Author recounts Cold War era story of spy

Published 3:01 am Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Americans live under a blanket of peace because people like Francis Gary Cooper helped the country win the Cold War, author and historian Keith Dunnavant told the Andalusia Rotary Club Tuesday.

Dunnavant’s most recent work, “Spy Pilot,” recounts the story of Francis Gary Powers, the CIA pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.

Few knew of the CIA, nor the spy missions President Dwight Eisenhower had authorized in the 1950s, Dunnavant said.

“President Eisenhower, who was one of the greatest generals of all time, approached the Cold War carefully,” he said. “The Soviet Union could see even an unarmed plane as act of war.”

The U-2 could fly at altitudes of 70,000 feet. And while the Soviets could see the planes, they did not initially have the ability to shoot them down.

In the spring of 1960, the United States had agreed not to fly missions over the Soviet Union after May 1, as Eisenhower was slated to meet with Khrushev.

“On the last day, Francis Gary Powers took off,” he said. “He was looking for something specific.

“He was shot down, and captured. The White House tried to float a cover story about a weather mission.”

U.S. officials were hoping the plane was destroyed, and the pilot died, he said. But Khrushev announced the Soviets had the pilot and pieces of the plane.

Powers was put on trial for his life.

“America was really on trial,” Dunnavant said. “At the end of the trial, to save his neck, he apologized to the Soviet people.”

It was a punch in the gut for Americans, he said, who in 1960 were “unaccustomed to failing at anything.”

Powers was held in prison for 21 months before being exchanged with a Russian spy held in the United States.

Powers was repatriated in 1962 as “something less than a hero,” he said.

Some believed he had descended to a lower altitude when flying over the USSR, or that he had betrayed his country.

Powers didn’t have a future in the CIA, so he worked first as a pilot for Lockheed, then worked as a helicopter pilot for a Los Angeles television station. He died, ironically, in a helicopter crash in 1977.

Powers’ son, Francis Gary Powers, Jr. was a boy who knew little about his father’s story. As a teen, he went to the card catalog in his high school library and searched his father’s name. What he found was a 1960 Time magazine with his father on the cover. Thus began a three decade journey to learn all of his father’s story.

Dunnavant said that Powers the son began methodically working bureaucracy, to gain access to classified documents about his father, and uncover his full story.

Dunnavant said he is convinced that the elder Powers behaved  honorably.

“He was unfortunately caught up in a situation about which he could not come clean. We were fighting the Cold War, and had to maintain secrets.”

Because of the younger Powers’ efforts, 35 years after his father’s death, Francis Gary Powers Sr. was awarded the Silver Star, the third highest military honor.

“We left a patriot out in the cold too long,” Dunnavant said.

That happened in 2012. Dunnavant, an Alabama native who now resides in Georgia, became intrigued with the Powers story after reading about the Silver Star ceremony in the New York Times, and reached out to Power the son the next day.

“Gary and I hit it off,” he said. “We grew up

in the same world. There wasn’t just a definitive biography, essentially it is two books. It is not just about Francis Gary Powers, but also one man’s search for closure and peace.”