Or the stuff movies are made of….
The year is 1960 and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is about to reach new heights…
Gary Powers, a “civilian” is piloting the U-2 “weather plane” over Soviet air space when he is shot down by surface to air missiles. It is later determined that Mr. Powers was in the employ of the CIA and that the plane he was piloting was actually a high-tech spy plane designed specifically for covert surveillance. Upon learning of the circumstances, the United Sates demanded his immediate return. The Russians, they were wondering what the hell he was doing up there in the first place.
So begins the saga that sparked what was one of the biggest crises of the Cold War. After being imprisoned in the Soviet Union for about two years, an exchange of prisoners was agreed upon. Mr. Powers was to be traded back to the United States in return for a Soviet Colonel by the name of Rudolph Abel. The exchange was to take place on February 10, 1962 in then divided Berlin. Specifically, the Glienicke Bridge which spans the River Havel. At one end of the bridge stood American authorities and Colonel Abel, on the other stood Soviet authorities and Mr. Powers.
After a pre-arranged signal was given, both men started across the bridge towards each other, Powers heading towards the west and Abel headed towards the east. As they passed each other, they seemed to nod their heads in silent recognition in the roles that they played as spies. The swap went off without a hitch. Incidentally, this scene would be played out in numerous occasions over the next decades when prisoner exchanges were agreed upon.
Or fodder for conspiracy theory?
So how was Mr. Powers greeted upon his return to the shores of the United States. Was he hailed as a conquering hero who endured two years imprisonment in a foreign country in service to his country? Quite the contrary, in what I hope was a sign of the times, Mr. Powers was severely criticized on two counts. The first was for not ensuring the destruction of the plane after it was damaged by the missiles, the second was for not killing himself with the poison that he carried for just such an occasion.
After being given the cold shoulder by his cronies at the Central Intelligence Agency, Mr. Powers eventually left their services. He died in 1977 at the age of 47 when a television news helicopter he was piloting crashed in Los Angeles.
On May 1st of 2000,in order to mark the 40th anniversary of the incident, the United States Government (perhaps to save face?) presented Mr. Powers family members with the Prisoner of War medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the National Defense Service Medal in recognition of Mr. Powers efforts to serve his country.
A final footnote, my sources inside the former Soviet Union have yet to get back to me on the whereabouts or circumstances of one Colonel Rudolph Abel. Perhaps as time goes on, we may learn more about his fate.