Francis Gary Powers Jr. talks about his famous father ahead of Military Ball in Santa Barbara
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS-PRESS
The Santa Barbara-based Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation recently interviewed Francis Gary Powers Jr., author of “Spy Pilot” and “Letters from a Soviet Prison.” He is also the founder and chairman emeritus of The Cold War Museum outside Washington, D.C.
Mr. Powers will be the guest speaker during the foundation’s 24th annual Military Ball, set for 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort. In addition to his address, the event will feature live music, a cocktail hour, a silent auction, a three-course meal and dancing.
During the veterans’ foundation interview, Mr. Powers talked about his father, Cold War “spy-turned-hero” Francis Gary Powers Sr. Mr. Powers also discussed the Cold War in general and its connection to the renewed importance of Veterans Day.
His father, Francis Gary Powers Sr. (1929-1977), was the American pilot whose CIA Lockheed U-2 spy plane was shot down during a reconnaissance mission in Soviet airspace, which led to the 1960 U-2 incident. He later worked as a helicopter pilot for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles and died in a 1977 helicopter crash, but was honored posthumously when the fact that the U-2 mission was a military operation became declassified.
The News-Press appreciates the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation presenting it with the transcript of the interview, which is being published here for the first time.
PCVF: Gary, you’re the guest speaker at the 24th Annual Military Ball, sponsored by Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation in Santa Barbara. The organization’s mission statement in the words of Pierre, is, “To be killed in Wars, is not the worst that can happen. To be lost is not the worst that can happen. To be forgotten is the worst.” It seems to me like that mission is very much connected to your mission as well.
GPJ: That’s correct, and I never really thought of it that way, but that’s a very well-said mission statement. The purpose of The Cold War Museum is to be dedicated to education, preservation and research on the global ideological and political confrontations between East and West. From the end of World War II to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. So that is our mission: to preserve; do research on and acknowledge this time period. The vision statement for the museum is to inform the present and influence the future through an understanding of the past with exhibitions of artifacts, documents and events related to the Cold War era. Veterans are a key component of the Cold War that we are looking to honor and recognize and remember.
PCVF: So your message is to let Cold War vets know that you’re one of those people that will be their voice, which is a noble endeavor; to represent these people and acknowledge that they are part of your part of living history.
GPJ: Correct. I’m doing everything I can to make sure that people, especially students, are aware of what the Cold War was. Why it took place; everything that is happening in the world today as a direct result of the end of the Cold War. There are tie-ins to the Cold War and the war on terror, and a lot of people just don’t understand that. So, to me, it’s very important to recognize the Cold War era and specifically the veterans who served during the time period. I don’t want the Cold War veteran to be forgotten or overlooked. When it comes to Veterans Day, which is upon us, we should embrace all of our veterans, from the Revolutionary War to the present. We need to honor them; respect them; thank them for their service and make sure that our children understand how important their job is, so that we’re free here at home.
PCVF: What is the topic of your presentation at the PCVF Military Ball on Saturday?
GPJ: I will be talking about the Cold War, the U-2 incident. I will dispel the misinformation and help to set the record straight. I will reference the Steven Spielberg movie “Bridge of Spies” (2015) during my talk and how that also contributes to misinformation. It’s Hollywood.
PCVF: Tell us about your family history which led to your interest in preserving Cold War history.
GPJ: My father was shot down on May 1, 1960, spent 21 months in a Soviet prison through Feb. 10, 1962. He came home, met my Mom at the CIA headquarters where she worked; romance ensued. They were married in 1963, and I was born in June of 1965.
PCVF: Your father was Francis Gary Powers Sr. who is well-known in history as the notorious Air Force pilot who endured a dramatic series of events on behalf of the country he served. He flew secret missions over the Soviet Union during the Cold War for the U.S. government and was shot down in his U2 aircraft by the Soviet military. He was captured, deemed a spy and imprisoned for quite some time. The American people at that time, and even now, don’t know his true story, which you have told in your best-selling books, and have set the record straight on his military service and reputation. He was thought of as a double spy and persona non grata. Once he’s freed after a prisoner exchange with a Soviet spy held by the U.S, he returns to American society and was branded a traitor, held in contempt by the public and disrespected as a veteran. Tell us the true backstory.
GPJ: This was a very unique situation with my father and the early U2 pilots in general. All of the U2 pilots were military personnel recruited from the Air Force to work as a civilian for the CIA. And in the 1950s, it had to be a civilian project. Eisenhower did not want a military person in a military plane, flying over a foreign hostile country; that would have been an act of war, provoking World War III with the Russians. He wanted to gather intelligence, and so he mandated and basically ordered that the program be headed up by the CIA. Allen Dulles, who was the director and his subordinate, Richard Bissell, oversaw the program, and it was a civilian program because it was “espionage” and not an “act of war.”
