Barry Saunders

Saunders: Powers proud of his father and his place in history

Gary Powers Sr. was a captain in the U.S. Air Force and the pilot of a U-2 spy plane shot down in 1960 over the Soviet Union, when the Cold War was at its hottest.
Gary Powers Sr. was a captain in the U.S. Air Force and the pilot of a U-2 spy plane shot down in 1960 over the Soviet Union, when the Cold War was at its hottest. garypowers.com

If Gary Powers Sr. were your dad, you’d have certainly taken him to school to show off for show and tell.

But did Gary Powers Jr.?

“As a matter of fact, once I did,” Powers told me Friday when I asked him about that. His father, Gary Powers Sr., had his son’s fifth- or sixth-grade classmates and him – all seated cross-legged on the elementary school classroom floor – riveted as he talked about his job and experiences.

“I remember how excited and proud I was,” Powers said.

The funny thing – not funny “ha ha,” but funny in a head-shaking way – is that if Powers’ dad had done his job the way some people had wanted him to, neither of them would’ve been able to talk about what he did for a living: Sr. would’ve been long dead, and Jr. would’ve never been conceived.

Gary Powers Sr. was a captain in the U.S. Air Force and the pilot of a U-2 spy plane shot down in 1960 over the Soviet Union, when the Cold War was at its hottest. Some military historians still insist that he’d been instructed to destroy the plane and kill himself rather than allow it and himself to be captured. Along with his final flight instructions, he was given a coin with a poisoned needle with which he was to prick his skin if shot down.

Death would’ve been instantaneous.

Man. Imagine the poor kid who had to follow that presentation in class and present his dad, Otto, the produce manager of the A&P.

An honorable job? Absolutely, but Nikita Khrushchev and Dwight Eisenhower wouldn’t threaten to blow up each other’s country over the A&P produce manager, nor would Steven Spielberg make a movie about him.

They do about pilots of spy planes, though, and Powers’ capture and the negotiations for his release are at the center of the Spielberg movie “Bridge of Spies” that’s showing in theaters across the country right now.

Raleigh screening

I interviewed Powers, co-founder of the Cold War Museum in Midlothian, Va., as he was on a train en route to Chicago from Virginia. He’ll be in Raleigh on Saturday for a screening of the movie and a book-signing.

The purpose of the museum, he said, “is to honor Cold War veterans, observe Cold War history and educate future generations about that time period ... about the fear of nuclear annihilation” that everyone thought was imminent daily.

The museum succeeds at that, Powers said, but it’s impossible to convey the paranoia that gripped the country 55 years ago to someone who didn’t live through it. Fortunately for me, I was just a knee-baby and didn’t know what was going on. I do know that my nickname around that time was – I swear – Khrushchev, because of our similarly shaped bald heads.

“The movie,” Powers said, “did a very good job of portraying the fear that existed in the ’50s in America toward the Soviets, toward their spies and toward the tensions that existed. ... It really painted a good picture of the feelings toward my father, toward Rudolf Abel” – the Soviet spy captured by the U.S. – “and toward Jim Donovan, who was the attorney who represented the Soviet spy.”

All three were, in a word, demonized and deemed not fit to live – Powers for allowing his state-of-the-art spy plane to be captured by the Reds and for not killing himself, Abel for threatening the U.S. way of life and Donovan for being naive enough to believe that the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the Soviet spy a fair trial.

Powers said his father talked to him about the ostracism and criticism he endured when he was released in exchange for Abel. “In regards to the poison-tipped needle, he explained to me that it was an optional device to use at his discretion in the event of torture,” he said. “He explained there was never any official order to commit suicide and it was strictly his decision. He decided not to.”

Whew.

“Under the circumstances he found himself in,” Powers said, his dad “was unable to activate the ‘destruct’ button before ejecting. ... He did take the (suicide) device with him as he bailed out of the plane, and after it was found following the third strip-search, he explained, ‘Be very careful with that.’ He said he did not want a murder conviction on top of the espionage conviction. He said he was already in enough trouble,” Powers said, laughing.

What he’d say

His father was sentenced to 10 years in a Soviet prison but was held for two years before being swapped for the Soviet spy, Abel, in 1962. Powers Jr. was born in 1965.

I asked Powers if there was anything he’d like to say – that’s printable – to people who still contend that his father should’ve gone down with the spy plane.

“He was criticized upon returning home for failure to activate the ‘destruct’ button and for not committing suicide,” Powers said, “but he was cleared of any wrongdoing. Declassified files over the past 55 years have shown that my father did everything he was supposed to do, that there was no truth to him being ordered to commit suicide. He was shown to have followed orders directly and that he did everything in his power to prevent information from being revealed to the Soviets under interrogation.”

It was in 1975 or 1976 that Powers sat on the elementary school classroom floor with his classmates, enthralled by his dad’s stories of flying a spy plane, being shot down and his two years in captivity.

Gary Powers Sr. was killed in 1977 when the helicopter in which he was covering a brush fire for a local TV station crashed.

The funny thing is – again, not funny “ha ha,” but funny in a head-shaking way – is that when his U-2 spy plane was shot down, the U.S. government said it was a weather plane that had strayed off course.

If you go

Meet Gary Powers Jr. at a screening of “Bridge of Spies” on Saturday at Carmike 15 Theater, 5501 Atlantic Springs Road, Raleigh. Powers will also answer questions and sign copies of his latest book, “Operation Overflight.” Doors open at 5 p.m.

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