The pilot's son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., spoke to Sputnik about the criticism his father was met with at home, why he had not used a poisoned suicide pin that the CIA provided him with, and how the intelligence agency ended his career in military aviation before he eventually won the state's recognition.
Against Government, Not Citizens
"Let me start with something first. It is very important for me to relay to the Russian people. My father had no animosity towards the Russian people. My father was very pro-democracy and very anti-communist. But it was the government he was against, not the citizens", Gary Junior said.
Powers formed his impression of the Soviet people by communicating with those who surrounded him while in captivity — prison guards, nurses, and cleaners.
He died in a crash in 1977 while piloting a helicopter for a news channel, leaving behind his wife and children. Gary Junior was 12 at the time. His father's death made him interested in what happened to him in the skies over Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg.
"I wanted to find out the altitude he was shot down at, which happened to be 70,500 feet. I wanted to find out if it was a shoot-down by a missile, or a flameout, or sabotage. It was a near-miss of a missile that brought him down. I wanted to find out what he did or did not do, if he followed orders or not. He followed orders to the T", he said.
Gary Junior said he wanted to restore his father's good name. The US Congress and the CIA eventually confirmed that he had acted honourably, but the media distorted his story, painting his ordeal in an unflattering light.
"'He defected', 'He landed the plane intact', 'He was seen drinking Russian vodka in a bar shortly after' — all the stuff", he said about the media coverage of that time.
The altitude he was shot down at mattered because of suspicion that he had descended to where Soviet missiles could reach him. The maximum height at which the U-2 spy plane could fly was declassified with the rest of the programme in 1998.
Gary Powers was repeatedly confronted over why he had not followed the CIA’s alleged order to commit suicide using a poisoned pin hidden in a silver dollar. He said he got rid of the dollar and kept the pin in his pocket in the hope that it would not be found. It eventually was. The pilot warned his jailors about its properties to avoid murder accusations.
"The KGB test the device on a dog, the dog dies in 20 seconds of asphyxiation. The poison shuts down the central nervous system", Gary Junior explained.
He argued that his father had never been ordered to take his own life in the event of capture by the Soviets.
"When the pilots were being recruited and trained to fly the U-2, the CIA liaison basically said at the briefing: if you are caught, you will be tortured. Here is a way to alleviate pain and suffering. There is no official order to take it. There is no official order to use it. It's up to you, at your discretion", he said.
The use of the pin was voluntary and he did not act against the order, Gary Junior said, adding that he was eight or nine years old when he asked his dad this question, "so I was given a very simple answer to it".
Declassified instructions that the CIA gave to pilots revealed they were recommended to tell the truth about the nature of the reconnaissance mission, but not about the technical characteristics of the plane and its equipment.
"He cooperates with them when he can or he has to because that gives him credibility. He is playing that cat and mouse game with his interrogators, trying to appear to cooperate, when in fact he is not assisting at all", he said.
Bomb Under Seat
He denied claims that there had been a suicide charge under the Lockheed U-2's seat. He said he had seen a reference to a "bomb" designed to take out the pilot when he was at the Central Museum of the Armed Forces in Moscow, where parts of the plane wreckage are on display. But the plaque next to his father’s seat was later removed.
"And I go 'a bomb? I've never heard this before'. I know that there is an explosive charge underneath that catapults the seat out. So, there is an explosive charge underneath. I never find out one way or the other if there is a bomb underneath. But when I go back again in a few years in 2000 that plaque had been removed from the ejection seat. So, it's my understanding and it's my summation that I do not believe there is a bomb under the seat", he said.
He suggested that the plaque could have been part of a propaganda campaign, but did not rule out that the CIA could have made some modifications to the plane.
"Maybe the CIA put a bomb under the seat. I don't know. I don't think it was. If it was, I think that plaque would still be there. But now that plaque has been removed, so that information must have been wrong", he added.
He denied other persistent myths that Powers had flown the plane lower on purpose or that the plane had lost power due to an engine fault, which was what the US government initially said. None of them were true, Gary Junior argued.
"It's the height of the Cold War. It was easier to blame the pilot than to admit that America was behind the Soviets, that the Soviets were more advanced than we were. That they had radar technology, missile technology that shot down our planes… That contributed to the misinformation", he explained.
No Physical Torture
Gary Powers was not subjected to physical torture while in Soviet custody, his son said, although the Soviets used sleep deprivation and other psychological tactics to force him to cooperate.
