When Gary Powers Jr. heard famed director Steven Spielberg was working on a Cold War drama based on a prisoner exchange that involved his father, a U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Republic in 1960, he was worried.
Would the movie portray the international incident in an accurate light? Powers wondered. He had spent 30 years researching his father’s story with plans to write a book. He intended to set the record straight and dispel the many lies circulating about the incident — that the pilot was a traitor who had defected or that he “spilled his guts” about the top-secret plane.
The challenge was how to contact the Hollywood heavyweight to express the family’s concerns.
“My first thought was, ‘How do I get in touch with Steven Spielberg?’”
Powers turned to the internet to find people associated with Spielberg and their email addresses, sending out unsolicited communications. He wanted to get in touch, Powers wrote, regarding misinformation that would paint his father in a negative light. It worked. He was contacted by the movie’s producer. After they talked, Powers accepted an invitation to be a technical consultant on the film.
For those who haven’t seen the 2015 thriller “Bridge of Spies,” the movie is about James Donovan, a New York insurance lawyer who brokered the 1962 exchange between KGB spy Rudolph Abel and Francis Gary Powers on the Glienicke Bridge in East Germany. Tom Hanks portrays Donovan.
“While many things have been embellished, the big picture is historically accurate,” Powers said of the movie, which is based on Donovan’s book, “Strangers on a Bridge,” and his father’s autobiography “Operation Overflight.”
Powers’ father was a former Air Force fighter pilot recruited by the CIA to fly the U-2. The distinctive aircraft is a high-altitude reconnaissance plane with a 3,000-mile range used by the government to gather intelligence. It took its first flight in 1955 and is still in use today by the military.
Twelve years old when his father died in a 1977 helicopter accident in southern California, Powers Jr. didn’t know much about the U-2 incident. As he got older, people started asking him questions regarding the controversial incident. “I became curious in college and decided to find the truth. There was a lot of misinformation out there. It wasn’t to vindicate my father. I just wanted answers,” he recalled.
“When dad was shot down, it was the middle of the Cold War,” Powers said. “It was easier to blame the pilot than admit publicly that America was lagging behind the Soviets in missile technology.”
During his decades of research, Powers talked to family members, CIA and Air Force officials and fellow pilots. He viewed declassified documents. “The more I learned, the more questions I had about the Cold War,” Powers said.
His extensive research prompted Powers to found a Cold War Museum at a former government security site called Vint Hill Farms in Warrenton, Virginia. The museum is filled with rare civil defense collectibles from the ’50s and ’60s when “duck and cover” drills during the school day were common, and fears of nuclear war between the two superpowers was real.
According to its mission statement, the museum is dedicated to education, preservation and research on the ideological and political confrontations between East and West from the end of World War II to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
He also lectures future generations about the time period. “Most of them think U-2 is an Irish rock band,” Powers quipped.
A Virginia Rotarian, Powers attended the Aug. 4 White Bear Rotary meeting at the invitation of Greg Bartz, who knows the author/historian through Rotary’s Russia-USA Inter-Country Committee. Powers was going to be in the area visiting relatives after attending the 2021 AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and agreed to be a guest speaker in White Bear Lake.
Powers told Rotary club members he wants people to know the Cold War was a “hot war. It was global,” he said. “People died during this conflict. I thought it important to honor Cold War veterans and preserve history.”
Experts say it’s likely a surface-to-air missile launched from the Soviet military base Powers was photographing exploded behind the U-2, damaging its tail and causing an inverted spin. The wings snapped off. Powers managed to crawl out of the cockpit, break free of his air hose and deploy his parachute at 15,000 feet. He told his captors he was doing weather research when his unarmed plane had a mechanical malfunction. The Soviets didn’t buy it. They claimed Powers confessed to being a spy, which wasn’t true, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
In 1995, his son was gifted a piece of the U-2 Powers flew. The wreckage remains in Russia.
Powers’ book, “Spy Pilot: Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 incident and a Controversial Cold War Legacy,” is available online through Amazon or at GaryPowers.com. Also available are “Letters from a Soviet Prison,” based on the pilot’s personal journal, and his 1970 autobiography.
His father was eventually exonerated, Powers said. In 2000, the U-2 pilot was posthumously awarded a POW medal and, in 2012, the Silver Star. “It took them 40 and 50 years, respectively, to squelch the misinformation and to honor dad as a hero to our country,” he noted. “It’s a reason I wrote the book, to set the record straight.”
As a side note, there are still conspiracy theories online about the incident: That the CIA sabotaged the mission to perpetuate the Cold War and that a Norwegian spy planted a bomb in the tail. His favorite, Powers said, is that the U-2 had an encounter with a UFO.