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Francis Gary Powers: The Virginia Boy Who Spied On Russia And Came Home To Tell About It

The man and the craft. This photo of Gary Powers was taken in 1963, three years after his capture and soon after he began his association with Lockhead, as a test pilot for the U2 aircraft he'd flown over Russia.

Summer, 1943 Princeton, W.Va. "I left my heart up there, Pap, and I'm goin' back to get it," 14-year-old Francis Gary Powers told his father, Oliver, after his first plane ride - in a Piper Cub. At a fair outside of Princeton, Francis had spotted a sign advertising short rides for $2.50. Enjoying the boy's enthusiasm, the young female pilot kept him in the sky double time.

Little did young Francis know that he would indeed take his heart back to the skies, and - some 17 years later -become renowned the world over as the flying spy in the "U2 Incident" involving U.S. reconnaissance over Soviet Russia at the height of the Cold War.

May 4, 1960 Pound, Va. Ida Powers wiped her hands on her cotton apron and looked out, past the barn and Mill Branch, looked up to the hillsides, lush with new leaves in shades of olive and lime and emerald. Severe asthma was keeping her from working in the garden these days. Ida thought about her five daughters, about her grandchildren, about her husband, Oliver, no longer working the coal mines but at work in his shoe shop in nearby Norton. She thought about her only son, Francis, now living overseas with his new wife.

Ida Powers' hometown was close to the Kentucky line. "The Pound" - as those who live there call it - tucks itself into a natural corral, or pound, where the North Fork of the Pound River forms a nearly closed horseshoe bend. Ringed by the closely buckled, tree-laden Appalachians, The Pound was a small, close community, isolated and quiet. Nearly every able man worked in the mines or mine-related businesses. Jack Goff, married to Ida and  Oliver's daughter Jean, ran a shoe shop downtown, near the Pound Hardware. Folks from Kentucky came to the little community to buy their liquor, to do a little shopping, to socialize. Teenagers drove up to nearby Flag Rock to gaze at the moon and into each other's eyes, or parked and looked out over Powell Valley toward Big Stone Gap, dreaming of the world beyond Wise County. Many of them would move away to find work outside the mines.

Everybody knew everybody. And everybody, even the schoolchildren, shared the same uneasiness as the rest of the free world over the threats of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. It seemed unimaginable that Communism could threaten these people or these blue mountains with their tumbling streams and rivers. Still, there were those duck-and-cover drills in the schools, the talk of fall-out shelters, the fear of invasion or global destruction.  Ida glanced at the sky and said another little prayer for Francis. Why, he might be up there flying right now in that new weather plane, so many thousands of miles from the mountains he loved.

As a lad of 13, Gary Powers explored the mountains around Pound, VaShe smiled as she thought of her quiet, handsome boy, now 30 years old. He was as determined to fly as his father was determined that Francis would never work in the mines, that he would become a doctor. But after Francis graduated from Milligan College in Tennessee, he joined the Air Force, and had been unable to come home often since. Ida turned back from the door. She would just have to trust God to take care of her son.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., final preparations were under way for the upcoming Paris Peace Summit, at which the fiery, unpredictable Khrushchev would sit down with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Khrushchev had rejected Ike's "Open Skies" policy, creating a dangerous lack of knowledge about the perceived "bomber gap" and the "missile gap."

No one knew if the Soviets might dare attack the United States. After all, hadn't Khrushchev pounded his shoe on the United Nations table in defiance, hadn't he threatened America: "We will bury you!"?

On clear, starry nights, Wise County residents watched the Russian-launched satellite, Sputnik, as it circled the globe. Was it taking pictures?

In downtown Norton, 15 miles south of The Pound, Bill Hendrick left his office at the weekly Coalfield Progress. He heard a coal train rumble by on the tracks below town, and he waved to Oliver Powers through the window of the Norton City Shoe Shop. Bill stopped for a chat and a cup of coffee at Passmore's Drugstore with department-store owner Sol Curry and Norton attorney Carl McAfee.

He told the men that an announcement would run in Thursday's paper that the Norton Clean-Up, Paint-Up, Fix-Up Campaign in preparation for the big industrial tour would continue through May 14. They talked about how Eisenhower would soon approve funds for a new dam and reservoir on the river, and that it would bring dependable drinking water and a recreation lake to the area. Tourism would increase. The mines dictated the economy, and Wise County needed to diversify.

Into this ordinary May morning, two men in suits got out of an unfamiliar automobile and entered Norton City Shoe Shop.

"Mr. Oliver Powers?" one of them asked.

"Yes, I'm Oliver Powers."

"I'm afraid we have some news about your son. He left his base in Turkey on Sunday and his plane is missing."

They could tell him nothing more.

The Family. From left: Gary, Gary Jr., Dee and Sue in a promotional shot for Gary's book. Missing? Stunned, Oliver drove to The Pound and turned onto the old dirt road toward the family homeplace. How could he ever tell Ida, and would her fragile heart and lungs withstand the very thing that a mother's heart most fears? Was Francis alive? Why didn't those men know more, and what was the United States government going to do about his son?

Ida cried, of course, and asked questions that had no answers. She sat for hours by the radio, listening for news of her son.

May 5, 1960.  The weekly Coalfield Progress scooped every newspaper, television and radio network and wire service in the world with the headline "Wise County Boy Believed Shot Down Over Russia." The Soviets denounced America for spying. The American government denied any attempt to scuttle the upcoming peace summit and announced that a weather reconnaissance mission must have gone astray.



 

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