August 19

This Day in History

General Interest

Aug 19, 1960:

Captured U.S. spy pilot sentenced in Russia

In the USSR, captured American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers is sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for his confessed espionage.

On May 1, 1960, Powers took off from Pakistan at the controls of an ultra-sophisticated Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. A CIA-employed pilot, he was to fly over some 2,000 miles of Soviet territory to BodØ military airfield in Norway, collecting intelligence information en route. Roughly halfway through his journey, he was shot down by the Soviets over Sverdlovsk in the Ural Mountains. Forced to bail out at 15,000 feet, he survived the parachute jump but was promptly arrested by Soviet authorities.

On May 5, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced that the American spy aircraft had been shot down and two days later revealed that Powers was alive and well and had confessed to being on an intelligence mission for the CIA. On May 7, the United States acknowledged that the U-2 had probably flown over Soviet territory but denied that it had authorized the mission. On May 16, leaders of the United States, the USSR, Britain, and France met in Paris for a long-awaited summit meeting. The four powers were to discuss tensions in the two Germanys and negotiate new disarmament treaties. However, at the first session, the summit collapsed after President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to apologize to Khrushchev for the U-2 incident. Khrushchev also canceled an invitation for Eisenhower to visit the USSR.

In August, Powers pleaded guilty to espionage charges in Moscow and was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment--three in prison and seven in a prison colony. However, only 18 months later, the Soviets agreed to release him in exchange for Rudolf Abel, a senior KGB spy who was caught and convicted in the United States five years earlier. On February 10, 1962, Powers and Abel were brought to separate sides of the Glienicker Bridge, which connected East and West Berlin across Lake Wannsee. As the spies waited, negotiators talked in the center of the bridge where a white line divided East from West. Finally, Powers and Abel were waved forward and walked past each other to freedom.

Upon returning to the United States, Powers was cleared by the CIA and the Senate of any personal blame for the U-2 incident. In 1970, he published a book, Operation Overflight, about the incident and in 1977 was killed in the crash of a helicopter he flew as a reporter for a Los Angeles television station.

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