Setting the record straight about my father.
On May 1, 1960, my father was shot down while flying a U-2 over the Soviet Union. After the SAM-2 missile exploded near the fragile tail section of his aircraft, everything appeared to be in order until the plane nosed down and didn’t respond to the controls. A few seconds passed before my father realized that the plane had been severely damaged and he was at the mercy of the Lord. He thought about activating the destruct mechanism but first had to prepare himself to use the ejection seat.
However, when my dad was ready to eject, he realized he had been thrown forward in his seat in such a way that if he used the ejection mechanism, both his legs would be severed. He decided to release the canopy enclosing the cockpit and attempt to crawl out. When the canopy was clear, he undid his seat belt and was immediately propelled up over the front of the cockpit. Before he could reach the destruct mechanism, he was thrown clear of the plane.
I’ve read numerous accounts of what “allegedly” happened to my father. Some say that he landed the plane and was seen drinking Russian vodka in a bar near the airport. Still others indicate sabotage. The most recent account indicates that a Russian fighter pilot brought down the U-2. All these stories have been proved false.
When my father returned home in February 1962, he was extensively debriefed and appeared in an open hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The committee exonerated him of any wrongdoing, but the CIA wouldn’t permit him to write his account of the incident until many years later. There were many gaps between what the government knew and what it told the public.
Some Americans questioned my father’s conduct and loyalty. They especially criticized him for not “following orders” and killing himself. In fact, there had never been any such orders. To the contrary, the CIA’s instructions on capture were as follows: “If capture appears imminent, pilots should surrender without resistance and adopt a cooperative attitude toward their captors.”
Others claimed he had given out vital information concerning the aircraft. The opposite was true. My father gave no vital information, nor did he ever reveal the names of any pilots. Again, the CIA instructions were, and I quote: “Pilots are perfectly free to tell the full truth about their mission with the exception of certain spécifications about the aircraft.”
Despite the Senate committee’s clearance, despite the fact that he was awarded the CIA’s highest honor—its Intelligence Star for valor—and the Air Force’s Distinguished Flying Cross, my father, to borrow from John Le Carré, was still a spy left out in the cold, until May 1, 2000. On that day he was posthumously awarded the POW Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, and the CIA’s Director’s Medal for “extraordinary fidelity and essential service.” These were presented to the Powers family during a formal U.S. Air Force and CIA ceremony. Which just goes to show that it is never too late to set the record straight.