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June 6, 2012—
Next week, more than 50 years after downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers returned from confinement in the Soviet Union, the Air Force will posthumously honor him for his valor during his 21 months of captivity.

Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz will award Powers a posthumous Silver Star medal, honoring Powers for demonstrating "exceptional loyalty" while enduring harsh interrogation during his Soviet captivity from May 1, 1960, to Feb. 10, 1962, said Air Force officials.

A Russian SA-2 surface-to-air missile shot down Powers' U-2 airplane during a top-secret CIA-run reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union, after which he was held for nearly two years in Lubyanka prison in Moscow.

Grandchildren of Powers will accept the Silver Star on behalf of their grandfather, who died in August 1977 at age 47. Schwartz will present the medal June 15 during a ceremony in the Pentagon, according to the service officials.

Power's shootdown and capture was one of the Cold War's most memorable incidents. It heightened tension between the two superpowers and delivered Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev a propaganda coup.

Despite faithfully serving his country and helping to gather invaluable intelligence on Soviet bomber and ICBM forces during several secret U-2 flights over Soviet territory, the nation never treated Powers as a hero until after his death.

Powers was in part a victim of Cold War secrecy, with decades passing before the US government declassified details of his service. Cold War politics also caused the government that should have embraced him to shun him upon his return.

Slowly, the veil has lifted and the truth has emerged. The Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records (AFBCMR ) decided on Dec. 8, 2011—after Powers' son Gary petitioned the board in March of last year—that Powers "met the eligibility criteria for the Silver Star," according to an Air Force statement provided to the Daily Report. Further, "based on the precedent of the award to two other officers similarly shot down and held prisoner in the USSR," it found that awarding Powers the Silver Star "would be appropriate," it continues. Consequently, the board directed that Powers receive the medal.

The Silver Star is the third-highest combat military decoration awarded to members of any US military branch for valor in the face of the enemy.

When Powers, then a first lieutenant on active duty, joined the CIA's Aquatone overhead reconnaissance program in 1956 to fly the U-2, he ostensibly became a civilian, like the other U-2 pilots of that time.

"The national security interests of the United States required that [Powers] be publically presented as a civilian contractor," according to the Air Force's statement. However, "in reality, he was a commissioned officer on active duty until March 1, 1963," reads the statement.

The AFBCMR on Feb. 15, 2000, corrected Powers' records to acknowledge his active duty status throughout the Aquatone program up until his discharge as a captain. It also recognized him as a prisoner in the Soviet Union, for which he posthumously received the Prisoner of War Medal.

Powers' fateful mission on May 1, 1960, was meant to be the CIA's last U-2 overflight of the Soviet Union. US intelligence knew that while U-2s had operated for several years with impunity in Soviet airspace, the Soviets were fielding missiles that could reach the high-flying reconnaissance aircraft. Already the Soviets had fired an SA-2 at a U-2 over the Siberian Coast.

Powers took off from Pakistan on a course meant to take him across Afghanistan and over the Soviet Union until exiting Soviet airspace near Murmansk and eventually landing in Norway. However, about four hours into his flight, the SA-2 detonated near Powers' U-2, blowing off the aircraft's tail.

Powers bailed out and was quickly captured. The Soviets staged a show trial that sentenced him to prison.

Powers endured harsh conditions in captivity. He returned to the United States after 21 months of confinement through a spy exchange with the Soviets.

He went on to work for Lockheed Martin for seven years and then became a helicopter pilot broadcasting traffic updates in Los Angeles. He died in a helicopter crash.

Powers has also posthumously received the Distinguished Flying Cross, National Defense Service Medal, and, from the CIA, the Director's Medal.

(For more on Powers, read When the U-2 Fell to Earth from Air Force Magazine's 2010 archive.)