U-2 incident history uncovered at library
The son of an American spy wanted to set the record straight regarding his father. Francis Gary Powers Jr. told roughly 50 people gathered at the Marshalltown Public Library on Wednesday about his father Francis Gary Powers, and the event which cemented his name in American history.
Powers was captured by the Soviet Union in 1960 while flying a Lockheed U-2 spy plane over that country, which triggered an international incident. The aftermath for the pilot was a tarnished image after the media depicted Powers as anti-American. Through the decades, Powers was vindicated, and his son is making sure people know the real story.
It was this story that led Marshalltown resident and businessman Vic Hellberg to bring Powers to Marshalltown to speak at the library, at the Iowa Veterans Home and at the Rotary.
“With Sarah having these history programs here, I thought it would be nice to have him here to talk,” Hellberg said when he introduced Powers to the attendees.
Powers has written three books about his father’s experience, which has helped dispel misinformation about the U-2 incident, Hellberg said.
Powers spoke briefly about the overall life story of his father, from growing up during the Depression to being the first person in his family to go to college to his 1977 death in a helicopter crash while working for NBC News in California.
Powers’ presentation became more detailed regarding his father’s time in the Air Force. It was then Powers was ordered to report to his superior’s office where men in suits, who were with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), told him about a “career opportunity.” The opportunity was doing reconnaissance for the United States government under the cover of weather research and would earn him triple the pay of his Air Force salary. After discussing it with his wife, Powers decided to accept.
The 1960 mission in which Powers was shot down and captured began in Pakistan. His duty was to fly over the Soviet Union and get pictures, and then land in Norway. At a height of 70,400 feet above the earth near Sverdlovsk, Powers saw a bright orange flash, and a shock wave hit the plane.
“He is falling from 70,000 feet to 30,000 feet before bailing out of the airplane,” Powers said.
He managed to see a dark vehicle on the ground following his path. Powers landed in a field where farmers were working. Upon discovering that he did not speak Russian, the farmers got nervous.
It was then the dark vehicle pulled up and two men put Powers in the back seat. He was taken to local officials before KGB soldiers arrived to take him to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow.
During the following five days, the Soviets revealed nothing about the U-2 incident, and United States officials were trying to figure out what happened. Then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev released a photo of the fallen U-2 aircraft, but did not reveal the fate of the pilot.
Powers said United States officials believed his father to be dead, so they adhered to the weather research story. Then the Soviets revealed Powers’ father was alive, but said he confessed to working for the CIA. Powers said President Dwight D. Eisenhower then proceeded to do damage control, especially since most of the country was not aware of the existence of the CIA.
“Eisenhower steps up to the plate, holds a press conference and basically says he takes full responsibility for his actions,” Powers said. “He calls his actions, a quote unquote ‘vital but distasteful necessity in order to avert another Pearl Harbor.’ While this is unfolding, Dad is stuck in a Russian prison cell, going through another interrogation — 16-hour days, bright spotlights, threats of death. No physical torture, but a lot of mental anguish.”
The New York Times then wrote an article stating Powers was trained at Area 51, but he told the Soviets he was trained in Arizona. A KGB officer held the article in his hand and accused Powers of lying.
“Dad was stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Powers said. “If he tells the full truth, he’s giving away secrets. If he lies to them and gets caught, he can get shot.”
He said his father, to build his credibility, only told truths that could only be verified through the American media, and lied when verification was impossible.
“Dad spent a total of three months in solitary confinement, going through interrogations, prior to a trial on Aug. 17, 1960,” Powers said.
The trial lasted three days before Powers was sentenced to 10 years in Vladimir Prison. Powers’ grandfather, Oliver Powers, began writing letters to convicted KGB spy Rudolph Abel to get his son out of prison, suggesting an exchange — Powers for Abel, who was being held by the United States.
“After 21 months of incarceration, May 1 of ’60 to Feb. 10 of ’62, Dad was exchanged for Rudolph Abel at Glienicke Bridge in Potsdam, Germany,” he said.
Bridge of Spies
Powers began his presentation by talking about “Bridge of Spies,” the 2015 Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks. It is about attorney James Donovan, who is given the task of negotiating the release of Powers from the Soviet prison.
Powers heard about the movie prior to the making and knew he had to get in touch with Spielberg. He did not want a movie to portray his father based off of the misinformation available at the time.
“If they base it off of the declassified files released in the last 50 years, they’ll be portraying him as a hero of our country,” Powers said.
After digging for names connected to the director, Powers finally connected with producer Marc Platt. He was invited to serve as a consultant for the movie. However, the contract Powers signed stated the makers of the movie did not have to listen to him.
“The big picture [of the movie] is historically accurate,” Powers said. “But you have to remember this is Hollywood. They embellish for dramatic effect. While the big picture is accurate, the details are not 100 percent correct.”
Contact Lana Bradstream at 641-753-6611 ext. 210 or firstname.lastname@example.org.