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Cold War U-2 pilot gets posthumous Silver Star

by Tech. Sgt. Richard A. Williams Jr.
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

6/16/2012 - WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- More than 50 years after his U-2 aircraft was shot down over the former Soviet Union, Capt. Francis Gary Powers posthumously received one of the military's highest decorations during a ceremony here at the Pentagon June 15.

Powers, who died in a helicopter crash in 1977, was awarded the Silver Star for heroism displayed while being held as a captive by the Soviets from May 1960 to February 1962. Although interrogated and harassed by Soviet Secret Police teams, he refused all attempts to give sensitive information or be exploited for propaganda purposes.

During the ceremony, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz presented the Silver Star to Powers' grandson, Francis Gary Powers III, and granddaughter Lindsey Berry before more than 100 family members, friends, service members and other well-wishers.

Established on July 19, 1932, the Silver Star is the third highest combat military decoration that can be awarded to a military member, for valor in the face of an enemy and extraordinary heroism.

Before presenting the decoration, Schwartz spoke of Powers' heroic actions during the Cold War, a period of political and military tension between the United States and the Soviet Union that began in the late 1940s and ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

"At the height of the Cold War, the nation called on extraordinary men like Captain Powers to undertake the most sensitive and dangerous missions," Schwartz said. "Captain Powers earned this Silver Star."

Powers enlisted in the Air Force in 1950 and trained as a photographer. He then entered a commissioning program to fly F-84 Thunderjet fighters in 1952.

In 1955, Powers joined the Joint U.S. Air Force-Central Intelligence Agency U-2 Reconnaissance Squadron. He flew his first intelligence gathering mission over the Soviet Union in 1956.

During an intelligence-gathering mission over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960, the Soviets fired 14 SA-2 surface-to-air missiles at his U-2. Though none hit Powers' aircraft directly, one of the missiles -- at the extreme limit of its range and radar tracking ability -- exploded behind the U-2, and the shock damaged the aircraft.

Powers bailed out of his stricken U-2 near Sverdlovsk and Plesetsk, and soon found himself in a Moscow prison where he was interrogated for 107 days and eventually spent 21 months.

"When I was growing up in Southern California, I knew that Dad had been shot down over the Soviet Union, imprisoned by the KGB and ultimately exchanged for a Soviet spy," his son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., said at the ceremony. "But as a kid growing up in this family, I thought everybody's dad had done this."

After hearing different stories about what happened to his father in the Soviet Union, Powers' son said he began doing his own research. His quest for the truth became easier when official information on the incident was declassified in 1998.

Thanks to this new information, which highlighted Powers' loyalty and heroism while being held as a prisoner, he was posthumously awarded the Prisoner of War Medal in May 2000. Powers has also been recognized for his actions by the CIA director and the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Schwartz said he was extremely honored to add the Silver Star to Powers' other recognition and express on behalf of all Airmen, past and present, the Air Force's gratitude to Powers and his family.

"We are very honored and humbled to be receiving this award on behalf of my dad," Powers' son said. "It is a very warm feeling to know that after 50 years, the record is being set straight, and Dad is being thanked for his accomplishments, his duty and his service to the country."

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