U-2 spy plane pilot gets Silver Star

(CBS NEWS) THE PENTAGON - A top secret air mission gone wrong was remembered this week, more than half-a-century after it first made headlines. It's a story of Pentagon vindication and a son's devotion to his father.

Depending on what you've read, Francis Gary Powers is one of the most famous -- or infamous -- pilots in American history. Ever since his U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union on May Day 1960, this question, as put by Walter Cronkite, has hung over him.

"Did Francis Gary Powers, captured U-2 pilot, conduct himself honorably in the service of his country?" asked Cronkite in archival footage.

His son, Francis Gary Powers, Jr., has spent his life trying to answer that question -- beginning with the moment a Soviet anti-aircraft missile knocked his father's plane out of the sky.

"The nose pitches forward, the wings break off, my father finds himself spinning down towards the ground in the wreckage. He falls from 70,000 feet to 30,000 feet before bailing out of the aircraft," said Gary Jr.

The director of the CIA assured President Eisenhower the pilot could not have survived and Eisenhower told the world it was just a weather plane that had strayed off course. Two days later, Soviet leader Khrushchev gleefully announced the pilot was alive and being interrogated.

"It was the first time in American history that a president had been caught lying to the American public," said Gary Jr.

Powers was put on trial, and to avoid the death sentence, made this confession.

"I realize that I've committed a grave crime and I realize that I must be punished for it," he said from archival footage.

Powers spent 21 months in a Soviet prison and then came home to a chorus of questions about his conduct.

As a kid growing up, all Gary Jr. wanted to know was: how high was his father flying.

"So after a few days of pestering him, he finally-- before he was tucking me into bed -- turned to me and said, 'i wasn't flying high enough, now go to bed.'"

His father was killed in a helicopter crash in 1977 and buried at Arlington National Cemetery -- the questions still unanswered. On Friday, the Air Force chief of staff finally delivered the answer: "Today, it's my honor to posthumously award Capt. Gary Powers the Silver Star for his heroic action and his loyalty."

The Silver Star was presented to Francis Gary Powers III -- perhaps the only member of his generation who knows U-2 is a spy plane, not just a rock band. Now he knows one more thing: His grandad was a hero.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.