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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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