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Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident

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Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident by Francis Gary Powers with Curt Gentry. Potomac Books, 2003, 344 pp.

When I was stationed at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, from 1996 to 1998, I often heard the roar of U-2s launching. I recall a memorable protocol visit, standing on the Osan flight line with a World War II fighter ace and his spouse, a Korean War fighter ace and his WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilot) spouse, and base leaders. We were filled with anticipation, and our excitement increased as we observed the U-2 taxi onto the runway, launch, and vanish from sight. The exhilaration that we felt that day equates to the intellectual and emotional stimulation that people will experience when they read Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident.

I spent several days rereading this thought-provoking and inspiring memoir. Kudos to the authors for their personable writing style and foreshadowing reflected in such passages as “one question was never asked, one subject never discussed” (p. 21) and “maximum altitude” (p. 78), which occur throughout the book. These and other literary hooks kept me wondering if or when the authors would reveal the answers.

The tantalizing bread crumbs that they strategically shared made it difficult to select a topic for this review. For example, should I focus on the U-2’s mechanical and utilization evolution, good and bad? Questionable decisions about centralized control and decentralized execution that were made without consulting the experts? Pulitzer Prize–worthy spin-doctored material that yielded the perfect scapegoat-making platform? The captivating historical interconnectedness of the Korean conflict, President Kennedy (emphasis added), and the 1968 North Korean capture of a US spy ship? Conspiracy theories, including one about a US Marine Corps private who in 1959 defected to Russia and was mentioned in the National Archives “Commission Document No. 931 [that] is still classified and withheld from research [as of 13 October 1969]. . . . The title . . . is ‘[Lee Harvey (emphasis added)] Oswald’s Access to Information About the U-2’ ” (p. 305)?

Exploring these and other topics, this review focuses on Francis Gary Powers the leader. Given the opportunity, I would have jumped at the chance to serve under him—a statement I would make to and about only a few leaders. His courage to ask the tough questions, do what’s right in the best interest in our nation, and strengthen his resilience when it appeared that several US government leaders, reporters, and citizens called or considered him a traitor is praiseworthy.

Glimpses into his character-building begin in chapter 1. Sharing insight into his youth, the authors highlight how after his first airplane ride, Mr. Powers was hooked. His patriotism grew to such an extent that although he missed World War II, he would find a way to serve and, hopefully, fly. During this time, Mr. Powers’s rebellious streak and search for exciting adventures sprouted when he enlisted in the Air Force. In 1951 he became an officer and joined the Air Cadets.

Enter the “Agency” (Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]) in 1956. The remainder of chapter 1 and all of chapter 2 elaborate on how Mr. Powers and others became CIA civilian pilots, the training they received, and the eagerness to collect information from behind the Iron Curtain. At this point (circa March 1960), the rebellious Mr. Powers posed the unasked question and topic never mentioned by the Agency: “ ‘What if something happens and one of us goes down over Russia? . . . What story does he use? Exactly how much should he tell?’ His [Agency intelligence officer’s] exact words were, ‘You may as well tell them everything, because they’re going to get it out of you anyway’ ” (p. 52).

Chapter 3 includes details of Mr. Powers’s 1 May 1960 capture, incarceration, interrogation and trial, and treatment. Notable actions include his ignoring CIA guidance and abiding by the code of conduct created after the Korean conflict and learned while he served in the Air Force. The fact that he had to play by the rules of a foreign judicial process and was unable to defend himself or make an appeal seems unreal. I wonder how many people could have prevailed in similar circumstances.

Chapter 4 describes the deplorable behavior of the press and senior US government officials who maligned Mr. Powers when he could not defend himself publicly and honestly. Only after openly testifying before Congress was he praised for demonstrating loyalty to his country. As the truth was revealed, the American public started expressing its skepticism of the media and the government, wondering what other deceptions lurked about.

Along with Mr. Powers’s strength of conviction to set the story straight by writing a book, his loyalty continues to shine in chapter 5. Here, the authors justify criticism of certain agencies and individuals but, in fairness, thank them for their beneficial efforts and support. Despite the fact that many individuals in the United States initially considered Mr. Powers a traitor (perhaps some still do), he remains protective of his nation: “I have omitted some matters which I feel could affect present national security” (p. 307). Mr. Powers never revealed the “maximum altitude” at which a U-2 could fly.

Anyone who wishes to explore Mr. Powers’s admirable behavior, to learn from history, to examine espionage and groupthink, to use the power of deception for the greater good, and to encounter themes relevant to our current volatile environment should read this book. I believe that Mr. Powers was on target when he said, “There was much that could—no should—be known if for no other reason than to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future” (p. 283). Hopefully, more people will read Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident and, like Mr. Powers, think critically, ask tough questions, take action, admit mistakes, protect our nation, and catalyze positive change by doing the right thing.

Dr. Katherine Strus, Lieutenant Colonel, USAF, Retired
San Antonio, Texas

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.

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