50 Years After A Cold War Drama, A Silver Star

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When an experimental U.S. spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, the U.S. government quickly came up with elaborate cover stories.

"The plane [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev reported shot down inside Russian territory presumably is an American, single-engine jet, a U-2 reported missing on a flight along the Turkish-Russian border last Sunday," a broadcast at the time said. "The national space agency has been flying these planes, 10 of them, in many parts of the world, studying the upper atmosphere."

Of course, it was a CIA surveillance craft, not a NASA research plane. The U.S. assumed that no pilot could survive a crash from a plane that flew at 70,000 feet.

But Capt. Francis Gary Powers lived.

He endured months of interrogation, went through a Soviet show trial, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and served nearly two years before he was traded for a Soviet spy.

But instead of being celebrated as a hero, Powers came home with a shadow over him.

"There were reports that my father had defected," says Francis Gary Powers Jr., who has been fighting to restore his father's reputation for many years. Some claimed that Powers "had landed the plane intact, that he had spilled his guts and told the Soviets everything he knew, or that he hadn't followed orders and committed suicide."

In fact, the younger Powers says, U-2 pilots like Powers were given a poison pill — but only as an option to avoid torture, one punishment the Soviets did not visit upon him.

When Powers came home, some Cold War hawks wrote they wished he'd taken that pill — or just kept quiet, instead of apologizing to the Soviets in an effort to avoid a firing squad.

When Powers died at age 47 in 1977, in a helicopter crash in Santa Barbara, Calif., there were still question hovering over him from the U-2 episode.

On Friday, Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz tried to clear those up.

"Capt. Powers refused all attempts to glean from him sensitive information that would have proven harmful to the defense and security of the United States," Schwartz said

In a ceremony at the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes, Schwartz presented Francis Gary Powers posthumously with the Silver Star, the nation's third-highest combat award.

Actually, he gave it to the Powers grandchildren, 10-year-old Trey Powers and Lindsay Berry, who is 29.

The rehabilitation process has taken half a century. After he returned home, Powers said he felt he was an embarrassment to the government, because his capture exposed U.S. spying activities and upended an important summit meeting.

Many said that he should never have written Operation Overflight, a revealing account of his traumatic experience. Though Powers shared a lot — during his trial, and in his book — Air Force historian Dick Anderegg says, he carefully held back key information.

"Even when he told the story, he didn't say anything about the speed of the airplane, the maneuverability of the airplane, the range of the the airplane," Anderegg says.

U-2s still fly today. At the Pentagon ceremony, U-2 pilots in their green Air Force jumpsuits with Dragon Lady arm patches listened to the story of the man who nearly paid the ultimate price — and then fought to have the truth told about his mission.

But Gary Powers Jr. says his father knew that the full truth could never be told during the Cold War.

The son says he's not bitter it took the Air Force so long to give his father the Silver Star and that it's never too late to correct the record.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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