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Remembering a war: Son of spy plane pilot seeks to preserve history of Cold War era

By Rex Barber
Press Staff Writer

MILLIGAN COLLEGE – The spy at the center of what was considered one of the most significant events of the Cold War graduated from Milligan College.

Francis Gary Powers Sr. was flying a reconnaissance mission over the former Soviet Union in a U2 spy plane March 1, 1960, when he was shot down and held captive for two years. His son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., told Milligan students of the school’s unique connection to the Cold War Tuesday as part of a speaking tour for the upcoming 50th anniversary of the international incident, considered to be one of the most significant events of the Cold War, which lasted from 1945 until 1991.

“The Cold War was a world war,” Powers told the audience. “It impacted every country in one way or another.”

It certainly impacted Powers, who founded the Cold War Museum in 1996 to preserve the history and veterans of that era.

Powers Sr. was a native of Southwest Virginia. He graduated from Milligan in 1950 and enlisted in the Air Force. The CIA recruited him in 1956. After he was shot down, he spent 21 months as a Soviet prisoner, including a three-day show trial where he was convicted of espionage, before being exchanged for a Soviet spy Col. Rudolf Abel. He died in 1977 in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles.

The younger Powers told the audience in Milligan’s Seeger Memorial Chapel Tuesday he was 12 when his father died. He said it was hard on him because his father had achieved international recognition.

“I thought everybody’s dad had gone through something like this,” Powers jokingly told the Milligan students.

In college Powers got interested in his father and the events surrounding the U2 crash, which meant he had to know about the Cold War. So he began researching that subject.

He found out about his father’s ordeal in Moscow.

“He’s going through interrogation, 16-hour days, bright spotlights, threats of death,” Powers told the audience.

After about a week of brutal questioning, President Dwight D. Eisenhower admitted to the U2 reconnaissance missions and that appeared in national newspapers. This was awkward for Powers because he had been insisting he was simply lost. The Soviets told him to tell the truth because the American media would eventually print it anyway.

So, Powers told what he knew would be discovered, lied about things he knew the Soviets could not learn from the media and gave half-truths on other matters. For instance, he lied about the maximum altitude capability of the U2.

He learned about all of this and had a better understanding of who his father was.

“So for me, my father is my dad,” Powers said during an interview following his lecture. “He’s a hero to me because he’s my father, not because he was shot down. Being a U2 pilot makes one a hero, not being shot down over the Soviet Union. All of the original U2 pilots, and even those flying today, put themselves in the face of danger and on very dangerous missions. So just flying the airplane on these missions makes them, in my eyes, a hero of our country.”

Powers also began lecturing at high schools to inform others about the Cold War. Most of the students thought he was going to be speaking about the rock band U2, not the spy plane incident. That’s when he realized he needed to preserve the history of the era. The Cold War Museum ( should expand later this year to a 4,000-square-foot facility in Vint Hill in Virginia.

“So we find that it’s very important to preserve this Cold War history, honor the Cold War veterans and teach future generations about this time period,” Powers said. “In order to understand what’s happening today in the world, we have to understand what was happening during the Cold War. There are direct correlations between the Cold War and today’s events.”


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