50 Years After A Cold War Drama, A Silver Star

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

IN: “The plane…
OUT: … the upper atmosphere.” (fade under and lose)>>

Of course, it was a CIA surveillance craft, not a NASA research plane. The US 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,” said Francis Gary Powers Jr., who has been fighting to restore his father’s reputation for many years.

IN: “That he had…
OUT: … and committed suicide.”>>

In fact, Gary Jr. says, U2 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 U2 episode.

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

IN: “Captain Powers refused all attempts…
OUT: … of the United States.”>>

In a ceremony at the Pentagon’s “Hall of Heroes,” Schwart 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, Captain Powers said he felt he was an embarrassment to the government, because his capture exposed US 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 alot — during his trial, and in his book — Air Force historian Dick Anderegg says, Powers was carefully holding key information back.

IN: “But even when he…
OUT: … of the airplane.”>>

U2’s still fly today. At the Pentagon ceremony, U2 pilots in their green Air Force jumpsuits and Dragon Lady patches on their arms 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 dad the Silver Star, and said it’s never too late to correct the record.

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