OSCODA – Francis Gary Powers, Jr., Cold War historian and son of the U-2 pilot whose plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, presented at Oscoda High School on July 23.
Powers presented to a room of approximately 50 people and shared his father’s story.
The presentation was part of a three-week lecture tour and was sponsored by the Wurtsmith Air Museum. Judy Shuler, Secretary of the Museum, said she was very happy with the turnout.
Powers told the audience he would talk about “what it was like to grow up in the shadow of a famous figure.” Powers described growing up in southern California and being aware of his father being shot down. His perception of the incident changed in August 1977, when his father died in a helicopter crash while working as a reporter and helicopter pilot for KNBC in Los Angeles. The younger Powers was only 12 at the time. He said he became introverted and didn’t know how to answer the many questions he was asked by his classmates about the U-2 incident.
In college Power became more curious about the controversy and conspiracy theories surrounding his father. Did his father defect? Was it pilot error? Did the missile hit him? Did he encounter a UFO?
He reached out to his mother, sisters and other family members to begin to piece together the details of his father’s life and what led up to him being shot down. Powers spoke to the CIA, Air Force officials and people who flew with is father. In the process he learned about the Cold War.
He also got to know his father. He learned that his father had wanted to be a pilot since he was 12 years old. As a child his father spent $2 on an airplane ride and told his parents “I left my heart up there. The senior Powers was supposed to go to the Korean War but missed it due to a medical emergency. Instead, he was invited to a CIA meeting with pilots where he learned about a mission that would be both “dangerous and patriotic.”
Powers and his wife agreed that this mission would be good for his career. After signing a non-disclosure agreement, Powers was trained at Area 51 and shipped to Turkey. He would complete 27 successful missions.
On May 1, 1960, Powers’ Lockheed U-2 spy plane was shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission in Soviet Union airspace, causing the 1960 U-2 incident. Powers was captured causing the Soviet Union to cancel a conference with the United States, Great Britain, and France. On May 5 of that year, Kruchev would announce to the world that the Soviet Union had shot down an American spy plane. On May 7 he announced that they had also captured the pilot who had confessed to spying for the CIA.
President Eisenhower had told the American people that the plane was an unarmed research plane. Powers Jr. said this was “the first time an American president had been caught lying.”
Powers was kept in solitary confinement for three months, interrogated by the KGB for 60 days, tried and convicted of espionage and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. However, after negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, he was released on February 10,1962 in exchange for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.
Upon his return to the U.S., Powers was debriefed for three weeks in Maryland. On March 6, 1962 he spent eight hours with a senate committee that was investigating the incident. Powers Jr. reported that his father received a standing ovation from the committee at the end of the day.
However, the court of public opinion had not cleared his father and conspiracy theories continued to surround him.
Powers would go on to be a test pilot for Lockheed from 1963-1970. After publishing his autobiography in 1970 he was let go from Lockheed. His attorney negotiated a trust fund that would include contributions from both the CIA and the Air Force. After signing a non-disclosure agreement, Powers went on a lecture series and appeared on Johnny Carson and other talk shows of the era.
Operation Overflight: The U-2 Spy Pilot Tells His Story for The First Time, a book Powers co-authored with Curt Gentry about his experience was published on January 1, 1970. An updated edition, Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident Paperback was released in 2003 and included new details about his capture. Powers, Jr. authored Spy Pilot: Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 Incident, and a Controversial Cold War Legacy in 2019.
The Steven Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies, featured Powers’ capture and eventual return to the U.S. Powers described his attempts to ensure the accuracy of the film which eventually resulted in him being invited to serve as a technical consultant. Although his contract included clauses that the filmmakers didn’t need to listen to him and that he would not be able to sue if he didn’t like the end result, Powers decided that it was more important to be a part of the production and agreed.
Powers Jr. reported that the film captured the big picture of the cold war, which he said was very accurately portrayed. However, he felt that the film embellished details and was not 100 percent accurate. He talked to the audience about the importance of educating high school students about the Cold War. In 1996 he began working on the Cold War Museum, it took 15 years, but the museum opened west of Washington D.C. in 2011.
“To understand the world today we have to understand the Cold War. People do not understand how important it was. It morphed into the War on Terror. We need to understand history to understand the world today,” he said.
Powers Jr. has dedicated the last 10 years of his life to writing books and lecturing. His motivation was that he “wanted to set the record straight.”
His father was awarded both the Silver Star and the POW Medal posthumously.