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‘Spy Pilot’ son finally sees father’s reputation restored

  • By Rebecca Leftwich
  • |
  • May. 20, 2022 - 6:09 PM

‘Spy Pilot’ son finally sees father’s reputation restored

Rebecca Leftwich / The Newnan Times-Herald

Co-authors Keith Dunnavant, left, and Gary Powers Jr., right, discuss the details behind their book “Spy Pilot.” The book chronicles the true story of the Cold War’s infamous U-2 Incident in 1960.

The only dollar Gary Powers ever threw away haunted him for the rest of his life.

His son, Gary Powers Jr., never had a chance to ask his father why he didn’t use the poison-tipped needle hidden inside the CIA-issued silver dollar, which the U-2 pilot threw away when he crashed during a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union in 1960.

Suicide was optional for CIA agents, and rumors swirled for years that Powers – whose capture and espionage conviction in the Soviet Union was at the center of the Cold War’s now-infamous U-2 Incident – was a traitor who had chosen to betray his country rather than choose an “honorable” death.

It wasn’t until long after Powers’ death and the end of the Cold War, when documentation was declassified, that the full truth was revealed. Powers Jr. has been on a mission to tell his father’s story, teaming up with Newnan author Keith Dunnavant to write “Spy Pilot.”

The pair kicked off the reboot of Newnan High School’s History Speakers Series last week, speaking at the Wadsworth Auditorium about their book and Powers’ story – including the one question Powers Jr. may never be able to answer.

“So my dad is parachuting down to the ground,” Powers Jr. said. “He takes the coin out of his pocket and goes, ‘This is a really bad place to hide something. The first souvenir that a Russian is going to want is an American silver dollar.”

He took out the sheathed needle and threw away the dollar, concealing the needle in his flight suit pocket in case he had a chance to use it in an escape. Because he didn’t want a murder charge on top of an espionage charge, he warned his captors about the poison when they discovered the needle.

Misinformation and ‘fake news’

Powers Jr. said misinformation and “fake news” abounded.

“They said he defected, he landed the plane, he spilled his guts and told the Soviets everything he knew,” he said. “They said he was ordered to kill himself and that he disobeyed those orders.”

The truth, Powers Jr. said, was that pilots were given the option of taking the suicide device with them on missions.

“It was explained that if you're caught, you will be tortured, so here is a way to alleviate the pain and suffering,” he said. “So my father’s reputation was tarnished, because some people thought he should have killed himself as opposed to allowing himself to be interrogated or subjected to trial in the Soviet Union.”

While Powers Jr. said he suspects suicide was never an option for his father because of his religious upbringing, Powers’ death in 1977 not only prevented his son from ever asking that question, but also robbed Powers of an opportunity to ever see his reputation eventually restored in the eyes of the nation that asked him to risk everything to protect it.

Convicted of espionage in a “show trial” and sentenced to 10 years in a Soviet prison, Powers was released in 1962 in exchange for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. The negotiations and exchange were chronicled in the 2015 Tom Hanks movie “Bridge of Spies,” but Powers didn’t exactly get a happily-ever-after upon his return to the U.S.

His troubled marriage ended in a heavily publicized divorce by trial, and his reputation took some hard hits amid speculation about what actually went on during his imprisonment. Though he was publicly cleared of any wrongdoing by both the CIA and a Senate Armed Services Select Committee – which even commended him for being “courageous” – Powers couldn’t fully shed the traitor label.

Powers’ 1970 memoir, “Operation Overflight,” did little to curb the rumors. Instead, it reportedly got him fired as a test pilot for Lockheed.

Delving into spy-ish ways

He went to work as a helicopter pilot for a Los Angeles TV station, where he was nicknamed “Spy in the Sky” as he reported on news, traffic and weather. Powers was killed in a work-related helicopter crash in 1977.

Powers Jr., the product of his father’s second marriage, was 12 at the time. Known simply as “the kid whose dad was a spy,” he began acting out – sometimes in spy-ish ways.

