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Learning History Through His Dad’s Past in Flight: An Interview with Gary Powers

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Guest post by Kathleen Conway

The debris of the shot-down U-2 flown by Gary Powers, exhibited at the Central Museum of the Armed Forces in Moscow. Photo: Alan Wilson, Creative Commons

It sounds like the plot of a Tom Clancy novel. A CIA agent, flying a spy plane over hostile territory, is shot down, captured, imprisoned, and eventually released in exchange for an enemy spy being held in the United States. But this isn’t fiction. It’s an actual event that took place during the Cold War. The pilot’s name was Gary Powers, and his son, also Gary, says his father’s story became the inspiration for his own love of history…and changed the course of his life.

 TOS: Tell us about your dad’s place in history.  

 Gary: My father was a CIA U-2 pilot, who was flying over the Soviet Union during the 1950s, taking photographs of missile bases, installations, and industrial complexes, (to determine) the strengths and the weaknesses of our enemies. On May 1, 1960, after years of successful missions, my father was shot down by the Soviets, captured, interrogated, put on trial, sentenced to ten years in prison, and exchanged for a Soviet spy. There was a recent movie, Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks as the attorney who represented the Soviet spy Rudolph Abel, who was captured in America in the late fifties. Abel was exchanged for my father at the Glienicke Bridge in Potsdam, Germany, on February 10, 1962. And Bridge of Spies is a fairly good portrayal.

 TOS: What happened when your dad returned home?

 Gary: After my father was shot down, there was a lot of misinformation in the press. Editorials were written that said my father had defected, that he had landed the plane intact, that he had told the Soviets everything he knew, or that he hadn’t followed orders and committed suicide, all of which were mistruths. During a Senate select committee hearing on March 6, 1962, he was exonerated of any wrongdoing. But the misinformation continued to circulate. My father didn’t really care. He’s often quoted as saying he’d do the same thing again, given the same set of circumstances.

When I was doing research, I’d pull up those dates of May 1st and February 10th and find misinformation. But, in 1998, there was a declassification conference, hosted by the Air Force and the CIA, that helped set the record straight in regard to my father’s conduct. And, in May 2000, the fortieth anniversary of the U-2 Incident, Dad was posthumously awarded the POW Medal, a Distinguished Flying Cross, and the CIA Director’s Medal for extreme fidelity and courage in the line of duty. And as recently as June 2012, Dad was posthumously awarded by the Air Force with a Silver Star. So, unless you’re looking for more recent information on the U-2 Incident, oftentimes the truth will be overlooked.

 TOS: Is this why you started The Cold War Museum?

 Gary: I did not set out to start a Cold War Museum. I did not set out to vindicate my father. What I set out to do was to find out the truth in order to answer questions. So I started talking to family members, CIA officials, Air Force officials, and people who flew with my father. I realized I had to understand more about the Cold War to understand the U-2 Incident. As a result of my research, I discovered hundreds of thousands of other men and women who fought, sacrificed, and died during the Cold War, but didn’t have any recognition.

 I would give lectures to high school students, who thought I was there to talk about the music band "U2." So we decided to found The Cold War Museum to honor Cold War veterans, preserve Cold War history, and educate kids. And, inadvertently, I was able to help set the record straight in regard to my dad’s performance. I found out that it was not sabotage of the airplane; it was not pilot error; that Dad did not defect, that he followed orders; he was never ordered to commit suicide; he did not collaborate with the enemy; and he did not give the Russians any information that they couldn’t get out of the press. So as a result of my research to find out more about my father, I ended up founding the museum, vindicating my father, and being a consultant on Bridge of Spies.

 TOS: What are your memories of your father?

 Gary: I was twelve when he died. I remember fishing, hiking, and biking with my dad. I have vivid memories of family life. My perception was just, this is Dad. I knew he was shot down and imprisoned. So my perception was that everybody’s dad had been through something like this. But that perception changed on August 1, 1977, when Dad passed away in a helicopter crash while working for NBC. That’s when I realized not everybody’s dad gets buried at Arlington Cemetery, or is on the front page of the newspaper, or all this other stuff from the history books. And then it was too late to ask him questions. Throughout high school, I was introverted and didn’t really understand everything. In college, I started to do research.

 TOS: How did you find items for the museum?

 Gary: Between 1995 and 2010 or so, we were collecting artifacts from Cold War veterans, from auction houses, and eBay, but most of the items we’ve gotten have been from service members from Russia and America and Germany—people who have retired or downsized, who didn’t know what to do with the stuff they collected, so it ended up in our archives.

 TOS: Why is studying history so important?

 Gary: History is not just dates. History is fluid. World War I leads into World War II, leads into the Cold War, leads into the War on Terror. There’s a definite chain of events that brought us to this point. For example, in 1979, the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan. The CIA goes in to help fight against the Soviets. And they arm and train a group of rebels to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The leader of that group was Osama Bin Laden. Fast forward to 2001, the 9/11 attacks, Al Qaeda, the War on Terror—all of this is a direct result of our Cold War involvement in Afghanistan. So this is how history is fluid. Same thing with

World War II to the Cold War. Even before World War II ended, tensions between the Soviets and Americans started—the Tehran conference, the Potsdam Agreement, the Marshall Plan, and Berlin Airlift—all these origins of the Cold War helped set us on that path of a 46-year conflict with the Soviet Union. And at the end of World War I, America was isolationist. After World War II, that mentality changed, knowing that we had to be involved around the world to prevent a World War III and/or the spread of Communism. So it all ties in. It’s not just dates or historic facts. It’s a progression along a timeline that leads to the present day.

 TOS: Anything else you’d like to share?

 Gary: I have a book out called Letters from a Soviet Prison. It is the personal correspondence to and from my father in jail and his journal he kept while in prison. I did not edit the letters or the journal; I wrote commentary around them. That’s a good resource for people who want to know about the U-2 Incident and what it’s like to be in a Soviet prison. If homeschoolers are looking for a resource for a Cold War report, www.coldwar.org is full of useful information. You can visit the museum in Virginia (www.coldwar.org/museum/physical_location.asp), about 45 minutes from Washington, DC. We’ve helped students win national, statewide, and regional history competitions. Or I can come to you. If any homeschoolers want to have me speak, contact me directly at gpowersjr@coldwar.org.

 Kathleen Conway is a freelance editor for The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Virginia and Master of Arts in Mass Communication from the University of Georgia. She spent 20 years as a writer, producer, and reporter for CNN and HLN (formerly Headline News). She’s married to KC, has two stepdaughters, Katie, 22, and Grace, 17, and a 7-year-old son named Luke. They live in Lilburn, Georgia, outside of Atlanta.

 Francis Gary Powers, Jr. is the son of U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers. He recently consulted for a Steven Spielberg Cold War thriller, Bridge of Spies about the 1962 spy exchange between his father and Rudolph Abel. Gary is the Chairman Emeritus of The Cold War Museum, which he founded in 1996 to honor Cold War veterans and educate future generations about Cold War history. As Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee for the Cold War Theme Study, he works with the National Park Service to identify historic Cold War sites for preservation. Gary holds a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from California State University and a master’s degree in public administration, and certification in Non-profit Management from George Mason University. He lectures internationally and appears regularly on the History, Discovery, and A&E Channels. He is married and has one son.

 Copyright 2018, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms. Read The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com, or download the free reader apps at www.TOSApps.com for mobile devices. Read the STORY of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine and how it came to be.

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