An American Spy on Soviet Soil: The True Story of Francis Gary Powers

Born August 17, 1929, Francis Gary Powers was an American spy plane pilot who crash-landed while flying in Soviet Union airspace. At the moment in history when tensions between the US and the Soviet Union were at an all-time high due to the Cold War, Powers’ capture and subsequent interrogation were highly damaging to the already frayed relationship between the two nations. From the moment of his capture to his eventual arrival back on American soil and his untimely death at the age of 47, Powers’ story is a genuinely fascinating one.

Early Life and Aspirations

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(Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)

Born to a coal miner and a housewife, Francis was the only son of six children. His father, Oliver Winfield Powers, had seen and experienced the difficulties of life in the mines and wanted something better for his son. He urged Francis to become a doctor and enjoy a good life. Francis wouldn’t end up becoming a doctor, but he did study hard and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1950. From there, he joined up with the Air Force and rose through the ranks, eventually being recruited into the CIA, where he began training to fly Lockheed U-2 spy planes.

The U-2 Incident

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Russian People Viewing U-2 Spy Plane Wreckage. (Original Caption) This photo, officially released in Moscow, shows the Russian people viewing the wreckage of Turkey-based US U-2 reconnaissance plane shot down over Soviet territory May 1st. The pilot was identified as Francis Gary Powers, 30, of Albany, Georgia.

On May 1, 1960, Powers set off from an American base in Pakistan on a highly important mission; it was to be the United States’ first attempt to fly the entire length of the Soviet Union, taking various photographs and gathering intelligence along the way. The mission was seen as a risky one, and those risks proved to be very real when Powers’ aircraft was shot down by an S-75 Dvina missile. Powers ejected himself from the U-2 but didn’t have time to activate the aircraft’s self-destruct function. He was also equipped with a poisoned needle to commit suicide in case of capture but hoped he might be rescued, so he decided not to use it.

A Cover-Up Gone Wrong

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KGB Museum in Lubyanka Building, the former headquarters of the main security agency for the Soviet Union – KGB, in Moscow, Russia, on March 15th, 1990. Pictured: Francis Gary Powers equipment. (Photo by Wojtek Laski/Getty Images)

With the ongoing Cold War tensions between America and the Soviet Union, the Americans, at the time led by President Eisenhower, acted quickly to try and cover-up the truth. They believed that Powers had died and the plane had been destroyed, so invented a story that a ‘weather plane’ had crash-landed after the pilot passed out due to a lack of oxygen. Meanwhile, the Soviets, led by Premier Khrushchev, set a trap to embarrass their American counterparts. They revealed that a plane had indeed crash landed, but did not state that the pilot was alive and had been captured. The Americans continued with their ‘weather plane’ story until Khrushchev eventually revealed the truth, making the US look pretty foolish and humiliating Eisenhower.

Political Implications

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Francis Gary Powers, accused of espionage over Russia in his U 2 airplane, on trial in Moscow. On the extreme left, wearing spectacles, is the defense counsel, Grinev. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The timing of the U-2 incident couldn’t have been worse. A summit had been scheduled between the Soviets, America, Britain, and France. It was the first meeting of the big global powers for five years and seemed like an ideal time for tensions between the nations to finally cool off a little. In fact, before the U-2 incident, both Eisenhower and Khrushchev had shown willingness to make progress and try to work through their differences and conflicts. Unfortunately, the incident completely ruined any hope of reconciliation between the nations. Both leaders did still attend the summit, with Khrushchev lambasting the US while Eisenhower defended the spy missions and refused to apologize. Talks broke down very quickly, and the summit was seen as a total failure.

Powers’ Conviction

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The photograph was taken during the trial of Francis Gary Powers (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Francis Gary Powers had been captured and interrogated to learn about the purpose of his mission. Powers gave away some information while also trying to keep his fellow pilots safe and keep his country’s secrets, as he was trained to do. He was accused of espionage, a crime to which he pleaded guilty, and was given a three-year prison sentence and seven-year labor sentence. Powers was taken to Vladimir Central Prison, where he was set to be held for the first three years of his sentence. He was allowed to correspondent with his family through letters and managed to make some friends among his fellow prisoners.

