Francis Gary Powers will be posthumously awarded the Silver Star on June 15, 50 years after his U-2 spy plane went down in Russia on May 1, 1960, during the height of Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Although Powers received service medals and top recognition from the CIA, this is the first time he has been cited for "gallantry in action." The Silver Star is the third-ranked in this class for actions not warranting the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross. The Silver Star will be presented by Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz to Powers' grandson and granddaughter at a Pentagon ceremony on Friday.
The loss of Powers' U-2 was one of the most significant incidents in the Cold War and frosted relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union even more deeply. For decades, official Washington did not believe Powers' story that he was bagged by a Russian surface-to-air missile while on an ultra-secret photo flight over the Soviets' most sensitive military installations. The missile that brought down the U-2 may have exploded behind the aircraft and the concussion caused it to break up. Powers bailed out and was captured by the Russians. He spent two years in prison and underwent numerous interrogations but apparently never gave up any important information. After his release in exchange for a Russian spy in 1962 he was criticized for not hitting the self-destruct button on the airplane and then not taking his own life with the poison-tipped needle he carried. Powers died when the news helicopter he was flying in Los Angeles ran out of fuel and crashed in 1977. In 1998 declassified documents proved the 1960 flight was a joint CIA-USAF operation, qualifying Powers, a former Air Force captain, who was then officially a civilian contractor, for military honors. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Prisoner of War Medal and National Defense Service Medal in 2000.