In less than a week, Father’s Day will be here. We celebrate that day in varied ways. Our fathers are many things, among them: biological, paternal, and role models whether good or bad. The actual day will be different for each of us: ALL of us reading this have fathers, but not all of us ARE fathers. For those of us who are fathers, we “fathered” a child in the biological sense, but there was no manual of how to be a good father, great father or exceptional father. Some have done better than others.
While it is my belief that all fathers desired at some point to be, in the words of Muhammad Ali, “The Greatest”, some have achieved, and some have fallen short of that goal in the eyes of sons and daughters. Fathers are, after all human. That is why picking that perfect Hallmark Card is so challenging!
I’d like to share one of the most interesting father/son relationships I have ever witnessed. It is that of a CIA U-2 pilot and his son. The story of Francis Gary Powers and his son, Gary Powers, Jr. is one story that truly embodies the honor that a son has for a father. I met Gary Jr. about 8 years ago at an airshow in Florida. We shared a common bond in that his father and I had flown the U-2. I attended Gary Jr.’s talks and was fortunate enough to spend some time with him outside the airshow. What I learned during that time and up to now, has had a profound impact on me. Exodus and Deuteronomy instruct us to honor our father, and Gary Jr.’s efforts have gone way beyond that.
In May 1960, before Gary Jr. was even born, his father Gary Francis Powers was shot down during the Cold War. Politically, this was one of the worst times for a U-2 pilot to be shot down and captured. It resulted in an international incident, the collapse of a political summit and added to Cold War tensions. His trial and imprisonment bridged the nexus of the Eisenhower and Kennedy presidencies, and captured the attention of the world in a “pre-internet, pre-cable TV” era dominated only by three major networks. The Steven Spielberg, “Bridge of Spies” movie chronicles only a portion of Gary Powers Sr.’s life; from the time he was shot down until he was traded for a Soviet spy. I have learned from Gary Jr. and his dedication to his father, there is much more to the story.
Gary, Jr. was not even born at the time his father was shot down. There’s a much more interesting saga after Gary Sr. returned to the United States. Upon his return from an 18-month imprisonment (he was originally sentenced to 10 years), Gary Sr. was subject to official inquiries and subsequent dismissals from the CIA and the Air Force without pension. His story did not get any better. His marriage suffered and he lost his job with Lockheed as a test pilot for publishing his story in 1970. Gary Jr. was born in 1965 to Gary Sr’s. second wife, five years after his father was shot down. In 1977, Gary Sr. was killed in a tragic helicopter accident in Los Angeles, CA.
Gary Jr. was only 11 years old when his father died. To this day, he has not stopped honoring his father. The efforts he spearheaded were instrumental in getting the attention of other patriots who have helped uncover the truth. The result is that the record had been corrected.
In 2012, the Powers family was presented with a posthumously awarded Prisoner of War Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, and National Defense Service Medal, as well as the CIA’s coveted Director’s Medal for extreme fidelity and extraordinary courage in the line of duty. And later, the Silver Star medal for demonstrating ‘exceptional loyalty’ while enduring harsh interrogation in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow for almost two years.
According to Gary Jr., “It’s never too late to set the record straight; Even if it takes 50 years, it’s something that the family members and the loved ones of these military personnel who go through these type of situations — it goes to help put closure to it, to find closure.”
Since then, Gary has honored his father in several ways. He is the Founder and Chairman Emeritus of The Cold War Museum, works with the National Park Service and leading Cold War experts, consulted with Steven Spielberg on the “Bridge of Spies”; authored “Letters from a Soviet Prison” in 2017 and “Spy Pilot” in 2019. Both books have helped dispel the misinformation surrounding his father’s U-2 Incident. He has served as a Board Member on the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum and the International Spy Museum, the Junior Chamber of Commerce selected him as one of the “Ten Outstanding Young Americans” in 2002. He currently lectures internationally and appears regularly on C-SPAN, the History, Discovery, and A&E Channels.
For me, his most moving and interesting work is “Letters from a Soviet Prison”. It is a meticulous transcription of his father’s letters between his wife, parents and siblings during his imprisonment in Lubyanka prison in the Soviet Union. This is a work worth reading from a historical perspective, but as you read it, you have to admire Gary Jr.’s dedication to his father.
Imagine today being imprisoned in the era of the internet and instant telecommunications: bad enough! Now, imagine being imprisoned and the only way to communicate is via the written word via snail mail across continents. Most of us could never imagine that. Letters written, letters received, crisscrossed, not knowing what was received, when received or if ever received or delivered.
In “Letters from a Soviet Prison” you will live the drama of his imprisonment through the actual letters. No, he was not tortured physically, but you will gain a unique perspective of the psychological pain he endured. Along with that are some profound observations in 1961, over fifty years ago, still true today in some respect:
Journal entry: “One thing I have learned since I have been in prison is to distrust the newspapers. This is all newspapers and not any special ones.”
Letter, August 7th, 1961: “It appears to me that even though we have two parties in the U.S. there is only one group of people who control both parties and things don’t change even though the second party takes over.”
Letter, September 16th, 1961: “I look for the USA to drop out of the UN soon… I don’t personally think that there will ever be any use for it anywhere now. The United States could save a lot of money by dropping out. It will not be any good till every one abides by its decisions.”
There is much more in the book and many historical vignettes and observations like the above could be a text for a college course. But the one thing that always strikes me about this book, is the heartfelt effort that a son has put forth in honoring his father. Sometimes the process is just as important as the product. It is in this case. Hallmark can try, but it can never duplicate this example of love and dedication.
The book is currently in print only but will soon be available digitally. Go to GaryPowers.com for more information.
Go to SpyPilotBook.com for Gary’s most recent book, “Spy Pilot”.