Historical Marker #1732 in Whitesburg, Kentucky, commemorates the Cold War U-2 spy incident involving Letcher County native Francis Gary Powers.
Powers was born in Jenkins, Kentucky, on August 17, 1929. In 1950, he graduated from Milligan College in Tennessee. Shortly thereafter, Powers joined the United States Air Force and was trained in aviation tactics. Powers flew for the U.S. Air Force in the Korean War. He quickly gained a reputation as a skilled pilot, and was given a position with 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 airspace. The incident inflamed the 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 captured by the Soviets and incarcerated for his alleged service as a spy. Initially, the U.S. claimed that the flight was for weather research. However, items found in the plane and on Powers disproved this cover-up story. Powers was sentenced to ten years in a Soviet prison, but by way of diplomatic efforts, he was exchanged for a Soviet spy held in the United States.
After this life-saving exchange in 1962, Powers returned to civilian life. For many years during the 1970s, he flew a helicopter for a television news station in California. During this time, a film was made about his service. The movie, “Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident,” was released in 1976. Powers was played by Lee Majors, a fellow eastern Kentuckian. Unfortunately, he passed away just a year later. In 1977, his aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed in Los Angeles, California. Powers died in the accident. Because of his service to the United States, he was buried in Arlington Cemetery in Virginia.
Marker #1732 was dedicated in 1983 by the Kentucky Historical Society and the Kentucky Department of Transportation. It reads: Pilot-Spy-Hero. Francis Gary Powers and the "U-2 Incident" catapulted activities of the United States into world view. This Burdine native, with other pilots directed by CIA, flew U-2's (high altitude jet gliders) over Russia, photographing missile and industrial sites and nuclear tests. On May 1, 1960, when his plane was disabled 1300 miles over Russia, Powers parachuted to safety. Over.
(Reverse) Francis Gary Powers (1929-1977). Taken prisoner, Powers stated his compass had malfunctioned on a weather flight. Finding film intact in plane's wreckage, the Russians told him he would stand trial for espionage. Sentenced to ten years imprisonment, Powers was released in 1962 in exchange for a Soviet spy. Later decorated by CIA. Died in civilian helicopter crash.