The hit 2015 movie “Bridge of Spies” somewhat restored the reputation of captured U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, but his son wants the public to know his father did not betray the United States.
Powers was shot down by a Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile over Kusolino, Russia, on May 1, 1960. He remained a Soviet prisoner until Feb. 10, 1962, when the Soviets exchanged him and American student Frederic Pryor for KGB spy Rudolph Abel.
The pilot’s son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., three years ago self-published a collection of his father’s notes, “Letters from a Soviet Prison,” and this January published a new book, “Spy Pilot.”
The author, who did 25 years’ worth of research and spent five years writing the book, did not have to subject it for government vetting before publication because he obtained the information from declassified documents, interviews and other openly available sources.
“This book takes Dad’s reputation from infamy and controversy in the 1960s to that of an American hero today,” Powers told the Rotary Club of Vienna on May 8 at Westwood Country Club.
Initial news reports following his father’s shoot-down painted him as a traitor who landed his reconnaissance plan intact, failed to commit suicide and divulged sensitive information to the Soviets.
Powers pieced together a more accurate picture using friends’ research following the Soviet Union’s collapse and data gleaned from a declassification conference in 1998. The author learned from the later event that the U-2 program was a joint CIA-U.S. Air Force operation, a fact that allowed his father to receive honors posthumously. This took a letter-writing campaign by Powers, however, because “it’s easier to blame the pilot than it is to admit the Soviets were more advanced than we were at the time,” he said.
His father subsequently received including a Prisoner of War Medal, a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Director’s Medal from then-CIA Director George Tenet and the Silver Star. Powers’ family “is humbled, very grateful to our government for helping to set the record straight,” the author said.
Powers’ father died Aug. 1, 1977, at age 47 after the Bell 206 helicopter he was flying for KNBC in Los Angeles ran out of fuel and crashed in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area. Hearing in 2014 that Steven Spielberg was going to direct “Bridge of Spies,” a film about the U-2 shoot-down and prisoner exchange afterward, Powers could not reach the famous director. He then e-mailed Spielberg’s associates seeking an accurate portrayal of the U-2 events.
The film’s producer, Marc Platt, telephoned Powers in July 2014 and agreed to hire him as a consultant for the movie. Powers was dismayed his contract did not hold the production company to historical-accuracy standards and prohibited him from suing, but he decided to sign it anyway.
“I thought it was more important to be a part of it and try to steer them in the right direction than it was to walk away and have nothing to do with it,” he said.
Powers, who has an uncredited cameo as a CIA agent in the film, visited filming locations in New York, Beale Air Force Base in California and Glienicke Bridge in Potsdam, Germany, where the prisoner exchange occurred.
“Somehow, Spielberg had to convince the German government to close down that major bridge,” Powers said. “Imagine closing down one of our bridges in the D.C. area for three days.”
The film took some artistic liberties. Powers’ father did not see the missiles as they zoomed up toward his aircraft and was connected to the plane only by a few feet of air hose, not the 10 or so feet depicted by the film makers, he said.
Powers’ father did not use the ejection seat when the missile damaged his aircraft at 70,000 feet because doing so likely would have ripped his legs off, his son said. Instead, he released the canopy and his safety harness and was sucked out of the plane.
President Eisenhower, told that no U-2 pilot could live through a shoot-down, initially lied about the incident, saying an unarmed weather-research plane drifted into Soviet airspace. But Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev two days later revealed Powers’ father was in custody and had confessed to spying for the CIA.
The Soviets did not physically torture the pilot, but subjected to bright spotlights, sleep deprivation, intensive questioning and death threats, Powers said. His father initially misled interrogators, but on May 7, 1960, one came into chamber waving a newspaper and accused him of lying.
“You told us you were trained in Arizona, but the New York Times said you were trained in Nevada at Area 51,” the interrogator said. “You might as well tell us everything. We’ll get it out of your American press anyway.”
Power marveled at watching the Oscar-winning director in action.
“I saw him do his magic,” he said. “A film student would have given their eye teeth to sit behind this guy and watch him produce and direct this movie.”
Powers, a Midlothian resident, is founder and chairman of the Cold War Museum in Vint Hill in Fauquier County. He founded the museum in 1996 to honor Cold War veterans, but it did not open until 2011.
“It wasn’t just because of my father that I founded this museum,” he said. “I realized during my research to find out about my dad that there are hundreds of thousands of other men and women who fought and sacrificed and died during this time period that did not have any recognition.”
Powers also was motivated by the lectures he gave to high-school students in the early 1990s about the U-2 incident.
“Nine times out of 10, I’d walk into a classroom and get blank stares,” he said. “The kids thought I was there to talk about the U-2 rock band. That was a catalyst, a clue that something had to be done to preserve Cold War history.”