Son of U-2 spy plane pilot shot down defends father

Spy pilot Francis Gary Powers, who died in 1977, is shown here with his son Gary Powers Jr., now 50, who co-founded The Cold War Museum in Vint Hill, Va. (Courtesy of Gary Powers Jr.)
Spy pilot Francis Gary Powers, who died in 1977, is shown here with his son Gary Powers Jr., now 50, who co-founded The Cold War Museum in Vint Hill, Va. (Courtesy of Gary Powers Jr.)

VINT HILL, VA. – New Mexicans can always make a quick trip to Los Alamos and its Bradbury Science Museum to learn about the development of nuclear weapons and the start of the atomic age.

Here in Virginia, there’s a relatively new museum that explores the next chapter – the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union faced off across the Iron Curtain, each well-armed with the weapons that got their start in northern New Mexico.

That tense period is also portrayed in the current Steven Spielberg movie “Bridge of Spies,” whose story has a direct connection to The Cold War Museum in Vint Hill, a former military base redeveloped as a housing and business community about 40 miles from Washington, D.C.

The museum was co-founded in 2011 by Gary Powers Jr., the son of U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers. Powers Sr. was shot down over the U.S.S.R., imprisoned and interrogated and then released by the Soviets less than two years later in a spy swap depicted in “Bridge of Spies,” which stars Tom Hanks as an insurance lawyer wrangled into negotiating the trade of prisoners.

Powers Jr., 50, who lives in Virginia and was a technical adviser on the film, said in telephone and email interviews that he was pleased with how the movie helped correct the record in his ongoing effort to accurately portray his late father’s legacy.

“There are still questions about my father,” Powers said. “It’s still vague and open-ended about my father’s conduct, but at the end of the movie they set the record straight and we really appreciate that as a family.”

Hanks plays attorney James Donovan, who is persuaded to be the defense lawyer for Russian spy Rudolf Abel in 1957 and saves him from the death penalty, convinced that Abel could be a bargaining chip on the greater Cold War stage. When CIA pilot Powers is shot down in 1960, Donovan’s idea turns out to be prescient, and he is pressed into service as a non-official U.S. government representative to negotiate the swap with the Russians in Berlin.

The movie depicts the hostility Donovan endured in defending a Soviet spy and how some viewed Powers after his release. Powers was criticized in the U.S. for not blowing up the plane with its classified technology (it landed virtually intact) and for not using a CIA-issued suicide pill to avoid questioning, but after a Senate inquiry he was exonerated of divulging any significant information to the Soviets.

“Overall 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,” Powers said.

“Fortunately, because of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) 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 said “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 information to the Soviets, and refused to denounce the United States of America.”

Powers was 12 when his father died in a TV news helicopter crash in Southern California in 1977.

The word “traitor” still surfaces on the Internet in some references to spy pilot Powers “by people who are ignorant of and or who blatantly disregard the facts,” the son said.

“There will continue to be fallacies and conspiracy theories associated with my father and the U-2 Incident,” he added. “The Powers family takes pride in knowing that the official record of my father is that of a hero to our country, which we knew all along.”

Powers Sr. was posthumously awarded the United States Air Force Silver Star in 2012 for “gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States.”

When Powers Jr. was 10 or 12, his father “would answer questions” about the shoot-down and capture. But what the son learned was blurred as he gathered more information after his father’s death and realized the full significance of the event and how just two years later, the U.S. and Russia were in an eyeball-to-eyeball nuclear facedown during the Cuban missile crisis. A U-2 was shot down with a missile then and its pilot killed.

First pilot shot down

The U-2s flying over Russia with their powerful cameras were being used to ascertain the Soviet’s military strength, and it was believed the special planes could fly higher than enemy radar and avoid detection. “Dad was the first U-2 shot down by a SA2 (missile),” Powers said.

That event is dramatically depicted in the movie, with some directorial embellishment, Powers said. “The shoot-down segment is very accurate,” he said. “Dad did get sucked up out of the airplane… half in and half out of the cockpit.” He said his father was hanging by two to three feet of air hose, rather than the 10 feet shown in the movie, as he bailed out.

U-2 pilots were instructed, as shown in the film, to pull a lever to destroy the plane with its valuable equipment if hit and were equipped with a “device for self-destruction.”

“He couldn’t reach the destruct button,” Powers said.

According to secret 1960 testimony to a Senate committee by CIA Director Allen Dulles that was declassified in 1975, a fully destructive device was not possible because of weight considerations and pilots were not given “positive instructions” on their own destruction and “the ultimate decision has to be left to individual himself.”

The Cold War Museum has photos of the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” atomic bombs that were developed at Los Alamos and dropped on Japan and graphics explaining how the W88 nuclear warhead was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory for Trident II missiles designed to attack Russian missile silos. The museum is seeking donations of additional exhibit items and money to move to a larger facility.

The Hanks movie has spawned renewed interest in the Cold War and in Powers’ museum.

Recent visitor Jacob Shepherd of Fairfax, Va., said he researched the museum, located in a one-time barn at the former Vint Hill military base used to intercept and decode messages, after seeing “Bridge of Spies.”

“I saw that this was here …so I just wanted to check it out and see what they’ve got,” said Shepherd. “They crammed a lot of stuff in here.” Shepherd said he knew little of the U-2 incident before he saw the movie.

That renewed interest is something Powers has wanted.

“I am hopeful the movie will not only spur interest in the museum but also get people thinking about the Cold War and interest in researching it.”

But he is under no illusions about who the film’s hero is. The hero, Powers said, “is not my father – the hero of the movie is (attorney) Donovan.”

Former Journal North reporter Andy Stiny, now based in California, sends in occasional dispatches based on his travels.

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