U-2 pilot captured by USSR in 1960 to receive posthumous Silver Star
June 8, 2012 1 Comment
By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
An American Central Intelligence Agency pilot, who was criticized during the Cold War for allowing Soviet forces to capture him alive during the 1960 U-2 incident, is to be posthumously awarded a military decoration for valor. Francis Gary Powers was one of several pilots who participated in Project HOMERUN, a joint effort by the CIA and the National Security Agency that surreptitiously gathered signals and photographic intelligence on Soviet military sites. The program, which has been described by some historians as one of the most successful intelligence projects in US history, relied on the U-2’s ability to fly beyond 70,000 feet over the Soviet Union, thus avoiding detection or attack by Soviet forces. But this impression was false; in reality, Soviet radars had been able to detect nearly every U-2 flight over Soviet territory. Eventually, on May 1, 1960, Soviet forces were able to shoot down one of the U-2 flights using a surface-to-air missile. Shortly after the USSR announced that an American plane had been shot down over Soviet territory, the US administration of President Dwight Eisenhower pretended that the plane was a NASA weather research aircraft that had “drifted into Soviet airspace” when the pilot had “lost consciousness”. At that point, however, Washington had no idea that the CIA pilot, Francis Gary Powers, had been captured alive by Soviet forces. This was later announced by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who scored a major diplomatic coup for the Soviets. Following his arrest, Powers spent nearly two years in a Moscow prison before being exchanged for Soviet KGB spy Rudolf Abel, who had been captured in the US in 1957. Recently declassified documents show that some CIA analysts had refused to believe that the USSR was capable of shooting down a U-2 aircraft, and thought that Powers had voluntarily defected to the Soviet Union. Following his release, the American pilot was heavily criticized by US defense and intelligence officials, who argued that he betrayed his country by allowing Soviet forces to capture him alive. Critics argued that Powers should have swallowed a Tylenol pill laced with cyanide, which had been supplied to him by the CIA with instructions that he should swallow it in case he was ever captured alive by Eastern Bloc forces. Powers’ family and friends, however, have consistently maintained that he should be honored for withstanding harsh Soviet interrogation during his captivity. The effort to award him a posthumous medal was initiated by Powers’ son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., who noticed several years ago in declassified documents that his father had remained a commissioned officer in the US Air Force during his captivity in the USSR. Based on other Cold-War-era cases of US military pilots, who were captured by Soviet forces and were later awarded Silver Stars for enduring harsh interrogation during their captivity, Powers’ family lobbied for the posthumous decoration. The Silver Star will be awarded to Powers on June 15, at a special US Department of Defense ceremony in Arlington, VA.