and Russia are at odds. It is capitalism versus communism.
In addition to the social implications of communism, America was trying to adjust to living in the nuclear age.
“Americans began building bomb shelters in an effort to try to survive in the event of a nuclear attack,” he said. Schools held practice drills and showed children films on how to survive a nuclear attack. “This was the culture of America in the 1950s,” he said.
In 1955, Eisenhower proposed the Open Skies Policy to Russian Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev, who turned down the proposal but continued to boast about his country’s missiles and nuclear capabilities, Powers Jr. said.
To gather intelligence on the situation in Russia, the Central Intelligence Agency developed the U2 spy plane program.
On May 1, 1960, Powers Sr. was shot down over what was then the central portion of Russia and was captured by Russian officials.
Days later, Khrushchev announced a U.S. spy plane had been shot down over Russia but did not say anything about the pilot. In response, the U.S. released a statement saying a weather research plane may have strayed over into Russian air space, Powers Jr. said. A few days later, Khrushchev made another announcement to the world, saying not only had the pilot been captured, but he had confessed to spying on Russia for the CIA.
“In 1960, very few people were aware of the CIA,” Powers Jr. said.
The incident forced the United States to admit that it spied on foreign powers, a move Eisenhower described as a “necessary evil” in order to prevent another attack like Pearl Harbor, Powers Jr. said.
Ultimately, the U.S. negotiated for the release of Powers Sr. in exchange for releasing a Russian KGB spy named Rudolf Abel. After their release though, Powers Sr. and Abel encountered different reactions.
“Rudolf Abel returns home a hero. He is honored for his service, has his likeness put on a postage stamp and is awarded medals,” Powers Jr. said. “Dad returned home to an American public who didn’t quite know what to think of him.”
There were many rumors and untruths that circulated about his father and what happened in Russia, Powers Jr. said.
Powers Sr. was dropped from the U2 spy program. When he had signed up to fly spy missions, he had been promised he would return to his military service after the program, but the military would not accept him back. His marriage to his first wife failed within months of his return to the United States.
He became a test pilot at Lockheed Martin, but Powers Sr. was fired after he published a book detailing his experiences as a spy and prisoner of war. Powers Sr. went on to become a helicopter pilot and worked for the NBC affiliate station in Los Angeles flying he station’s news chopper.
While working for the news station, Powers. Sr. died when his helicopter crashed in 1977. Powers Jr. was 12.
The U.S. military and the CIA honored Powers Sr. after his death. In 2000, on the 40th anniversary of the U2 incident, he was posthumously awarded the Prisoner of War medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the National Defense Service Medal and the CIA’s Director’s Medal. In 2012 he was honored again, this time with the Silver Star.