ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — The Cold War story of southwest Virginia pilot Francis Gary Powers has gotten the Hollywood treatment, courtesy of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.
"Bridge of Spies," a potential blockbuster movie directed by Spielberg and starring Hanks, opens Friday in theaters. The film tells the true story of New York lawyer James Donovan (played by Hanks), who helped negotiate the release of Powers, an American pilot who was shot down over Russia in 1960 and held prisoner for two years.
Powers was from Pound in Wise County, a town near the Kentucky border located about four hours from Roanoke across winding mountain roads. His U-2 spy plane was brought down by a Russian missile as he flew a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union. Powers ejected from the plane and was captured.
The storyline of "Bridge of Spies" mostly follows Donovan's efforts to organize the prisoner exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union that took place in 1962 on the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, the span that gives the movie its name. Powers was exchanged for convicted Russian spy Rudolph Abel, whom Donovan had defended during his espionage trial.
Although the U-2 incident and trial of Powers are subplots to the main story, the movie could do much to enhance Powers' reputation, which took a beating in the 1960s after he was shot down and subsequently released.
However, in recent years, Powers, who died in a helicopter crash in California in 1977, has posthumously received several awards and commendations following the declassification of CIA documents regarding the U-2 affair.
"The Powers family is very honored and humbled that my dad is considered an American hero of the Cold War," said the pilot's son, Gary Powers Jr., who founded the Cold War Museum in Fauquier County.
Francis Gary Powers was born in 1929, spent his boyhood in Pound and later moved with his family to Grundy in Buchanan County, where he graduated from high school. He earned a degree from Milligan College in northeast Tennessee and joined the Air Force in 1950. During the 1950s, he was recruited by the CIA for covert missions.
On May 1, 1960, Powers flew from an air base in Pakistan on a high-altitude spying mission over the Soviet Union. A Soviet missile either struck the U-2 or exploded near the plane. As the plane spun and descended rapidly, Powers was unable to flip the U-2's self-destruct switches before he bailed out. He was captured and interrogated by Soviet intelligence officials. The U-2 wreckage was seized by the Russians.
Powers was interrogated for 107 days and then put on trial in Moscow. His parents, Oliver and Ida Powers, enlisted the help of attorney Carl McAfee, whose office was above Oliver Powers' shoe-repair shop in Norton. McAfee sent a letter to Nikita Khrushchev on behalf of the Powers family, pleading for the Soviet leader to release their boy. Khrushchev invited Powers' mother and father to Moscow.
In a recent phone conversation, McAfee remembered that the State Department did not want the family to travel to Russia.
"They weren't too happy about it, but they couldn't keep me from going," said McAfee, now 86 and still practicing law in Norton.
Accompanied by McAfee and other friends from Virginia, Oliver and Ida Powers attended the trial in Moscow. McAfee also met with Leonid Brezhnev, the future Soviet Communist Party leader, to discuss a possible release. The effort did not succeed. Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor.
Upon returning to Wise County, McAfee wrote a letter to Abel, the convicted Russian spy who was serving a 45-year sentence at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. McAfee and Oliver Powers proposed the idea of a prisoner swap that would bring Francis Gary Powers home.
The government put a halt to communications between the Powers family and Abel.
"They put a muzzle on us," McAfee said.
Nearly two years later, following months of secret talks between the Americans and Russians, a prisoner exchange was organized. On Feb. 10, 1962, Powers and Abel walked from opposite ends of the Glienicke Bridge and returned to their home countries as free men.
Powers' life did not return to normal, however. He was criticized by some politicians and reporters for failing to destroy the U-2 and its surveillance equipment. Some people even believed that Powers should have committed suicide rather than be captured — after all, the CIA had provided him with a poison needle for just that purpose.
The Senate Armed Services Select Committee cleared him of any wrongdoing, but many Americans wondered what he had told the Russians. The New York Times called him "commonplace" and "not a superhero but a normal unsophisticated young man" who was an "extremely cooperative witness for the Russians."
"My father upon his return home was shocked to discover that there was so much misinformation, rumors and speculation circulating in the press about the U-2 incident and his involvement," Gary Powers Jr. said. "My father thought that the CIA and (Air Force) could have done more to help clear his name."
Powers moved to California, where he piloted a traffic helicopter for a Los Angeles radio station. On Aug. 1, 1977, because of a faulty gauge, Powers' helicopter ran out of fuel and crashed. He was 47.
More than 20 years later, Powers' legacy was rewritten. In 1998, the CIA declassified documents about the U-2 era, which showed that Powers, even under duress, had resisted giving information to the Russians.
In 2000, Powers was awarded a POW Medal, a Distinguished Flying Cross and a CIA Director's Medal. In 2012, he was awarded the Silver Star, the military's third-highest honor. The Air Force determined that Powers showed "steadfast loyalty" in prison and praised his "sustained courage" despite "cajolery, trickery, insults and threats of death."
In Pound, a mural that includes Powers is painted on a train trestle. He is viewed these days as a local hero — for the most part.
Recently, Kim Mullins, a member of the local industrial development authority, asked the Lonesome Pine Airport Commission to consider renaming the airport terminal after Powers. Mullins, 52, was related to Powers, who had taken her for her first airplane ride when she was a girl.
After she made the request, a letter appeared in a local newspaper that urged local leaders not to name the terminal after a traitor.
Mullins is undeterred. She hopes that "Bridge of Spies" will prompt people to reconsider Powers' legacy.
"He was a hero," she said. "I want him to be portrayed in a positive light. I'm a little passionate about it."
Gary Powers Jr., 50, has seen the movie and believes his father receives sympathetic treatment.
"The movie reinforces my belief that it is never too late to set the record straight," he said.
Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com
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