"Basically he told me that there was no physical torture, but there was a lot of mental anguish, the sleep deprivation, there were those types of psychological mind games trying to get him to cooperate", he said.
The CIA put this experience of Soviet detention to good use later, asking Powers to instruct intelligence agents on what questions they should expect during interrogation and how they should act.
Almost two years in a Soviet prison had a toll on the pilot, who was 30 when he was captured, although his son said that his character had not changed.
"I believe that his prison incarceration affected his religious and spiritual outlook… In prison, I believe, he lost that interest in religion… He wouldn't really go to church when he came back home", he admitted.
Powers returned home with digestive problems and had to take medicines because of the poor food in the prison. Gary Junior said his father would probably be even worse off if his incarceration had lasted longer.
"Had he stayed in the Soviet Union prison longer, I do believe his mental health would have deteriorated more and more", he said.
'Black Cloud' of Disfavour
Powers was met with a chorus of criticism when he came back to the United States after a prisoner swap in Berlin in February 1962. He wanted to serve out the remaining eight years until retirement with the Air Force, but fell out of favour with both the military and the CIA. He eventually got a job as a test pilot for the aerospace firm Lockheed.
"He was upset at the government for how he was treated. He did everything he was supposed to do, yet he had a black cloud that hung over him. The CIA could have helped repair his reputation then, but it was the height of the Cold War. If they came out and supported him, and showed that he did what he was supposed to do, then their secrets would be blown", his son suggested.
But this was not the last he had seen of the CIA. He missed out on a signing bonus of $100,000 for a book about his ordeal after the intelligence agency asked to delay its publication for several more years.
The CIA answered Powers' repeated requests to allow the book to be published only in 1969, but not before it was submitted for review by a special committee. Powers was fired from his job with Lockheed soon after it came out in 1970.
"So, dad gives the book to the CIA, and the same month it's put before review he is let go from Lockheed. That's not a coincidence", Gary Junior said.
It took Powers several more years to find a new job. A friend and owner of a large US company once told him: "Frank, they told me to wine you, and dine you, and not to hire you".
Book royalties and lecturing helped his family to stay afloat. Powers successfully sued the US Air Force and the CIA for a pension, and eventually found a job as a pilot and a reporter with a news channel.
Powers was long denied military honours even after his death because the U-2 overflight operation was assigned by President Dwight Eisenhower to a civilian agency to avoid starting a war with the Soviet Union. Gary Junior sought a prisoner of war medal for his father, but Powers was considered a civilian and his capture during the Cold War did not make him a war prisoner.
His recognition as a war hero was made possible after the military nature of the operation and the Air Force's role in it was revealed. He was promoted to the rank of captain, given a bonus for the additional years served, and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In 2012, Powers was posthumously given a Silver Star, the third-highest personal decoration of valour in combat awarded by the US Armed Forces.
"Everything just had to fall into place, which it did. But had I not done anything he still wouldn't have been recognised", his son said. "Dad never considered himself a hero. He always thought of himself as a pilot doing his duties, just he happened to get caught doing what he was ordered to do", he added.
Dad's Car and Other Legacies
Gary Junior said his investigation left no unknowns in his father's story. He said he still keeps many of his belongings, the rarest being the Mercedes that Powers owned before his unfortunate venture into Soviet territory.
"I was offered $10,000 for this car when I was in college. It's a Mercedes, it is a 60 Convertible. It is a very rare car… Since it's a rare car, to begin with, it's a valuable car. Since dad owned it when he was shot down, it was his car, that puts the value higher up. It's his car that he came home to. That is the most dear. Because he left it to me specifically", he said.
Keeping the car running is expensive, so he only takes it out on weekends to make sure that it works and is taken care of, "just five miles here, five miles there".
Another memorable piece handed down to him is the Rolex that his father wore on the day of the crash in 1977, when his helicopter ran out of fuel. He said the watch did not fit and had been sitting in a box all these years. He said he planned to auction it off in Switzerland.
He keeps 85 letters that Gary Powers wrote home from the Soviet prison, his clothes, documents, and many other memorabilia. But he is more pragmatic about them, and may put some on display at the Cold War Museum that he founded in 1996.
"What am I gonna do with them? I don't know yet. If everything works out and I retire, I will probably donate a bunch to museums, including the Cold War Museum. If I have a hard time and I don’t have enough money to retire comfortably the way I want to, I might sell them off. I don't know", he said.