Long Roads to Redemption

July 1, 2012

This editorial begins somewhere unexpected: aboard a life raft bobbing in the frigid Barents Sea. In July 1960, when a Soviet fighter attacked an Air Force RB-47 reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace off Murmansk, Capt. John McKone and Capt. Bruce Olmstead bailed out and reached their life rafts.

A Russian fishing trawler picked up McKone and Olmstead after they had been adrift for more than six hours. They were the only two survivors among the six airmen on the mission.

McKone and Olmstead were quickly transported to Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, where they endured frequently inhumane treatment and constant interrogation during seven months of captivity. They refused to confess to any wrongdoing despite intense psychological coercion, including death threats.

Forty-four years later, on Sept. 13, 2004, the two airmen were presented with Silver Stars at the Air Force Association’s National Convention. The Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff presented the long-overdue honors to the retired colonels for the gallantry and courage they showed during their captivity.

This award set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to Francis Gary Powers receiving his Silver Star last month.

These events are reminders that sometimes justice comes slowly, but should also give hope to the families of other airmen still waiting for their reputations to be restored.

It was extraordinarily difficult to gather intelligence inside the Soviet Union. In addition to perimeter flights such as those flown by the RB-47, President Eisenhower authorized a top-secret program to have American pilots fly U-2s over sensitive Soviet facilities. The missions would gather intelligence the US could not collect any other way.

Politics of the time demanded a civilian cover for the missions, as military incursions would be considered acts of war. This led to a complex scheme in which Air Force pilots resigned their commissions and worked for the CIA as contract employees flying CIA aircraft.

The idea was that if a U-2 were ever shot down or crashed, the US would claim it was performing weather reconnaissance or another non-overtly military mission. U-2 flights over Soviet territory began in 1956.

The Soviets were initially powerless to stop the incursions. They could not intercept or shoot down the high-flying spyplanes, which operated up to 70,000 feet.

Soviet leaders privately protested, but were unwilling to publicly reveal the US was overflying their territory with impunity. For four years, the Soviet leadership seethed and sought a way to bring down a U-2.

“There was no way of knowing when the Soviets would acquire the weapon needed to shoot them down,” wrote historian Walter J. Boyne in this magazine in April 2010. “As the fourth year of operation approached, concern rose that a U-2 might be lost at any time.”

Time was running out. Even after an SA-2 targeted a U-2 in 1960, the CIA got permission for another mission—Francis Gary Powers’ fateful flight. Deep over the Soviet interior, an SA-2 exploded near his aircraft, snapping off its tail and forcing Powers to bail out. He was captured and sent to Lubyanka.

“The CIA failed to support him publicly or provide an adequate cover story for an event they knew was inevitable—a downed U-2,” wrote Boyne.

The secrecy surrounding the mission meant that Powers was viewed with suspicion and frequently mistreated in public opinion during and after his captivity. He was criticized for not blowing up his aircraft, and even for not committing suicide before he could be taken into captivity. His daughter, Dee Powers, said last month that when she was in third grade, her teacher “told the entire class that my father should have killed himself.”

In reality, Powers never betrayed the United States or his fellow U-2 pilots during his captivity, and he refused to denounce the US or make any statements for Soviet propaganda purposes. “He did not spill his guts,” his son, Gary Powers Jr., said last month. “He kept back all the vital information he could.”

Powers was convicted in a Moscow show trial, but the US managed to secure his 1962 release in a swap for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.

The truth about what his mission was and how he had performed it was not declassified until 1998, fully two decades after Powers died in a 1977 helicopter crash.

In 2000, the Air Force awarded Powers the Prisoner of War Medal, among other recognition. “The mind still boggles at what we asked [Powers] and his teammates to do,” said then-Brig. Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB, Calif. “To literally fly over downtown Moscow, alone, unarmed, and unafraid.”

Still, Powers’ reputation continued to suffer, thanks to “part-truths, mistruth, innuendo, [and] some outright lies,” said Gary Powers Jr.

McKone and Olmstead’s RB-47 was shot down two months after Powers’ U-2, meaning the three airmen had overlapping stays in Lubyanka prison. Last year, Gary Powers Jr. read about how the RB-47 airmen had been recognized with Silver Stars for their bravery in captivity. The younger Powers wrote to Pentagon officials to see if this set a precedent for his father to also receive the award. He was informed it did.

Powers’ reputation has finally been fully restored. Longtime readers of this page may also recall the cases of John Lavelle, commander of 7th Air Force in 1972 in Vietnam, and Terryl Schwalier, wing commander at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. These two men still face unjustly tarnished reputations. (See “Editorial: Justice Rejected,” March 2011, p. 2.)

Lavelle allegedly violated the Vietnam War rules of engagement by allowing his airmen to proactively attack enemy air defenses. In reality he had authorization for this approach.

Schwalier was made the scapegoat for the terrorist bombing of Khobar’s high-rise barracks, an attack that would today be considered an act of war. Referencing his father’s case, Gary Powers noted, “It’s never too late to set the record straight.”

We agree. Hopefully it will not take 52 years for the Lavelle and Schwalier families to see their reputations restored.