Francis Gary Powers (1929-1977) grew up in Pound, Virginia, and entered Milligan in fall 1946. Francis, as he was then known, was a good student and a member of the track team. Twice he represented Milligan at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia and ran in the Milligan Relays initiated by President Elliott. Like many students, he worked his way through college with a campus job and during the summers was a lifeguard. He graduated from Milligan in 1950 in pre-med and decided to join the Air Force.
As a pilot, he built an excellent record at single engine jet aircraft and flew several espionage missions. Later, Powers joined the CIA U-2 program at a time when the U.S. and the Soviets were engaged in the Cold War. As a U-2 pilot, one of Powers’ tasks was to photograph military installations and other important sites. While on a mission over the USSR on May 1, 1960, Powers’ plane was shot down, and he was forced to eject from the craft.
Captured and imprisoned, Powers was interrogated by the KGB, tried, and sentenced as a spy. The U-2 incident became one of international importance and set back talks between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1962, Powers was traded for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel on a bridge in Berlin and finally returned to the U.S.
One of his former Milligan professors later said of Powers, “None of us who knew Francis ever doubted for a minute his integrity or courage. We had confidence in him all the way.” Powers wrote a memoir of his experience, Operation Overflight, which was later made into a movie.
In 2012, Powers was posthumously presented with a Silver Star in a ceremony at the Pentagon for his service to the country. The Silver Star is the third highest decoration presented to military members. During his military career, Powers received many awards including the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, the Department of Defense Prisoner of War Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, and the CIA’s Intelligence Star and Director’s Medal.
Powers died in 1977 in a helicopter crash in California. His son, Gary, Jr., has been a frequent visitor to Milligan and operates a Cold War Museum which pays tribute to his Father.
On October 16, 2015, a new film, “Bridge of Spies,” will be released, based on the harrowing events of the U-2 Incident. Directed by Academy Award-winner Steven Spielberg, the story centers on an American lawyer, played by Tom Hanks, who is recruited by the CIA to help rescue Powers during tense negotiations.