On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers, a pilot in the CIA’s U-2 spy plane program, crash-landed into history. Tasked with photographing Soviet military installations, Powers flew into Russian territory. When his aircraft neared the skies above Sverdlovsk, his plane was hit by an SA-2 surface-to-air missile. He was taken captive by the Soviets.
The United States at first claimed that the downed aircraft was a weather plane. Once it was learned that the U-2 had been recovered intact, the Eisenhower administration admitted that Powers was on a spy mission. An enraged Nikita Khrushchev, premiere of the Soviet Union, cancelled a summit with President Eisenhower.
Meanwhile, Powers was interrogated extensively by the KGB. Although he made a public apology, he was nevertheless tried by the Russian government for espionage, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His captivity ended on February 10, 1962 when he was exchanged in a spy swap at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, who had been caught by the FBI. Powers had been held by the Soviets for 22 months.
Stateside, Powers was initially under a cloud. Some in the government felt he should have destroyed the spy plane and himself—courtesy of a suicide pill sewn into his flight suit. However, after being debriefed by the CIA, he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which concluded that he had not divulged any top secret information to his captors and had conducted himself as “a fine young man under dangerous circumstances.”
Powers’ capture and eventual release are taken up in the new Steven Spielberg movie, Bridge of Spies. Ron Capshaw interviewed Powers’ son, Gary Francis Powers, Jr., about it via email.
RC: Were you an adviser on Bridge of Spies, and was the film accurate?
FGP: Yes, I am a technical consultant on the film and an extra. [While the movie was being made] I did relay the Powers family’s concerns to the producers that if they based the info on my father from the press in the 1960s, it would paint him in a negative light. If they used the info that has been revealed as a result of FOIA requests and declassification conferences over the past 50 years, then they would portray my father in the correct light that he is a hero to our country. I was told by one of the producers that Spielberg considers my father a hero and not to worry.
I thought that the movie was well done, and captures the feelings that some Americans felt towards my father, Abel, and Donovan during that time period. Fortunately, because of FOIA requests and declassification conferences hosted by the CIA and USAF over the past 55 years, the misinformation surrounding the U-2 Incident and my father’s involvement have been put to rest.
He was at his assigned altitude of 70,500 feet when he was shot down. Upon capture he followed orders, did not divulge any classified info to the Soviets, and refused to denounce the United States of America.
This is reflected in the movie during the postscript that acknowledged my father was posthumously awarded the POW Medal, CIA Director’s Medal, and the USAF Silver Star. The movie reinforces my belief that it is never too late to set the record straight.
RC: How was your father treated by the Russians for the 22 months they had him? Was torture involved and did he divulge any secrets?
FGP: There was no physical torture but a lot of mental anguish / mental torture. Threats of death, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, some roughing up, yelling and screaming at him, trying to provide him with incentives to cooperate, etc. Despite all of the Soviet attempts to extract information, it has been shown in recent declassified documents that my father gave out no secrets and refused to denounce the United States of America.
RC: Did he ever talk to you about what happened?
FGP: Yes, my father and I would talk about the U-2 Incident and his experiences when I was a child. I remember reading his book and asking him questions when I was about 10-12 years old.
RC: JFK assassination obsessives have said that Lee Harvey Oswald, then a Russian citizen, gave the Soviets enough radar data to shoot down your father’s aircraft. Is there any truth to this?
FGP: I do believe that after Oswald defected, he relayed information to the Soviets about the altitude that the U-2’s would fly, which helped the Soviet military to improve their missile systems . . . However, I have not yet found any concrete evidence to confirm that Oswald provided the Soviets with info on the U-2’s altitude limitations. Regardless, my father’s plane did not have a flame out or descend prior to being shot down by a Soviet SA-2 missile over Sverdlovsk.
RC: Many of the younger generation know little about the Cold War, and even less about your father in particular. What would you like them to take away from the Spielberg film?
FGP: I believe that it is important for this generation to understand Cold War history. By learning about the Cold War, students can gain insights into how WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII set the stage for the Cold War and how the end of the Cold War set the stage for the current War on Terror.
RC: For those alive in that period, what has it been like being the son of Francis Gary Powers?
FGP: I do not know what it is like to not be the son of Francis Gary Powers. I thought he was a normal dad. We would go hiking, biking, and swimming together. I would fly with him and realized that he was shot down, interrogated, and exchanged for a Soviet Spy. For me as a kid, I thought everybody’s dad went though something like this. That perception changed on August 1, 1977 when my dad died in a helicopter accident while working for KNBC. After his death, is when I realized that not everybody’s dad gets shot down or exchanged for a Soviet Spy. But then, it was too late to ask him any more questions.
Ron Capshaw’s review of the movie is here.