What Made Francis Gary Powers Unusual

The only unusual feature of the Francis Gary Powers and the U-2 incident of 1960 is that it became public knowledge.
The wreckage of he remains of the U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers.

Last night's episode of "The Sixties," CNN's historical miniseries, focused on the Cold War. The otherwise excellent program, however, left the inaccurate impression (as many history books do) that the Soviet downing of Francis Gary Powers's U-2 over Sverdlosk in 1960 -- an event that essentially wrecked a meeting in Paris two weeks later -- was somehow unusual.

Actually, the only unusual feature of the U-2 incident is that it became public knowledge. From the late 1940s through the early 1960s, the Soviets shot down a lot of U.S. surveillance planes, and killed a lot of U.S. pilots.

In researching my forthcoming novel on the missile crisis, I came across an excellent source on the subject, a 1993 report from Cryptologic Quarterly, the in-house journal of the National Security Agency, accidentally declassified just two years ago. The article, titled "Maybe You Had to Be There: The SIGINT on Thirteen Soviet Shootdowns of U.S. Reconnaissance Aircraft," collects reports on signals intelligence from the known occasions on which U.S. planes on reconnaissance missions were downed by Soviet missiles or fighters.

The point is that the Powers incident was No. 11.

Loss of life was common. For example, in July 1953, "MIG-15s shot down a USAF RB-50, with a crew of seventeen, over the Sea of Japan, about seventy miles southeast of Vladivostok." As in nearly all the incidents, the entire crew perished. In fact, in November of 1951, a U.S. Navy P2V Neptune had been downed in essentially the same spot. The crew of 10 was lost.

Of course, in the chilly calculations of Cold War intelligence, a dead crew was often preferable to a crew in Soviet hands undergoing interrogation. Powers carried a suicide syringe, to be used if he could not escape capture, and critics later attacked him for choosing to live instead.

According to that hard-nosed calculus, the most serious incident probably occurred a year and a half before Gary Powers became a household name. On Sept. 2, 1958, Soviet pilots operating over Armenia shot down a C-130 staging out of Adana, Turkey. The aircraft carried "a front-end crew of six and eleven USAFSS Russian linguists and collection operators." The Soviets returned the bodies of six crewmen recovered from the wreckage, but denied all knowledge of the fate of the remaining 11.

The administration of President Dwight Eisenhower kept pressing for more information. Intelligence officials apparently feared that the missing men had been taken alive and might be spilling secrets. But nothing else was forthcoming, and -- at least in the declassified sources -- there is no final word on the fate of the airmen.

But the downing of the U-2 was just one in a series of Soviet attacks on U.S. reconnaissance flights. Yes, the incident destroyed any possibility of real progress at the Paris summit. But that was only because of the deliberate decision by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to publicize the shoot-down.

The Soviets could as easily have disclosed any of the 10 previous incidents. They chose not to. This simple fact suggests the possibility that it wasn't the U-2 incident that wrecked the summit. Perhaps it was the desire to wreck the summit that led Khrushchev to tell the world that the plane had been shot down.

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