“What do spies do? Well, they break into things. They steal things,” Powers Jr. said. “And so I got very good at picking locks with toothpicks and paper clips. I would run the streets at night. I would sneak out at 2 in the morning, get back at 6 and sleep for an hour, then go to school. I got suspended. I tried drugs.

“Thank goodness I didn’t get caught, or I probably wouldn’t be here right now,” he added. “I wouldn’t be in a Russian prison, but L.A. prisons are no good either. I’m not proud about it. But am I ashamed of it? No. It’s what I was doing to learn about my father.”

Powers Jr. said he “got himself together” after high school and began to come out of his shell in college. After working his way to a degree in philosophy from Cal State Los Angeles doing construction and other part time jobs – “rich and famous don’t always go together,” he said – and a stint at a California ski resort, he moved to Virginia to get to know his father’s family.

He earned a masters degree in public administration/nonprofit management, all the while learning more about his roots. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and in 1990, he had an opportunity to visit the Soviet Union for the first time – under tightly controlled conditions that did not allow him an opportunity to see his father’s U-2, which he knew to be on display at a Moscow museum.

In 1997, however, on a “spy tour” organized by retired agents from agencies like the CIA, the FBI and the KGB, he was taken to the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow, where he was able to see and touch the wreckage.

“The Russians picked up capitalism really quick,” he said. “If you had American dollars to spend on a tour, you could go to all these various, unique and interesting places.”

Continuing animosity

One thing that remained unchanged was the continued animosity toward his father. Powers Jr. had made a sustained, years-long effort to get Powers the Distinguished Flying Cross, which the Air Force denied him until declassified documents finally proved he had earned the distinction.

Powers Jr. made a call to the Air Force’s liaison to the CIA, who was to help secure the promised medal.

“Before I could say anything, he says, ‘Oh, hi Gary. You must be calling about the unveiling of the U-2 tomorrow at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum,’” he said. “My mom overhears the conversation and she is livid. Seems that all the U-2 community was invited except the family of the most famous U-2 pilot in the world.”

His mom, Sue, “knew how to make a nickel last,” but she splurged on tickets for Powers Jr. and his sister for a red-eye flight to Washington, D.C., where they crashed the event.

“They didn’t even tell my mom it was happening,” he said. “So we get up there, and someone said, ‘Where’s your mom?’ I look at my sister and go, ‘She couldn’t make it on such short notice.’ Where I came up with that, I don’t know, but it was the right thing to say at the right time.”

A reputation restored, finally

Powers Jr. continued to fight through the decades of misinformation and governmental obfuscation. Declassified documents, oral histories, travel and primary source materials like his father’s letters home during his imprisonment – returned to him by a woman whose father bid on and won the contents of a storage unit abandoned by Powers’ first wife – have helped him to know his father better.

Well enough to be able to finally quash the lingering rumors, in fact. And finally, the rest of the world started catching up. After 40 years, Powers was officially declared a POW in 2000, complete with a presentation to his family.

“It goes to show it’s never too late to set the record straight,” Powers Jr. said. “Now we thought it was said and done, Dad’s got the medal, his reputation’s intact.”

But then the Air Force came calling.

“The Air Force says, ‘Hey, we want to set things straight as well,’” Powers Jr. said.

Powers had been authorized for a posthumous Silver Star – awarded for “gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States” – which was presented to his family by General Norton A. Schwartz in 2012.

“We’re humbled,” Powers Jr. said. “We’re grateful to our nation for helping set the record straight.”

In “Spy Pilot,” he and Dunnavant are finally able to provide an accurate portrayal of Powers and his involvement in the U-2 Incident – something that even Powers himself was not able to do before his death, as he wrote his memoir at the height of the Cold War.

It was only possible to tell that story of redemption because of the intense, decades-long journey of Powers Jr., Dunnavant said.

“This is a really great American story because, you know, as a country we make mistakes,” he said. “But in the end, most of the time, we’ll get it right. And thanks to this man’s diligence, seeking the truth, seeking peace and seeking closure – he found that measure of closure in proving that his father was not a traitor. He was a hero.”