Francis Gary Powers - The U-2 Incident

On the 1st of May, 1960, Francis Gary Powers (1929-1977) was a U-2 pilot flying an American spy plane over the Soviet Union. 

He, and his plane, were shot down over the town of Sverdlovsk (known today as Ekaterinburg), causing a major "Cold War" problem between the US and the USSR. 

Onboard with Powers was a poison pin which he had been given to use if he were captured.  Deciding not to use it, Powers survived and was taken captive by the Soviets. 

Powers' book about his experience - called Operation Overflight - contains excerpts from his trial in the Soviet Union.  The following questions and answers concern the poison pin:

Q.  Who gave you the poison needle?

A.  It was given to me by Colonel Shelton during the briefing at Peshawar.

Q.  For what purpose?

A.  In case I was captured, tortured, and couldn't stand the torture and would rather be dead.

Q.  This means your superiors directed you in this flight not to spare your life?

A.  It was more or less up to me whether to use that pin.

Q.  But they gave you that needle with poison?

A.  Yes.

Q.  They wanted you to blow up the plane, kill yourself, and wipe out all trace?

A.  No, they didn't tell me to kill myself.

Q.  But they gave you the needle to kill yourself?

A.  If I was tortured.

Q.  You were told torture would be used in the Soviet Union?

A.  I don't remember being told, but I expected it.

Q.  Were you tortured?

A.  No.

(Trial transcript, quoted by Powers in Operation Overflight, page 138.)

Did Powers have any regrets about what happened?

Regrets?  Yes, I have a few.  My greatest is not that I made the flight on May 1, 1960; rather the opposite - that we did not do more when we had the chance.  We had the opportunity, the pilots, the planes, and, I sincerely believe, the need.  Yet from the very start of the program in 1956 we made far fewer overflights of Russia than were possible.

Moreover, from early 1958 until April, 1960, we made almost none.  If the program was important to our survival in 1956 and 1957 - and I'm convinced it was because of the single flight which exposed the Russian bomber hoax and alerted us to the USSR's emphasis on missiles, then in itself it alone was worth the cost of the whole program, saving not only millions of dollars but, possibly, millions of lives.

The overflights became even more important as Russia's missile development progressed.  We could have done much more than we did.  I regret that we did not.  I only hope that time won't prove this to have been one of our costliest mistakes.  (Powers, Operation Overflight, page 320.)

Curt Gentry, in the Foreword to Powers' book, puts the spy program and the shoot-down in historical perspective:

On May 1, 1960 - the traditional May Day holiday - an American U-2 spyplane flew high above the Soviet Union photographing strategic targets.  It was the twenty-fourth U-2 mission over the USSR since the first overflight almost four years earlier.  The pilot of this U-2 was thirty-year-old Francis Gary Powers.  A former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, Powers was the most experienced U-2 pilot in the spyplane program with about six hundred hours at the controls of a U-2.  He was also one of the most respected spyplane pilots, for his airmanship and for his integrity.

How high was Powers flying that day?  

The calm sky more than seventy thousand feet above the USSR, far above the altitude of any Soviet fighter, was suddenly ripped apart as a surface-to-air missile [called SAM, for short] detonated near Powers' aircraft.  Heavily damaged, the plane fell out of control.  Unable to use his ejection seat, with great difficulty Powers bailed out of the crippled aircraft as it spun toward earth.  He landed safely and was soon captured and flown to Moscow.

What impact did the shoot-down of the plane (and the subsequent confirmation that the U.S. was spying on the USSR) have on relations between the two countries?

The shootdown of the U-2 piloted by Powers had a spectacular impact on the Cold War.  In the late 1950s, the United States, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the USSR, under Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, had been moving toward closer relations.  Following a successful summit meeting of the two superpower leaders in Geneva in July 1955, there was some thawing of the Cold War.  Khrushchev visited the United States in September 1959, seeing Congress and Iowa cornfields and meeeting stars on a Hollywood movie set.  He invited Eisenhower, his children and grandchildren to visit the Soviet Union.

After the U-2 incident, however, the relationship between America and the Soviet Union changed dramatically:

This superpower warming ended abruptly with the Powers shootdown.  American cover stories about a weather reconnaissance plane straying off course were soon revealed to be boldfaced lies.  Khrushchev himself went to New York to denounce the overflights at the United Nations.  Powers was put on trial and found guilty of spying.  Eisenhower, poorly served by the Central Intelligence in the affair, personally took responsibility.The long-planned summit meeting in Paris in mid-May was a disaster as Khrushchev demanded an apology from the president.

Without the Soviet Union's knowledge, America had been sending spy planes into Soviet air space for nearly four years:

The revelations that followed about the overflights were both a triumph and an embarrassment for the Soviet Union:  One of the acclaimed American spyplanes had been shot down, but for almost four years - since July 4, 1956 - the U-2s had overflown Soviet territory with impunity.

Had the flights really mattered to the U.S. government?

The twenty-three successful overflights had been vital to U.S. national security.  Penetrating the "iron curtain" that had descended over the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite states, the U-2 provided explicit intelligence of the Soviet manned bomber program and then of its intercontinental ballistic missile program.  Further, strategic targets that had been known only from German maps of the early 1940s and even older documentation could be located with accuracy.  (Curt Gentry, Foreword to Operation Overflight, pages ix and x.)

Decades later, in the same general area of Sverdlovsk where Powers had been shot down, something else was located:  the burial sites of the last Tsar of Russia - Nicholas II - and most of the members of his executed family.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5197stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Jun 02, 2020

Media Credits

Clip from "Cold War Crisis: The U-2 Incident," produced by Charles Fishburne to promote an exhibition organized by The Cold War Museum and displayed at the Virginia Historical Society.  Online, courtesy vahistorical's Channel at YouTube.

Various quoted passages from Operation Overflight, by Francis Gary Powers and Curt Gentry (Foreword).


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