- - Tuesday, February 12, 2019


By Francis Gary Powers Jr. and Keith Dunnavant

Foreword by Sergei Khrushchev

Prometheus Books, $25, 336 pages

Freed from a Soviet prison after months of captivity, U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was stunned to find that although he had flown one of the more dangerous missions of the Cold War, many Americans considered him a coward, even a traitor.

At hand is the story of how a loyal and determined son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., refuted critics and gained the pilot a deserved spot in the pantheon of Cold War heroes.

Why the abuse? Powers was scorned because he did not kill himself with a poison-coated pin that CIA handlers gave him before his flight deep into Soviet territory. A rocket brought down his craft, from some 68,000 feet, and he was quickly taken into custody.

Powers considered using the pin. Then he thought of what his strongly religious father once told him: “If you kill yourself, you kill a man A man who dies in sin, he can’t be saved.” He also remembered what the CIA officer had counseled him about capture: “You might as well tell them everything because they’re going to get it out of you anyway.” So he did not use the poisoned pin.

The Soviets craftily revealed nothing about Powers‘ fate. Thinking him dead, the United States issued a statement that the U-2 was a weather observation plane that had flown off course.

Whereupon Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev produced a “very live and kicking” Powers, displayed the spy plane, which he claimed violated international law, and cancelled a summit talk in Paris with President Dwight Eisenhower. A show trial verdict: 15 years in prison.

To critics who complained that Powers should be tried for treason, Eisenhower said he saw “nothing In his conduct to warrant such prosecution.” The U-2 proved to be the CIA’s most valuable source of information existent on Soviet capabilities to launch a nuclear attack on the United States. The embarrassment of the Powers flight was minor in light of future U-2 accomplishments.

After 21 months imprisonment, in February 1962, Powers was freed in a swap for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. And Powers suddenly found himself the target of vicious public scorn.

President John F. Kennedy scheduled a White House meeting — which was abruptly cancelled. His brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, wanted to try him for treason. A Virginia politician denounced him as a “cowardly American.” Powers “would be haunted by the snub” by Kennedy for the rest of his life, as his son writes.

Powers endured agonizing times after homecoming. His first wife, Barbara, had long been a heavy drinker and somewhat of a sleep-around. Her conduct worsened after he regained freedom. They divorced within a year. Powers remarried to Sue Downey in 1963; she is the author’s mother.

Fortunately for Powers, intelligence professionals were more understanding than the blather of politicians. Allen Dulles, the director of central intelligence, met Powers and told him, “We are proud of what you have done.” A board of inquiry appointed by Dulles’ successor, John McCone (and headed by retired Federal Judge E. Barrett Prettyman) called Powers “a truthful man who complied with his obligations as an America citizen during this period.” Powers was awarded $52,500 in back pay and cleared to return to the CIA.

But he sensed hostility there. “I still feel like a scapegoat,” he told a reporter. A test-pilot job did not work out. He ended up flying a traffic watch plane for a Los Angeles TV station. He died in a crash in 1977.

While a teenager, young Powers began working to clear his father’s reputation. Through FOIA requests he obtained previously secret archives that refuted some of the charges made against his father. Had he been flying the U-2 at an unsafe level, making the craft vulnerable to Soviet rockets? A document he found attested that Powers was at 70,500 feet when hit — exacting the designated altitude.

Other U-2 pilots confirmed that no one was expected to use the poison needle. “The pen was only there if you thought you couldn’t take what they were doing to you,” one pilot told him.

Much lobbying and persuasion was involved, but Air Force officials finally decided that Powers deserved a POW decoration. In due course he was awarded a number of other medals — the Distinguished Flying Cross, the National Defense Service Medal and the CIA Director’s Medal. And later Mr. Powers‘ father received his final vindication: The award of a Silver Star for “gallantry in action.”

Young Powers‘ effort led him to found the Cold War Museum in Vint Hill, Virginia, and to work with the National Park Service on preserving Cold War sites. But his greatest accomplishment was the recognition of a man who risked his life to defend his country.

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military maters.

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