Although his name sounds familiar, you may have trouble placing Francis Gary Powers, Jr. He is the son of famed U-2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers, Sr., who was shot down in his reconnaissance plane over the Soviet Union, May 1, 1960. The incident was one of the most famous events in the Cold War battle between the United States and the Soviet Union, which had political ramifications for many years. Powers Jr., who goes by Gary was in Coronado recently to address roughly 35 residents at the Coronado Public Library about his famous father and to sell copies of his book, “Spy Pilot.”
Powers Sr., who for clarification purposes we’ll call Francis, came from humble origins, born August 17, 1929, during the height of the Great Depression, and raised in Pound, Virginia. Gary said, “His Dad Oliver Powers was a coal miner, who family history said did a little bootlegging on the side. They did what they had to do to make ends meet. Dad told me stories from when he was a kid, that his parents didn’t know where their next nickel was coming from, not just the next dollar.”
Francis Powers went on to earn a college degree at Milligan College, located in Elizabethton, Tennessee, majoring in Pre-Med. Going against his parents express wishes that he become a doctor, Powers instead enlisted in the Air Force in 1950 to follow his dream of being a pilot. Gary Powers said of his father’s career, “Dad was in the Air Force from 1950-56 and he was an F-84 pilot. Eventually he was recruited by the CIA, because he had many hours flying a single engine plane. He passed some tests and in early 1956 he signed a contract with the CIA. He was sent to Turkey to fly. His first Soviet overflight was Nov. 6, 1956. He flew 27 successful missions between 1956-60 including over China, Tibet, India, Pakistan, Middle East countries, and Eastern European countries. His 28th mission was the 24th and last mission flown over the Soviet Union. There were approximately 28 U-2 pilots and 24 planes. They were stationed all over the world with different squadrons.”
To provide a little context, the reconnaissance flights occurred during the height of the Arms Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The United States was desperate to obtain information relating to the quantity and kinds of weapons the Soviets had in their stockpile.
Gary Powers said, “And for 23 of the U-2 flights over the Soviet Union, they didn’t have the technology to send either a plane or a missile 70,000 feet into the air to shoot down the U-2.”
Francis Powers being shot down over the Soviet Union set off a series of events that took Gary Powers nearly five decades to help unravel. Soon after he was shot down, the United States announced that a weather research plane flying over the Soviet Union was lost. President Dwight Eisenhower, who was assured that no pilot could survive being shot down in a U-2 from those heights, spun that story that held up for only a couple of days.
Gary Powers recounted the progression of events. “May 5, 1960, the Soviets announced they had shot down the plane. May 7, Nikita Khrushchev announced the pilot was alive and had confessed to spying for the CIA. Later Eisenhower took full responsibility for sending the plane over the Soviet Union, but there was a Cold War mentality. It was easier to blame the pilot than further embarrass the President and to admit the Soviets had the technology to shoot down the U-2. While Dad was in the Vladimir Prison for 17 months (he was held captive for a total of 21 months) he couldn’t defend himself. Stories were written that he had defected, landed the plane intact and didn’t follow orders.”
Francis Powers was subjected to three months of interrogation and Gary said of the process, “The biggest challenge in the beginning was to not reveal anything, but give the appearance of cooperating. He took hold of that strategy. He would tell the whole truth if it could be confirmed in the press and lied whenever else he could. After he was released from prison in the Soviet Union, he was debriefed by the CIA and they confirmed Dad didn’t release any information the Soviets didn’t already have. He supplied no new information to his captors.”
For the duration of the time he was in prison, Powers had a Latvian cellmate named Zigurd Kruminsh, who spoke five languages including English, and was a KBG plant. Gary Powers explained, “I found out after “Spy Pilot” was published, and I have a document that shows that Zigurd worked a deal with the KGB to report on his cellmate’s activities prior to being with Dad. The document implies he would receive a lighter sentence for passing information along to his jailers. They got along and helped each other. Zigurd was released four or five months after Dad was and they kept in touch.”
The two men shared an 8x12 foot cell, which contained two cots and a toilet. During their confinement Zigurd taught Powers how to play chess and weave Latvian-styled rugs to pass the time. Gary said, “He taught Dad how to weave a burlap sack with dyed yarn into a cross-stitched rug that was 2x3 feet. He made three of the rugs. I have one, my sister has one and the National Air and Space Museum has one on display in Washington, D.C.”
Gary Powers has also compiled a book of his father’s letters while he was confined to Vladimir prison. His captives made him re-write the letters, changing the order of the paragraphs to prevent Powers from sending any information in code to his family or the CIA. That book is entitled, “Letters from a Soviet Prison, The Personal Journal and Private Correspondence of CIA U-2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers,” which like ‘Spy Pilot,” is available on Spypilotbook.com, where you can purchase an autographed copy of both books.
When asked why he wrote the books, Gary Powers said, “I wrote ‘Spy Pilot’ for the historical record, and used Dad’s words, thoughts, feelings, hopes and despairs. And I wanted the letters and his journal published, also for the historical record. I started the research for ‘Spy Pilot’ when I was in college. I didn’t start it to honor or vindicate Dad, but to find out the truth so I could answer questions. Friends and strangers would ask, ‘What about this, what about that?’ In high school I was very introverted and in college I was curious. Twenty-five years later I got the book out. The book takes Dad’s reputation from infamy and controversy in the 1960’s to him being an American hero. It talks about how the process happened over time. It took the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union to find out about my Dad.”
Largely through Gary’s research and a letter-writing campaign, Francis Powers was eventually awarded a POW Medal, the Silver Star, the CIA Director’s Medal for extreme fidelity and courage in the line of duty, a Korean Service Medal and several Award Citations. Powers was cleared on all counts by a CIA report on the U-2 mission and also by an investigation conducted by the U.S. Senate. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of captain in the Air Force and honored for his 14 years of service. There a lot of twists and turns to Powers’ tale, only touched on here, which make “Spy Pilot” well worth your time.
Unfortunately, Francis Powers died August 1, 1977, at the age of 47, when Gary was just seven years old. At the time Francis was employed as a traffic and news helicopter pilot for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. The gas gauge in the helicopter flown by Powers was thought to be defective and the crash killed both Powers and the cameraman in the plane with him. Roughly the last one-third of “Spy Pilot” deals with Gary’s challenges growing up and his path to discovering the details of his father’s life in the CIA.
For more information about, or to reach Powers, go to www.Garypowers.com.
For more information on the Cold War Museum, go to www.Coldwar.org.