Pound, Virginia, resident gets caught in middle of Cold War

Ned Jilton • Updated May 6, 2020 at 10:00 PM

On Aug. 29, 1949, Russia, then known as the Soviet Union, detonated its first nuclear weapon in Kazakhstan. The fallout from the blast was later detected outside the country, announcing to the world that the United States was no longer the only atomic power.

At the same time, Russian scientists begin designing and building missiles with the help of captured parts and personnel from Germany’s WWII V-2 program. On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik into orbit.

The Russians had the bomb, and now they had the ability to deliver it anywhere on Earth.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, now facing a growing threat and needing to know what the Russians had, approved the development of a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft known as the U-2 — a plane that flew so high radar had trouble tracking it, enemy planes could not intercept it and missiles could not shoot it down.

“The U-2 reconnaissance program had been born of necessity.” Eisenhower wrote after leaving office. “In the middle Fifties the United States found itself, an open society, faced by a closed Communist empire which had lost none of its ambitions for world conquest, but which now possessed, in airplanes and guided missiles armed with nuclear weapons, an ever-growing capacity for launching surprise attacks against the United States. As long as the Communist empire remained closed, this capability would become ever more dangerous. It could grow without our knowledge; it could mobilize for instantaneous attack; at the very least its hierarchy could continue to attempt blackmail campaigns, boasting of a nuclear strength and delivery capacity out of all proportion to that which actually existed.”

The U-2, flown by both American and British pilots, completed several successful missions. One mission, on April 9, 1960, flew more than 250 miles into Russian airspace and documented several top-secret missile sites.

With critics of the president’s administration complaining about a missile gap with the Russians, and the Four Powers Summit to be attended by Eisenhower, French President Charles de Gaulle, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev scheduled for later that year in Paris, it was thought one last flight of a U-2 was needed.

The man selected for the mission was a coal miner’s son from Pound, Virginia, named Francis Gary Powers.

Powers was one of six children born to Oliver and Ida. After high school he earned his bachelor’s degree in pre-med from Milligan College, in Elizabethton, before joining the Air Force. He was recruited by the CIA in January 1956 and completed his U-2 training later that year.

The mission Powers was selected for was to be the most ambitious ever flown. He was going to be the first to fly all the way across Russia, over several top-secret sites.

After the previous flyovers, the Russians were watching. As Powers entered their airspace, they scrambled MiG-19s and began firing surface-to-air missiles. In the confusion, they shot down one of their own jets.

As Powers continued into the Ural region of Russia, the Soviets fired three newer-model S-75 surface-to-air missiles which were capable of reaching his plane, and one found its target. As his plane spun in, he tried and failed to activate the self-destruct device before ejecting. As he parachuted to the ground, he got rid of maps and other papers. He didn’t use the poison injection pin hidden in a coin hung around his neck. He had hoped he would be able to escape but was captured the moment he hit the ground.

When word of Powers’ U-2 going down reached U.S. officials, NASA issued a press release which stated, “A NASA U-2 research airplane, being flown in Turkey on a joint NASA-USAF Air Weather Service mission, apparently went down in the Lake Van, Turkey, area at about 9 A.M. (3:00 A.M. EDT), Sunday, May 1. During the flight in southeast Turkey, the pilot reported over the emergency frequency that he was experiencing oxygen difficulties. The flight originated in Adana with a mission to obtain data on clear air turbulence.”

To the people at NASA this was the truth, as Eisenhower would later explain.

“A major problem in pursuing a program such as the U-2 was that of maintaining secrecy in the field. Although the existence of the plane itself could not be fully concealed, its major mission could be. The reconnaissance detachment performing these reconnaissance missions was assigned to NASA and flew weather missions for that organization, but NASA was purposely kept in the dark as to the unit’s intelligence activities. The NASA information officer who gave out this statement was telling the truth as he knew it.”

The U.S. administration thought that Powers was dead, the plane destroyed and continued with the lost weather plane story. Khrushchev kept quiet for a few days and then sprang the news on the world. Powers was alive, in prison and the Russians had large sections of the U-2, along with much of its advanced spy equipment.

With the summit at hand, Eisenhower and his advisors scrambled to figure out what to do. Arrangements were made with France’s de Gaulle, who was the host of the summit, to allow the United States to speak first and make its case about the U-2.

When the time came, Khrushchev jumped up and demanded the floor before Eisenhower had the chance to do the same. Eisenhower yielded to the Russian and then listened as Khrushchev ranted over American aggression and how the U.S. had brought the world closer to war.

When Eisenhower’s turn came, he admitted that the U-2 was on a reconnaissance mission over Russia but that the action was defensive, not aggressive. He then laid out a plan for U.N. inspections of nuclear weapons and missiles of both countries to eliminate the need for spies as each country would know what the other had.

Khrushchev rejected the proposal and withdrew an invitation for Eisenhower to visit Russia that had been made earlier in the year.

Eisenhower later recalled what de Gaulle said next.

“When I finished, Gen. de Gaulle made the interesting observation that within the last few days a Soviet satellite had been passing over France and for all that the French had been told about the nature of the orbiting vehicle, reconnaissance photographs could have been made of all of French territory.

“Khrushchev broke in to say he was talking about airplanes, not about satellites. He said any nation in the world who wanted to photograph the Soviet areas by satellites was completely free to do so.”

The summit was a bust. And the whole time, Powers was in a Russian prison cell being interrogated. On Aug. 19, 1960, Powers was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to 10 years, three in prison and seven in a labor camp. He remained in prison until Feb. 8, 1962.

Powers and another American were exchanged for a Soviet KGB agent on Feb. 10, 1962, in a spy swap at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin. The Steven Spielberg movie “Bridge of Spies” is based on this swap and the events surrounding it and stars Tom Hanks.

Eisenhower later said of the Powers incident, “I deeply regret that one of our young pilots had to pay with imprisonment for the failure of his plane in its final flight over Russia.”

Among the awards Powers received for his service were the Silver Star, the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, the Department of Defense Prisoner of War Medal and the CIA’s Intelligence Star and Director’s Medal.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.

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