Gary Powers Jr. and the “Bridge of Spies”
As you drive down the mountain on RT23 from the Virginia border in south west Virginia, a part of the state that most people around the Washington DC area don’t even know exists, you go through the small town of Pound. This is another long forgotten town buried in the Appalachian Mountains, in a largely unknown part of America. You could not see anything significant except for a single handmade wooden sign. I don’t know who made it or when. I drove by it a few times before I noticed it in 2007 traveling from Logan, WV to Kingsport TN. It proudly announces Pound’s favorite son and most distinguished former resident; “Hometown Francis Gary Powers U-2 Pilot”.
I recently had the opportunity to watch the new Steven Spielberg film “Bridge of Spies” starring Tom Hanks, which about the process of trading Francis Gary Powers for Russian spy Rudolph Abel after the U-2 Incident in 1960. The title is a reference to the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Germany where this spy exchange (as well as others to follow) actually took place.
On May 1, 1960, a U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, the Pilot, Francis Gary Powers, bailed out; was captured and sentenced to prison for 10 years. Rudolph Abel was a Soviet spy arrested in New York City, convicted of espionage, and sentenced to 30 years in Federal Prison.
Tom Hanks played James Donovan, a lawyer who negotiates the exchange of the two spies. If you watch the movie’s advertising, you would think Donovan was simply an insurance lawyer picked virtually at random to work out the deal. That’s far from the truth, there is a mention in the movie that Donovan was a Prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, and his background stops there. James Donovan was much more. He was a Naval Officer in WWII, and from 1943 to 1945 was General Counsel for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. He wasn’t chosen because he was simply an accomplished lawyer, but he was one of the “inner circle”. There were few people who could do this deal and James Donovan was at the top of the list.
Donovan was the lawyer that defended Abel against espionage charges. He was expected to put up a weak defense, but made a maximum effort and did his job well. Still in the end Abel was convicted. The public wanted Abel electrocuted like the Rosenbergs, who were two prior Soviet atomic spies. Donovan convinces the Judge to not execute Abel, arguing that he may be needed in the future if they catch one of our spies. He was right and less than five years later Abel was traded for Powers (as well as a lesser known American student, Frederick Pryor).
While the movie is about Donovan, Francis Gary Powers is really the center piece of this tale, not the centerpiece of the movie. Powers was given a far from warm reception on his return to America. While we have a great national “support the troops” attitude today, in the early 1960s Powers was considered by some of the public as a traitor. That attitude was far from the truth based on the facts. Gary Powers did his job, flew his flight plan, and was shot down by a volley of Soviet missiles (which I understand from reading other sources also shot down one other Russian fighter). He was far from an easy target, he bailed out and was captured by the Russians. He was extensively interrogated and never revealed any secrets. He did what he was supposed to do. Of course at the height of the cold war with limited media coverage (no internet back then), and all aspects of the case classified, Power’s side of the story never really came out until 10 years later.
He went to work for Lockheed as a test pilot from 1963 to 1970. He was let go after his book “Operation Overflight” was published, because it was critical of the CIA. He went to work flying airplanes and helicopters in the Los Angeles area for radio and TV news stations. He ultimately perished in a helicopter crash, resulting from an unreliable fuel gauge, causing him to run out of gas. During the autorotation he tried to avoid children and what should have been a good autorotation turned into a disaster. Powers was only 47 years old, 2 weeks shy of his 48th birthday.
Eventually, medals, commendations, and decorations were forthcoming. The CIA awarded all U-2 pilots the Intelligence Star in 1962, but postponed giving it to Powers until 1965 for political reasons. In 2000, he was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the National Defense Service Medal. At that time the CIA also awarded him the “Director’s Medal” for “extreme fidelity and extraordinary courage in the line of duty”. In 2012 he was awarded a Silver Star by the USAF for “demonstrating ‘exceptional loyalty’ while enduring harsh interrogation in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow for almost two years”. He looks like a very distinguished hero to me…..
After watching the movie, I wondered about how it was made and what went into it behind the scenes. Since I just happen to know Francis Gary Power’s son Gary Powers Jr. I contacted him to get his thoughts on the film, learn about his contributions and some more about his father.
Mark: How did you learn about the film and were you concerned about how they would portray your father?
Gary: In the spring of 2014 I heard rumors that Spielberg was considering making a film on James Donovan and the spy exchange but did not give it much thought. Then in June 2014 I read in the Hollywood Reporter that Spielberg had selected to do this movie. My thought at the time was how on earth do you get in touch with Steven Spielberg? I called some friends in LA but they were unable to make a connection so I did a Google search, found five or six names and email addresses of people who had worked with Spielberg, and sent out an email to them asking if they could help with an introduction. One of the people I emailed responded to me and introduced me to Kristie Macosko Krieger who in turn put me in touch with Marc Platt. I felt it was necessary to convey the Powers family’s concerns that if the movie was based on the misinformation from the 1960s my father would be portrayed in a negative light. If the movie was based on information from FOIA requests and declassification conferences that happened over the past 55 years, then my father would be portrayed as a hero to our country.
Mark: How did you finally get in touch with the production company?
Gary: On or about July 14, 2014 I was finally able to talk with the movie producer Marc Platt by telephone while I was driving across the country. I relayed to him the Powers family’s concerns and had a nice conversation with him about the movie. The next day I was contacted by The Cold War Museum saying that a representative from DreamWorks was trying to get in touch with me that same day. It turns out that as I was trying to get in touch with Marc Platt, one of his staff was trying to get in touch with me at the same time. It was nice to know that they were reaching out to me at the same time I was reaching out to them. As a result of talking with Marc Platt, I was hired on as a technical consultant for the movie.
