Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Stories For Boys

Good article in today's WSJ by Mark Yost on how the history of one of the more compelling stories of the Cold War has been captured at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, Tenn:

The first U-2 flight over the Soviet Union took place on July 4, 1956. By May 1960 the Air Force had 10 U-2 aircraft that planners and budgeters "hid" in the service's weather command. Powers, who left the Air Force in 1956 with the rank of captain and joined the CIA, was flying out of Peshawar, Pakistan, and was America's most experienced U-2 pilot.

The flight was scheduled because President Dwight D. Eisenhower was to meet with the Soviets, British and French in Paris to discuss arms control. The U.S. suspected the Soviets of lying about missile numbers and capabilities. Powers's nine-hour flight was to take him over the Soviet missile facilities at Plesetsk and Sverdlovsk; he was supposed to land in Bodo, Norway.

Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missiles detonated near the U-2's tail section. Because of the force of the blast, Powers was trapped under the instrument panel and knew that if he used his ejector seat he would sever his legs. The aircraft fell nine miles before Powers was able to extricate himself, pop the canopy, and jump out at 15,000 feet. He landed safely on a Soviet collective farm.

The U.S. initially claimed it had lost a weather observation plane that had drifted into Soviet airspace. The Russians played the scenario masterfully, first claiming to know nothing about it. After the U.S. denied that the incident had anything to do with espionage, the Soviets produced Powers and wreckage from the plane. Powers was tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He served 21 months before he was traded for Col. Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy who had been arrested in New York in 1957.

All of this is told well here through artifacts, newsreels, press clippings and memorabilia on loan from the National Electronics Museum and the Powers family. One of the most interesting items is a Western Union telegram from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to Powers's father, which reads in part, "If you wish to come to the Soviet Union to see your son, I am ready to help you." Touching from the man who a few years earlier had told a group of Western diplomats, "We will bury you."

Mr. Yost goes on to note that U-2s are still being employed by the United States in reconnaissance missions from determining the scope of the the tsunami damage in Japan to more traditional military roles such as the supporting the war kinetic operations in Libya. And the Obama administration has plans to continue to use these legendary "eyes in the sky" through 2015.