U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who became a symbol of the Cold War after being shot down while flying a mission over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960, will be posthumously awarded the Silver Star by the Pentagon in a ceremony next week.
Powers spent 21 months in a prison in Moscow after the plane he was flying on a CIA mission was hit by an anti-aircraft missile. He survived his ordeal in Moscow only to be fatally injured in a helicopter accident in August 1977 in Los Angeles, where he was working as an airborne traffic reporter.
The CIA routinely used civilian pilots to fly spy missions over the Soviet Union, and it was thought that the U-2, which can reach an altitude above 70,000 feet, would be out of range of surface-to-air missile and intercepting fighter aircraft.
But information declassified in 2000 shows that Powers had been an active duty commissioned officer when he was shot down, not a civilian flying for the CIA, and that he remained on active duty during the time of his imprisonment. He was discharged as a captain from the black reconnaissance program, though he never revealed to his family that he had been anything other than a civilian. His active duty status at the time of his capture make him eligible for the military award, which had been bestowed on other pilots in similar circumstances. Powers' son Gary Powers Jr. inquired about the possibility to the Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records, which determined that Powers could be posthumously awarded the Silver Star for "exceptional loyalty" during harsh interrogation.
Powers Jr. is the founder of the Cold War museum in Vint Hill, VA. (Imaages: Top, U-2 file photo. Bottom, Gary Powers on trial in Moscow.)