It was Sunday, May 1, a big day in the former Soviet Union. May Day celebrations always filled Red Square with a display of Soviet military might and the rhetoric of Communism.
But, May Day 1960, would prove to be particularly memorable for both Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. It would center on the same event, just with a different spin.
That event personified the tactics of preference during the Cold War — check and checkmate; parry and thrust.
Last Wednesday evening, in a quiet setting on the banks of a spring calm Potomac River, the hectic and potentially disastrous events of that day were painted in vivid detail for the Mount Vernon Rotary Club. And, the messenger had first-hand knowledge.
Francis Gary Powers, Jr., brought the story of his U2 spy plane pilot father and his own dreams to create a Cold War Museum to the members gathered at the Cedar Knoll Inn on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. They were not disappointed.
On that morning 42 years ago, Francis Gary Powers, Sr., took off from a base in Pakistan to make a photographic reconnaissance flight over the Soviet Union. The U2 aircraft he manned was America's most advanced spy-in-the-sky at the time. And the pilots were the airborne version of James Bond.
"Three and one half hours into the mission, flying at approximately 75,000 feet, the pilot saw a bright orange flash and the plane shuddered," Powers Jr., related. "A Soviet missile had exploded near the tail of the plane and my father began to lose altitude."
DUE TO SEVERE vibration and the steep loss of altitude, Powers knew he could not eject at once without having his legs severed at the knees, according to his son. "As he was descending he noticed that a dark colored car was following his route after he finally bailed out at 15,000 feet," he told to his audience.
Powers landed in a field and was immediately greeted by Russian farmers who didn't know if he was one of theirs or not. When he wrote U.S.A. in the dirt they immediately raised their pitch forks, Powers said.
That's where he stood until the welcoming committee in the dark car arrived and whisked him off to prison for interrogation. But, no mention of the plane or the capture of the pilot was made until May 5 when Khrushchev announced they had downed an American aircraft.
He made no mention of Powers.
MEANWHILE, BACK at the White House, assuming that Powers had either died or escaped, the Eisenhower administration put out a story that a "weather" plane had been lost over the Soviet Union, according to Powers. That's when Khrushchev played his trump card and announced they not only had vital parts of the plane but also its pilot, alive and well.
"This was extremely embarrassing to the administration. The American culture of the time was that of Ozzie and Harriet. American presidents were not supposed to lie to the American people," Powers said. "That tells you how long ago this happened."
He noted that there were a myriad of false reports about the incident at the time. Some reported that his father was a traitor and had landed the plane on purpose; that he was a coward for not taking the poison all such pilots carried in case of capture and torture; that he had been sabotaged by the CIA; that the plane had had a flame out and not been hit by a missile which was beyond Soviet capabilities.
Regardless of the speculation, Powers was tried on August 16, 1960, and sentenced to 10 years in a Soviet military prison. During his interrogation, he would tell the Soviet Secret police, KGB, things he knew they already knew or could easily check and lie to them on details that would hinder their defenses, according to his son.
"One example of this was when he was asked about the maximum altitude of the plane. He told them 68,000 feet when it could actually reach 80,000 feet. That way he knew they would set their ground to air missiles for the lower range and, hopefully, save other pilots," Powers explained.
JUST 18 MONTHS into his 10 year sentence, the U.S. and Soviets reached an agreement to trade spy for spy. On Feb. 19, 1962, Francis Gary Powers, Sr. was exchanged for Rudolph Abel. "Abel went home a hero, to parades and ceremonies. My father came home to CIA debriefings and Senate hearings," Powers said.
In 1977, Powers senior was doing traffic reports for a local television station in the Los Angeles basin, when the helicopter he was piloting crashed. He was killed leaving his namesake, then age 12, with a myriad of questions about his dad, the U2 incident, and this amorphous thing called "The Cold War."
"I just crawled into a shell. I would introduce myself as just Gary because I didn't want all the questions about my father and the U2 incident," he emphasized. "When I was growing up in California, I didn't think he was any different from anybody else's dad and didn't want to know."
It was in college that Gary, Junior, began to exit his shell and learn more about his father and the Cold War. "That's when I began to learn all I could about the U2, the incident, and the growth and collapse of the Soviet Union over the time span from 1945 to 1991," he said.
In 1992, Powers, Jr., moved to Virginia, which was the home of both his parents. His mother was born in Warrenton and his father in southern Virginia, he said.
That is also when he began his quest to establish a Cold War Museum. His preferred site is the former Nike anti-aircraft missile bunkers on the grounds of the now abandoned Lorton Prison.
IN 1995, POWERS established the Cold War Museum as a 501 (C-3) non-profit charity. He began to raise funds and collect artifacts to tell the story of that period in history when the United States and the Soviet Union played high stakes diplomatic and military five card stud from Berlin to Cuba.
The organization has three primary aims, according to Powers:
* The establishment of a 120,000 square feet museum to house relics such as his father's helmet, fallout shelter parts, pieces of the Berlin Wall, a sign from Checkpoint Charlie, photographs, Soviet artifacts, intelligence gathering apparatus, and a host of others. He estimates close to a million items.
* Establish a reference library and research center to aid scholarship about the Cold War and that period in history. It will house oral and written histories, academic papers, and other educational materials.
* Establish a Cold War Memorial, preferably at Arlington National Cemetery.
"We want this museum to be impartial. We want it to show all sides of the Cold War standoff," Powers said. "The basic model of the museum will be a time line from 1945 to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The goal will be to tie the artifacts to the time line."
IT'S ALSO ABOUT setting the record straight, historically and personally, Powers said. "The American government never did anything to set the record straight about my father until 40 years after the fact. On May 1, 2000, he was finally awarded the medals he deserved."
During the past five years, Powers has undertaken a series of fund raising ventures. They have included:
* A traveling Cold War Museum Exhibit that is on display at various locations throughout the nation.
* The creation and operation of a "Spies of Washington Tour." The half-day excursion highlights locations that have been associated with intelligence and counter-intelligence activities since Washington became the nation's capital.
* An on-line gift store that sells such things as a U2 T-shirts.
As a first step to locating the museum at Lorton, Powers has filed a letter of intent with Fairfax County. He has met with Mount Vernon District Supervisor, Gerald W. Hyland, in whose district the site is located, and Chairman of The Laurel Hills Task Force, Neal McBride. Laurel Hills is the area near the former prison.
"I met with Gary and it's clear that the civic association is very supportive. Gary has moved forward to get it done but we still don't have control of the site (Lorton prison). We hope that will happen in the near future," Hyland said.
"From my standpoint, as the supervisor for the district, I find the proposal to make good sense. I believe it would make a very positive addition to the area. It's one proposal that's come forth that makes a strong case to preserve the historic character of the site," Hyland emphasized.
PLACEMENT OF THE museum at the Lorton site is just one of the various uses envisioned for the 2,700 acre former compound. County plans include open space, parks, recreation facilities, and additional homes, among the possibilities.
If Powers is successful in gaining approval for the Lorton site, his museum would join those proposed and planned for the area at Fort Belvoir, for the Army, and Quantico, for the Marine Corps. He stated that if he does not get the Lorton site he is considering Fort Meade, MD, and the underground at DuPont Circle. "But my preference is definitely Lorton," he said.
Powers said he would initially utilize the existing buildings and eventually build a new state-of-the-art museum. The Lorton bunkers were constructed in 1954 as part of a 20 site Nike network protecting the Baltimore/Washington corridor. He estimated two years from acquisition to opening.
"Even the site would be a part of the Cold War History. It is a natural exhibit in itself," Powers said.