Mark: What were your duties as a technical consultant for the movie?
Gary: I was hired on as a technical consultant for and was an extra in the movie. I visited the set in New York City and at Beale AFB in CA where I was an extra in some of the U-2 pilot briefing scenes. Prior to visiting Beale, I licensed family photographs and audio tapes of my father recounting his experiences so that the actor who portrayed my father could hear his first hand account of what took place. I also answered a variety of questions and put them in touch with the FBI agent who captured Rudolph Abel and the retired CIA security officer who identified my father on the bridge.
Mark: So tell me about seeing the film?
Gary: I attended the premier of the film in New York on Sunday Oct 4 with my wife, sister, and her fiancée. The film was shown as part of the 53rd annual New York Film Festival. Many of the cast and film crew were in attendance including Steven Spielberg, Tom, Hanks, Alan Alda, and Austin Stowell, the actor who portrayed my father. In addition, James Donovan’s children and one grandchild were in attendance. During the opening remarks, Spielberg acknowledged my participation as a technical consultant on the film and his high regards for my father.
Mark: What was your overall impression of the film?
Gary: Overall I thought that the movie was well done and captures the feelings that some Americans felt towards my father, Abel, and Donovan during that time period. Yes, some of the details were modified for dramatic effect so there are some discrepancies. Fortunately, because of FOIA requests and declassification conferences hosted by the CIA and USAF over the past 55 years, the misinformation surrounding the U-2 Incident and my father’s involvement have been put to rest. He was at his assigned altitude of 70,500 feet when he was shot down. Upon capture he followed orders, did not divulge any classified information to the Soviets, and refused to denounce the United States of America. This is reflected at the end of the movie and reinforces my belief that it is never too late to set the record straight.
Mark: What have you done to set the record straight about your father?
Gary: It has been a life-long effort to set the record straight. I feel that I accomplished what I set out to do when in June 2012 my father was posthumously awarded the Silver Star by the USAF. A Spielberg movie that portrays my father was an added bonus. We would like to get a postage stamp for my father, I feel that it would be appropriate but have learned that the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee does not accept unsolicited recommendations so one day I hope that internally they decided on their own that my father is worthy of the honor to be issued a postage stamp as a hero to our country.
Mark: What about the conspiracy theories surrounding your father?
Gary: Unfortunately, because of the vast amounts of misinformation, rumors, speculation, and outright lies that continued to be circulated via the Internet by people who are ignorant of and/or who blatantly disregard the facts that have surfaced over the past 55 years; there will continue to be fallacies and conspiracy theories associated with my father and the U-2 Incident. The Powers family takes pride in knowing that the official record of my father is that of a hero to our country, which we knew all along.
Mark: What did your father want to do after he returned to the USA? Do you recall Pound VA?
Gary: He wanted to keep flying which is why he moved to LA, CA after his return home so that he could be a test pilot of Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, CA. In regards to his home in Pound, VA, I have vivid memories of traveling with him to Pound during my childhood. He had very strong connections to the area and three of his five sisters still live in Pound and or Wise, VA.
Mark: I understand there is a movement to rename the Lonesome Pine Airport Terminal in nearby Wise VA after your father, are you involved in that?
Gary: I am fully supportive of the efforts underway to rename the Lonesome Pine Airport terminal after my father and hope to be able to loan a few items for display in the near future. I think that it is a great honor and I am very humbled to know that there are people in that area who initiated this effort. I am sure that my father would also fell honored to know that his name will be linked to an aviation terminal near where he grew up.
Mark: I understand you too are involved with educating the public about the Cold War?
Gary: There is an ongoing effort to educate future generations about the Cold War, which is why I founded The Cold War Museum (www.coldwar.org) in 1996 to honor Cold War veterans, preserve Cold War history, and educate future generations about this time period.
Mark: Can you tell us about the Cold War Museum?
Gary: The Cold War Museum located at Vint Hill Virginia and opened to the public on November 11, 2011. It continues to fulfill its mission to educate students about this time period. The museum is always on the look out for individuals, companies, and foundations that would like to assist with their ongoing efforts. There is also a mobile U-2 Incident exhibit continues to travel internationally and provides visitors with information on the museum and my father. The exhibit is currently at the Sloan Longway Museum in Flint,Michigan thru January 2016. http://sloanlongway.org/sloan-museum/exhibits-and-galleries/top-secret-license-to-spy.
Mark: Can you briefly explain the significance of the U-2 incident to a generation who may not have even heard of it?
Gary: I would have to write a book which I am in the process of doing to answer this question
There is no doubt in my mind that Francis Gary Powers is a hero. James Donovan was an amazing and accomplished man with a wide variety of skills. Both men have served their country in a time where you needed people like them to step up to the plate to keep us free. “Bridge of Spies” is an exceptional movie and well worth watching. I’ve talked to Gary Powers and there is a new interesting book that he’s working on. No date has been picked to publish it. We will let you know when it happens.
I would like to thank Gary Powers Jr. for his contributions to this story, he can be contacted through www.GaryPowers.Com.
The Cold War Museum can be found at http://www.coldwar.org/.
You can contact the author Mark Hrutkay at TNMark1@GMail.Com.