Now jump forward to 1998. There’s a declassification conference hosted by the CIA in the Air Force at Fort McNair in Washington D.C. During that conference, it is revealed that it was a military operation.
It was the U.S. Air Force working hand-in-hand with the CIA for the U2 program in the 1950s. One could not be separated from the other. Once that word, “military,” was declassified, and it was shown to be a military operation, that’s when the American military was able to finally recognize my father as a hero to our country.
He was awarded posthumously in 2000 with the POW medal and in 2012 with the Silver Star, but he couldn’t be awarded that prior to 1998. Because at that time, it was a civilian program, and civilians were not entitled to those types of decorations or honors. So it took a declassification conference to finally reveal the truth that it was a military operation.
PCVF: When your father came back home to the States, there was negative press about what went on. Can you shed light on how he viewed that? It must have been a very difficult situation knowing he couldn’t divulge the true story and was treated badly by his fellow citizens.
GPJ: Right. Back in 1960 when my father was shot down, he was in prison for almost two years in the Soviet prison. When he came back home and was repatriated after being exchanged for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in February of 1962, he was shocked to discover that there were negative articles written about him while he was incarcerated. There were editorials and articles, written saying that he defected, he spilled his guts and told the Soviets everything he knew or that he hadn’t followed orders.
All of that was mistruths: Fake news of the time. It’s very easy for someone in America, a general, a politician, a newspaper reporter, to talk about what they think someone should or should not have done. But only the people who served like my father know he did everything he was supposed to do, he was cleared by the CIA.
When he returned home, he was exonerated by the U.S. Senate, but he was not cleared by the court of public opinion because of the negative press he received while incarcerated, which tarnished his reputation. And that’s one of the reasons I ended up doing all this research over the last 35-plus years is to find out the truth of what took place, so I could answer questions because people were curious about what my Dad did or did not do.
As a result of my research, I’ve discovered many things about my Dad and the program. I have a book out called “Spy Pilot: Francis Gary Powers, The U-2 Incident, and a Controversial, Cold War Legacy,” that basically takes Dad’s reputation from infamy and controversy in the ’60s to that of an American hero today. It goes through the behind-the-scenes process as to how the American government finally awarded him with the POW Medal and the Silver Star.
I started this research, not to honor my father, not to vindicate him or anything like that. All I wanted to do was to find out the truth, so I know how to answer questions, and it snowballed as a result of my research.
I discovered that my Dad is very well known in the history books because he was caught spying for our country, but there are hundreds of thousands of other men and women who fought — who died during the Cold War time period — that have not been honored or recognized for their service.
That’s one of the reasons I founded The Cold War Museum in 1996 — to honor veterans, preserve history and educate kids on this time period.
PCVF: Your father must have had some mixed feelings about the meaning of Veterans Day after his Soviet ordeal and the negative aftermath once he was back home.
GPJ: My Dad’s reputation was tarnished because of the fake news and the misinformation of the time, but he had a very good head on his shoulders, and he didn’t let that bother him and he didn’t let it get under his skin. He didn’t allow it to negatively impact his life. He knew that what he did was the right thing to do. Under the circumstances he found himself in he often would say that he do the exact same things again, given the exact same set of circumstances. He continued to be a pilot; he continued to do what he loved to do, which was flying airplanes, first for Lockheed as a test pilot upon his return home.
PCVF: Were your Dad’s military benefits and career path negatively affected by the U2 incident?
GPJ: My Dad served seven years in the Air Force. He served seven years with the CIA, and he served seven years with Lockheed. Lockheed was a civilian contractor. So he wasn’t a government employee per se. So that does not add up to 20 years of military service.
Even though he was shot down, imprisoned (for 21 months) then exchanged for a Soviet spy, he did not have enough total time in the military to draw a pension. He did not have PX privileges. He did not have VA Privileges, and that’s one of the things that I was hoping to do, to right the wrong.
But again, his military service once everything was counted with only 14 years. And so, my Dad got the short end of the stick by our government at the time, basically, in that he was not allowed to go back in the military. He was not allowed or able to retire in eight more years from the military and he lost out on the military retirement package.
Eventually, back in 1970, and I’ll get into this during my talk, there was a retirement package provided to my father in lieu of an Air Force retirement, but it had to go through legal channels, to be negotiated, and it was a secret non-disclosure agreement that needed to be signed, and only in 2017 was it declassified.
