WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force will award a Silver Star posthumously to Francis Gary Powers, the pilot whose spy plane was shot down in 1960 over the Soviet Union in a defining moment of the Cold War.
The Air Force determined that the U-2 pilot showed "steadfast loyalty" while under harsh interrogation in Soviet prisons. In a report obtained by The Associated Press, it cited his "sustained courage" and gallantry despite "cajolery, trickery, insults and threats of death."
The Silver Star is the Air Force's third-highest honor for service beyond the call of duty.
Powers was swapped for a Soviet spy in February 1962 at Berlin's Glienicke Bridge. He died in the 1977 crash of a traffic helicopter he was flying in Los Angeles.
His son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., requested that his father be considered for the medal. He said the Air Force confirmed this week that it plans to award it. "It is vindication of my father 50 years afterwards," he said. "Dad is one of our American heroes."
In the aftermath of the downing, some people criticized Powers for not committing suicide using a toxin-tipped needle he was given before the flight. Powers said the CIA instructed pilots to surrender and to use of the poisoned pin only if they chose to while under torture.
Pilots were permitted to tell the truth about their missions with the exception of certain specifications of their aircraft.
"While he admitted he was spying, he did not reveal any vital information to the enemy," said Powers Jr., founder of the Cold War Museum in Vint Hill, Virginia.
The decision to award the Silver Star comes just a few weeks before the 20th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, on Dec. 25, 1991.
Powers was not honored after his return in 1962 because of the "global political environment," the Air Force report said.
The U-2 case was detailed in declassified data presented at a 1998 conference, and Powers was awarded a military POW medal and a CIA director's medal posthumously in 2000. The U-2 Soviet overflights were a joint CIA-Air Force program.
Powers Jr. said he requested his father be considered for the higher military honor a few years ago, citing honors given other captured spy plane pilots. He said no date has been set for the award ceremony.