RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Saturday marked the anniversary of the death of a CIA spy Francis Gary Powers – best known for being shot down and captured in Russia during the Cold War.
Powers grew up in Pound, Virginia – and was shot down in the famed “U-2 incident” on May 1, 1960.
He was imprisoned by the KGB, and many Americans at the time thought Powers gave intelligence to the Soviet Union and saw him as a traitor. It’s a legacy his son - who lives in Central Virginia - has worked to change by uncovering the truth.
An American pilot, taking photographs over the Soviet Union in a CIA U2 plane at the height of the Cold War - it seems like a moment out of a Hollywood spy movie.
“A little Spielberg movie, yes,” said Francis Gary Powers Jr.
And the story is actually portrayed in the film “Bridge of Spies” from 2015. Powers Jr. even appears in the film next to the actor playing his father because this story is also a part of history.
”In 1960, when my father was shot down over the Soviet Union. It’s the height of the Cold War. We’re coming off the McCarthy era. Espionage was in the headlines because dad got caught spying for the U.S. government, CIA,” said Powers junior.
On May 1 of 1960, the Virginia native was flying over the Soviet Union taking photographs of key targets for the CIA. He was flying from Pakistan to Norway over the Soviet Union at 70,000 feet when a missile exploded - just above the tail section of the plane.
“The nose pitches forward, the wings snap off, falls out of the sky. Dad’s in an inverted spin down towards the ground. He’s looking to use the ejection seat. He can’t get his legs into proper position. He ends up crawling out of the airplane. He falls through the aircraft. His parachute opens automatically at 15,000 feet. He parachutes to the ground.
“Literally a miracle that he survived the crash?“ NBC12′s Rachel DePompa asked.
“Yep. Had it been a direct hit, he and the plane would have been in little pieces,” said Powers Jr.
He landed in a field and is eventually taken into custody by the KGB. The U.S. thought the plane crashed and the pilot was dead, and issues a bogus cover story - until the Soviet Union announces Powers is alive.
“At the time, international incident. President Eisenhower gets caught lying. Dad ends up two years in a Soviet prison, and then is exchanged for a Soviet spy,” said Powers Jr.
The story has even more of a James Bond feel because, on that mission, Powers takes a silver dollar with him and inside it was a poisoned pin.
“This is a similar one, but it’s not the authentic one,” said Powers Jr. “The one my father carried was not hollow like this. There was a hole drilled in it. A small needle was inserted. A bevel was put on it, he could wear it around his neck or put it in his pocket for a good luck charm,” said Powers Jr.
You have to remember what America was like at that time, public opinion was swayed by fear from tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
“It was easier to blame the pilot then to have to admit that we were behind the Soviets in their missile technology. That, yes, in fact, the Soviets did have the capability to shoot down a U2 at 70,000 plus feet,” said Powers Jr.
Powers was later cleared by the CIA and a Senate committee, but changing minds takes time.
“He did everything he was supposed to do. He followed orders to the tea. Yet, the press in the 60s, when he was in prison, wrote that he defected. That he landed the plane intact. That he spilled his guts and told the Soviets everything he knew,” said Powers Junior.
All of which was not true. Powers Jr. wasn’t alive during his father’s infamous journey, but he’s spent his life researching that fateful day. Pouring through declassified CIA documents and remembering real-life conversations with his dad.
His office is a devoted museum to that Mayday over Moscow. In 2019, he released a book, “Spy Pilot.”
His father has since been awarded medals, recognizing his bravery as a Prisoner of War.
“As a family, we’re very honored. We’re very humbled. Very grateful to our government for helping to set the record straight. It took 40 and 50 years to do it, but it’s out there in the public domain,“ he said.
A part of the history books, tempered by time; and a story even Hollywood couldn’t pass up.
“And I’m going ‘oh crap, how do you get in touch with Stephen Spielberg?’ You can’t just pick up the phone and call him,” joked Powers Jr.
Powers Jr. even consulted on the film to help steer it toward the truth of what happened. Taking his father from infamy to hero.
“Overall, we like the movie. The big picture is historically accurate...the details of each scene, it’s Hollywood,” said Powers.
Francis Gary Powers died tragically in 1977 while piloting a helicopter for a local TV station in California. His son was just 12 years old at the time.
Powers Jr. also sat down with NBC12 for our How We Got Here podcast. You can listen to that extended bonus episode here:
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