A Fateful Exchange

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Soviet Intelligence Officer Rudolph Abel – exchanged for U-2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers. August 07, 1957. (Photo by William N. Jacobellis/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)

In the end, Powers would only serve a fraction of his total sentence. He was in prison from May of 1960 until February of 1962. A prisoner exchange was organized between the US and the Soviet Union. Powers was granted his freedom in exchange for the release of a KGB officer called Vilyam Fisher. Fisher, who had been going under the name Rudolf Abel in the US, was working as a spy for the Soviets. The prisoner exchange took place in Germany at the Glienicke Bridge, also known under the nickname ‘Bridge of Spies’ due to its frequent use as a prisoner exchange point.

Hero or Traitor?

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Francis Gary Powers holds a model of a U-2 spy plane as he testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Upon his return to the US, Powers received a decidedly mixed reception. Many people criticized his actions, calling him a coward for not using the CIA-issued poison to commit suicide before he was captured. He was also judged unfavorably for having allowed the plane to crash land without activating the self-destruct feature, allowing the Soviets to obtain valuable intelligence. However, some days later, a Senate committee stated that Powers was a “courageous, fine young American citizen” who had served his country well in severe conditions. Several senators acknowledged that Powers had found himself in a very tricky situation but had done his best to keep himself alive while also following orders and doing his nation proud.

A Tragic End

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Portrait of American aviator and former CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers (1929 – 1977) as he poses beside a plane, 1972. (Photo by Peter Davis/Getty Images)

In later life, Powers decided to apply his skills and training in a different line of work, becoming a helicopter pilot for a California news station. In August of 1977, Powers was flying his chopper as part of a regular traffic report along with cameraman George Spears. Powers and Spears had been filming footage of brush fires in the Santa Barbara area and were heading back to base when they the aircraft ran out of fuel. The helicopter crashed, killing both men. It was later revealed that Powers could potentially have landed the helicopter safely but saw some children playing in his chosen landing zone and didn’t want to risk hurting or killing them, so deviated and crashed.

Blockbuster Legacy

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BERLIN, GERMANY – NOVEMBER 16: In this photo provided by the German Government Press Office (BPA), German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to director Steven Spielberg (L) and actor Tom Hanks (R) on the movie set at Glienicke Bridge on November 28, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Guido Bergmann/ Bundesregierung via Getty Images)

The story of Powers’ crash, capture, and a subsequent prisoner exchange with Rudolf Abel was the subject of a Hollywood film directed by none other than Steven Spielberg. The 2015 release, Bridge of Spies, starred Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan, the lawyer who helped to negotiate the prisoner exchange. Austin Stowell was cast in the role of Francis Gary Powers, and the film was a commercial and critical hit, receiving fantastic reviews and grossing over $165 million at the box office, as well as earning six Academy Award nominations. English actor Mark Rylance won an Oscar for his portrayal of Rudolf Abel, and the film was commended for its accurate depiction of events and accurate description of Powers.

A Proud Son

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Grandchildren Lindsey Berry (4th L) and Trey Powers (2nd L) of U.S. Air Force Captain Francis Gary Powers, receive the Silver Star award from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz (L) as Captain Powers’ son Gary Powers (3rd L) and daughter Dee Powers (R) look on during a ceremony June 15, 2012 at the Hall of Heroes of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Captain Powers was awarded with the Silver Star posthumously for his ‘exceptional loyalty’ to the US while enduring harsh interrogation in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow for almost two years. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Powers left behind a daughter, Claudia Dee, and a son, Francis Gary Powers Jr. Powers Jr. has been an active advocate for his father in the decades since his passing, speaking with representatives from the CIA, FBI, and even the KGB in order to obtain the full truth behind his father’s story and prove beyond any reasonable doubt that he was a brave and kind man who served his country heroically. Powers Jr. was even involved with the production of Bridge of Spies, eager to ensure that his father was portrayed accurately, and was also given a cameo appearance in the movie. In helping to uncover the full story, Powers Jr. did his father proud and even contributed to him being awarded several military medals posthumously, including the Silver Star and CIA Director’s Medal.