Operation Overflight

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Powers, Francis Gary. Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident. Washington, DC: Brassey's Inc, 2004.


Summmary

One of the problems faced by the United States during the Cold War was finding the way to gather intelligence about the interior of the Soviet Union. After the end of the Second World War, there was a great amount of Soviet expansion and development in the Russian interior. This included cities, airfields, factories, etc. Because the Soviet Union was a closed country, the United States knew very little about the Soviet developments in the region. In an attempt to gather information, the U-2 reconnaissance airplane was developed. The U-2 was a long, thin, custom-built aircraft with a very wide wingspan. The purpose of the U-2 was to fly over the Soviet Union at a very high altitude, taking reconnaissance photos of the Soviet Union’s interior.

One of the pilots recruited to fly the U-2 was Air Force pilot Francis Gary Powers who, along with other pilots from the Air Force, was recruited by the CIA to conduct these missions. After being transferred from the Air Force to the CIA, though they were officially called civilian Air Force personnel, they received their training on the U-2 in the Nevada desert. After receiving their training, Powers and the other pilots flew to Turkey to begin operations. Over the next several years Powers and the other U-2 pilots flew over the Soviet Union, gathering reconnaissance information. In addition to flying out of Turkey, they also used airfields in other nations, such as Norway and Pakistan.

For several years the Soviets knew about the U-2 flights, but were unable to stop them. Then, in 1958, Powers’ U-2 was hit by a Soviet missile in central Russia. After being captured and interrogated, Powers was imprisoned by the KGB in Moscow, who let the United States know that one of their pilots had been captured. After being charged with spying, Powers was convicted by a Soviet court in a show trial, and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. After the trial, he was sent to a remote prison in Vladimir, east of Moscow. In the book, Powers goes into great detail how during his captivity and imprisonment, he was interrogated by the Soviets, in an attempt to gain information about the U-2 program, and their other tactics in handling spies. After being held for approximately 18 months, Powers was sent to Berlin and was given his freedom as a result of a prison exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States.

After returning to the United States, Powers spent several weeks undergoing a debriefing process by the CIA. It was during this time period many criticized Powers for not activating his destruction devise, which would have destroyed the aircraft, instead of allow its remaining pieces to fall into Soviet hands. After this initial controversy, the incident was investigated by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which cleared Powers of any wrongdoing.


Commentary

Jim Sweeney, Fall 2006

Although it is a first person account, and not a traditional account, I enjoyed reading Powers’ account of the U-2 missions over the Soviet Union and his subsequent capture, imprisonment, and release. I would argue that it is sometimes important to understand history through first person accounts, rather than only through a professional historian. With that being said, a good part of the book, the sections dealing with his daily life as a prisoner, are not totally relevant to an understanding of the Cold War. They do however, give the reader and understanding of how the KGB interrogates its suspects and the Soviet prison system, which I feel is important.

The two areas, which I feel are most historically relevant, are Powers’ recruitment and training with the CIA and his recount of his flights over the Soviet Union as a part of the U-2 program. I found it interesting how he and the other pilots were told relatively little about the program, and the means in which they concealed their work from others. Although I knew about the U-2 program, I did not realize how little the United States knew about the Soviet Union. I had always believed that they were looking for very specific things, such as missiles, etc. I did not realize that the main goal of the program was to simply photograph the Soviet Union because of the American governments’ lack of knowledge about their rival.

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