At a Pentagon ceremony today, the Air Force posthumously awarded the Silver Star to the family of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers who was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, a key event in the Cold War. The Silver Star is the third-highest military decoration for valor.
On May 1, 1960 the Air Force Captain was flying a U-2 reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union when his high altitude plane was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile.
The shoot down prompted an international crisis while Powers endured 107 days of intense interrogations and harassment at the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow.
He spent another two years in a Soviet prison before being exchanged for a Soviet spy in 1962. But because of the continued secrecy surrounding his flight he continued to be criticized during his lifetime for having let himself been captured by the Soviets.
Powers died in 1977 when he was killed in a helicopter crash while working as a traffic reporter for a Los Angeles television station.
According to the Silver Star citation read at today’s ceremony, “Captain Powers steadfastly refused all attempts to give sensitive defense information or be exploited for propaganda purposes.”
In presenting the award Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said, “Our nation’s Cold War victory owes to efforts of dedicated public service and service members like Gary Powers who made steady and incremental contributions that resulted…in a monumental outcome, and that was the dissolution of the Soviet Union.”
Schwartz presented the Silver Star to Powers’ grandchildren, Trey Powers, 9, and Lindsey Berry, 29.
“The Powers family is deeply grateful and deeply appreciative for the awarding of the Silver Star to my father,” said Gary Powers Jr., 47. “It goes to show that it’s never too late to set the record straight.”
It wasn’t until details of his mission were declassified in 1998 that a clearer picture of Powers’ mission emerged. Long believed to have been flying a mission for the CIA, it turned out Powers was flying a joint Air Force-CIA mission. That made the Air Force officer eligible to receive military medals for his mission and two years later, Powers was posthumously awarded the Prisoner of War medal.
Last year, Powers’ son read in a news article that two other Air Force pilots had been awarded the Silver Star for having endured interrogations at Lubyanka Prison after their reconnaissance plane was also shot down in 1960.
Powers asked the Air Force if those awards set a precedent for his father to receive the same award because of his experience at the same prison. In December, he was told that his father was eligible and would be awarded the Silver Star in 2012.
On hand for today’s ceremony was 82 year old Carl Overstreet, one of the first U-2 pilots, who knew Powers when they trained together at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Overstreet was the first pilot to fly a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union.
Asked his feelings about today’s ceremony, Overstreet replied, “I think it was due. ,More than due for some time.”