PCVF: Do you recall anything your Dad shared with you about how veterans were thought of back in the ’60s? During the Vietnam War, vets and those actively serving were not respected for their military service by some people. There was a lot of negativity toward people who had served at least, you know, the Vietnam War. That was in stark contrast to the treatment of World War II vets, who were considered liberators; heroes who were highly respected. Do you have any thoughts on how veterans were looked upon during your childhood?
GPJ: You pretty much hit the nail on the head there. Veterans from World War II were considered the “Greatest Generation.” They won the war. They defeated Germany, Japan, Italy — the enemies at the time.
During the Korean War, veterans were looked upon as doing their duty and serving their country; that mentality did shift after the Korean War. But when it came to Vietnam, society changed its outlook, and the youth of the day were protesting the war. They were very disgruntled with America being involved overseas and in foreign wars. They vocalized and voiced their opinions, very loudly and negatively.
And so, the veterans that were coming back from Vietnam, were often spat upon or yelled at for serving, and my father, my Mom and me included. That’s not right. Veterans need to be honored for what they do so that we have the freedoms here in America that we enjoy. If it wasn’t for their sacrifices including death, we would be in a much different state of affairs right now in this country.
I remember my father telling me about the TV show called “M*A*S*H.” It was about the Korean War. My father did not like to watch that show because he didn’t think it was appropriate to make fun of the veterans.
PCVF: What’s your view on how younger veterans, who served in the Gulf War and in Afghanistan, are treated by the “court of public opinion” and the media?
GPJ: I believe that the majority of Americans support our military personnel overseas, the recent Afghan War and the other conflicts that we were involved in. It’s nowhere near the attitude it was during the late ’60s and ’70s with Vietnam. So I do believe that our veterans are being honored and acknowledged for their sacrifice and their contribution around the world. There are, of course, certain groups who will continue to protest war and our involvement.
PCVF: Do you think that unless there’s a veteran-themed national holiday, a war or military skirmishes in the news, our society doesn’t keep vets in mind?
GPJ: I think you have a point there. Americans are so busy with their day-to-day lives: putting food on the table; trying to stay employed, especially after COVID hit; trying to give their children an education and make sure that they’re better off or trying to get them better off than they were; trying to live the American dream, that they really don’t take time other than on Veterans Day, and not even then. Veterans Day is often looked upon as just another holiday. Go to the shopping mall, go on a vacation, take the day off from school and work. And I don’t believe the majority of people really understand why it’s so important to recognize and honor our service members.
PCVF: From what you’ve shared, it’s clear that Americans don’t understand all that goes into serving. There are certain things that can’t be disclosed to us because they are matters of national security. So we can never truly know the veterans’ true experience unless we learn their stories, like your father’s. Circling back to the importance of Veterans Day today, and after learning about how badly he was treated and the secrecy behind it, it seems our American consciousness has evolved for the better, when it comes to how we view those who serve.
GPJ: It’s a different time period, different generations, different eras. Back in the World War II era, veterans were well respected, and that’s because we won World War II. It was through their sacrifices that we were able to prevent Hitler from taking over the world, but you then fast forward to Korea, Vietnam, and that’s when that change started to happen. So each generation perceives veterans in a different light.
I’m hoping that as we continue moving forward into the 21st century, our veterans will still command respect and be respected by our citizens. As each generation gets further away from World War II, they are less likely to recall and remember and understand what it was all about and why it was so important. Citizens need to be aware and reminded that it is because of the sacrifices of our veterans that they are allowed to protest freely in the streets and not get thrown into gulags.
PCVF: Today there’s a trend where some people will make it a point to approach a vet in uniform and politely say, “Thank you for your service.” Would that have gone on in your Dad’s day?
GPJ: No, I don’t believe so back in the ’50s and ’60s. It wasn’t really, “thank a veteran.” They were acknowledged on Veterans Day, and that’s about it. The more recent time periods over the last 10 to 20 years is when we really started to acknowledge our veterans and thank them; we see them. And I think that’s the least we can do to let them know that we appreciate all that they do to keep us free and safe at home.
PCVF: What more do you think we could do for veterans based on growing up with your Dad and his experience?
GPJ: I think there’s a lot that we can do from the simple acknowledgement and saying, “thank you for your service,” to the government programs that are in place with the Veterans Administration, that helps them with home loans and education and other benefits. They sacrificed; some of them died and their families need to be taken care of. So, anything we can do to show support for our veterans, I think needs to be done.
PCVF: What would you like to say to vets this Veterans Day?
GPJ: Well, first off, I need to thank our current veterans for their service to our country and everything they’re doing — either home or abroad to make sure that America stays safe to protect our liberties and our freedoms that we enjoy in this country. It’s just sometimes it’s a thankless job, and I want them to make sure that they understand that there are many people who respect and appreciate their service and everything they do on our behalf.