U-2 spy plane pilot Powers honored with Silver Star

Five decades after being shot down in Soviet air space in a high-flying aircraft packed with surveillance gear, Francis Gary Powers is honored at the Pentagon.

Francis Gary Powers (right) passes time with U-2 designer Kelly Johnson in 1966. U.S. Air Force photo

Capt. Francis Gary Powers, the Air Force pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, was posthumously honored Friday in a medal ceremony at the Pentagon.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz presented the Silver Star Medal to Capt. Powers' children, Gary Powers Jr. and Dee Powers, in the Hall of Heroes, in tribute to Powers' "heroic action and his loyalty to the United States of America during a pivotal time in our nation's history."

"My sister, myself, my wife, my son, aunts and uncles, cousins, the Powers family is deeply grateful and deeply appreciative for the awarding of the Silver Star to my father," said Gary Powers Jr. "It goes to show that it's never too late to set the record straight."

Powers, whose reconnaissance plane was shot down over the U.S.S.R. on May 1, 1960, was honored for demonstrating "exceptional loyalty" while enduring harsh interrogation in a Russian prison for nearly two years.

After taking off from Pakistan and flying at an altitude of 70,000 feet, Powers was more than 1,200 miles inside the Soviet Union's border when he was shot down by surface-to-air missiles.

He parachuted safely to the ground and was captured by Soviet troops. The plane's camera and film was also captured -- a propaganda boon for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Under intense interrogation, Powers was threatened with death and suffered sleep and food deprivation. He was eventually tried in Moscow.

"Captain Powers steadfastly refused all attempts to give sensitive defense information or be exploited for propaganda purposes," the medal citation reads.

In August 1960 Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to three years in prison and seven years in a prison colony.

After 21 months in prison Powers was exchanged was turned over to U.S. officials in Berlin in 1962, exchanged in a prisoner swap for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.

After returning to the U.S., Powers was exonerated by a CIA board of inquiry, and he was awarded an Intelligence Star.

But many criticized him for not destroying the plane and its sensitive surveillance instruments -- and for allowing himself to be taken alive.

Powers' daughter, Dee, said that the trauma of her father's detention and show trial was exacerbated by a teacher in third grade, who voiced the sentiment of many over the pilot's capture: "A teacher told me my father should have killed himself," she told CBS Radio's Howard Arenstein.

Powers later worked as a test pilot at Lockheed and wrote a 1970 memoir, "Operation Overflight." A TV-movie was made in 1976 about the U-2 incident starring Lee Majors.

Powers died in 1977 when the helicopter he was piloting for KNBC crashed in Los Angeles.

Documents declassified in the 1990s revealed that the U-2 spy flight had been a joint operation of the CIA and the Air Force, making him eligible for military honors. Powers was awarded a posthumous POW medal -- and now, the Silver Star.

This story was first published on CBSNews.com.

 

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