Francis Gary Powers Gets His Silver Star

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In 1960 Francis Gary Powers flew a U-2 over the Soviet Union and was shot down, interrogated and imprisoned. Last week, the U.S. Air Force finally gave Powers the Silver Star, more than half a century after the fact but better late than never. Powers’ heroism remains particularly relevant today.

Military men at last weeks’ ceremony said it “boggles the mind” what they asked Powers to do. As Brig. Gen. Kevin Chilton put it, that was to fly over Moscow “alone, unarmed and unafraid, then to suffer in prison during what indeed was a war, the Cold War.” For many that conflict is a cloud of unknowing, and U-2 evokes only a rock and roll band, not the spy plane Powers flew.

The United States and its NATO allies needed such a plane because the USSR remained Stalinist and imperialist even after Stalin’s death in 1953.  A totalitarian state is a difficult place to run intelligence operations, but the West needed to know what the Soviet military was doing. In 1954 the first of 30 U-2 planes emerged from the Lockheed “Skunk Works,” built in only 88 days. The U-2, called the “Dragon Lady,” could fly higher than any Soviet aircraft, out of range from the Soviet surface-to-air missiles of the time.

One of the first U-2 pilots was Air Force Lt. Francis Gary Powers, already a veteran of reconnaissance missions. Powers overflew Soviet territory under the guise of weather missions. Soviet agents at the Bodo base in Norway leaked flight plans and routes to Moscow. Soviet MIGs intercepted Powers at lower altitude over Sverdlosk and shot down his U-2. Powers fell into the hands of the KGB, whose interrogation teams worked him over for 107 days without getting what they wanted. The Soviets then put Powers on trial for espionage and sentenced him to 10 years, but in 1962 they traded him for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.

It was a key transaction of the Cold War, but Powers got a rather cold reception back in the USA. Some Americans, including his daughter’s teacher, thought he should have killed himself, and said so in front of the class. Powers endured the criticism and worked as a test pilot for Lockheed until 1970. He went on to fly a news helicopter for a television station in Los Angeles, hardly a job in keeping with his talent and experience. He died tragically in a 1977 crash, so he was not around to see the end of the Cold War and the demise of the USSR. Perhaps he could have compared notes with his KGB interrogators.

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  • Stephan

    Ah, yes the Cold War is over — best part of the end was the liberation of the concentration camps and the storys in the media about the liberated political prisoners.

    • btims

      Nah……the best part was the fact that we were actually a strong, sovereign, proud and freedom loving country. Before endless immigration has watered down what it means to be an American, endless "free trade" has outsourced our industries, endless "diversity and multiculturalism" preaching from the govt. and it's PR arm – the MSM.

      I actualy miss the Cold War period. Much better than today.

  • lugnut

    Pretty darn good for a guy from Jenkins Kentucky.

  • Pappadave

    Not sure what Powers did merits a Silver Star. But then, he CERTAINLY merits it more than John Kerry deserved the one he put himself in for.

  • tagalog

    Those interrogation teams that worked Francis Gary Powers over for 107 days, what did they do to him?

    It's a damn disgrace that 52 years had to pass before some bureaucrat whose sole injury in public service is swivel-chair spread would authorize the Silver Star for him. The Silver Star should be for crossing that bridge with an award of the Distinguished Flying Cross for the mission, but what the hell, take what you can get.

  • PDK

    I was born in 1954, I have a few, perhaps hazy memories of FGP, probably from both 60 and 62, when his name and story would have been, for a brief time, front page news. Curious it is, the feelings from that time period, elicited by that story, that after all this time still reside in memory and are called forth from revisiting the story.
    GFP was a bonifide American hero, who much like returning Vietnam vets, was denied his just due as a hero and perhaps worse recieve scorn instead.
    I for one doff my hat for and to Gary, a true American hero. Glad he and his family finally got their due. RIP Francis Gary Powers. Thank you.

  • Nessus

    You mean to tell me that the Armed Forces today actually remembers FGP? And they are not too busy "celebrating" homosexuals and cross-dressers in uniform?

  • Brooks

    I met Gary Powers when his nephew and I were visiting his Mother.
    My friends grandmother..
    Mr. Powers was a gentle and kind man.

  • BLJ

    Powers was a hero. He also showed great courage against his commie captors. I would love to see any of his critics fly the same mission.