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THE RETURN OF AMERICA'S MOST FAMOUS SPY - 51 YEARS AGO TODAY
The 1960s began unkindly for pilot Francis Gary Powers. On May 1, 1960 he was shot down in his U-2 spy plane by the Soviets. He was supposed to have died in the crash and, if not, to have committed suicide with a poison pin. He did neither. Instead he was captured and confessed to the Soviets about his spying mission. This put President Eisenhower in a bind who, after being assured by the CIA that a U-2 pilot could not possibly survive such a crash, issued a statement claiming that the aircraft was simply a weather plane.
Eisenhower was very much embarrassed when several days later the Soviets gleefully produced the proof that it was, indeed, not a weather plane. They had the pilot's confession to the contrary, and the pilot himself.
Powers was incarcerated and interrogated for 61 days at Moscow's notorious Lubyanka Prison, attempting, as best he could, to ply the Soviets with misinformation. In August he was tried and convicted of espionage by a Soviet court and sentenced to 10 years "deprivation of liberty." Meanwhile, back home many Americans were denouncing him as a traitor for surviving the crash and appearing to cooperate with the Soviets. In September he was transferred from the solitary confinement of Lubyanka to Vladimir Prison outside of Moscow where his request for a cell mate was granted. While in prison his alcoholic wife was legally declared incompetent and committed to a psychiatric facility by her mother and siblings.
On today's date, 51 years ago, February 10, 1962, Powers was released by the Soviets to the U.S. on Glienicker Bridge in Berlin in exchange for Soviet spy Rudolph Abel.
Powers spent his first eight days back in America being debriefed by the CIA in a safe house not too far from Eisenhower's farm in Gettysburg. Then he endured a 12 day formal board of inquiry. He was hailed by some as a hero, but many continued to accuse him of being a traitor. His wife divorced him less than a year after his return.
The 1970s began much more promisingly for Powers. He was happily remarried, he published his memoirs, and he was hired to fly helicopters and cover the weather for KNBC in Los Angeles.
On August 1, 1977, he died when his helicopter crashed after running out of fuel while he was covering a brush fire in Santa Barbara. Conspiracy theorists charged that his helicopter was sabotaged, although no evidence was ever uncovered to support their claims.
His last desperate act was to steer his falling helicopter away from a school yard.
Powers was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the CIA Director's Medal, and the Silver Star. His Silver Star citation notes that while enduring interrogation, harassment, and unmentionable hardships at the hands of his Soviet captors, he exhibited "indomitable spirit, exceptional loyalty, and continuous heroic action."
Did You Know?
Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of only five 5 star generals in American history. Marshall, MacArthur, Arnold, and Bradley were the other four.