Historical Marker #1732 in Whitesburg notes the Cold War U-2 spy incident involving Letcher County native Francis Gary Powers.
Powers was born in Jenkins, Kentucky, on August 17, 1929. He graduated from Milligan College in Tennessee in 1950. Shortly thereafter, Powers joined the United States Air Force and was trained in aviation tactics. Powers flew in the Korean War, but, due to his strong record as a pilot, was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In the CIA, Powers was trained in the U-2 spy plane program. The U-2 aircraft was designed to make extended reconnaissance flights while taking high-altitude photographs of enemy military installations.
On May 1, 1960, after taking off from an airbase in Turkey, Powers was shot down over Soviet Russian airspace. The incident inflamed already tense relations between Cold War adversaries, the Soviet Union and the United States. Powers safely ejected from his U-2 plane, but he was quickly captured by the Russians and incarcerated as a spy.
Initially, the U.S. claimed that the flight was for weather research. Items found in the plane and on Powers, however, disproved the cover up. Powers was sentenced to ten years in a Soviet prison, but diplomatic efforts led to an exchange for a Russian spy who was being held in America.
After his exchange, Powers returned to civilian life. He worked several years for a television news station in California flying a helicopter. In 1977, his craft ran out of fuel and crashed near Los Angeles. Powers was buried in Arlington Cemetery.
In 1976, the famous Cold War event was made into a film titled "Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident." Powers was played by fellow eastern Kentuckian, Lee Majors.