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Cold War U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers to receive posthumous Silver Star

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Posted at 1:51 PM, Jun 09, 2012
and last updated 2012-06-09 14:59:30-04

(CNN) – An American pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union will be posthumously awarded the Silver Star next week, 50 years after he was released from prison and returned to the United States.

The award for valor is being bestowed on Francis Gary Powers for exhibiting “exceptional loyalty” during harsh interrogation while in captivity by the Soviet Union for nearly two years, the Air Force said.

The Silver Star is the third-highest combat military decoration awarded to members of any U.S. military branch for valor in the face of the enemy, the Air Force said. The award will be presented to his family Friday during a ceremony at the Pentagon, officials said.

Powers was shot down on May 1, 1960, during a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union, and spent 21 months in a Moscow prison.

He languished through 61 days of interrogation by the KGB, a trial and conviction for espionage and started serving a 10-year sentence.

The incident was one of the most dramatic and tense moments of the Cold War, and is credited in large part with the collapse of arms control talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the Paris Summit.

After the United States denied the downed plane was used for spying, the Soviets produced large pieces of the plane and put Powers on television. During the summit, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev launched into a tirade against President Dwight D. Eisenhower for refusing to apologize, and Eisenhower canceled the talks.

Powers finally returned to the United States in 1962 after a spy exchange with the Soviet Union.

He wrote about his rocky return to the U.S. in his 1970 book, “Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident.”

Upon his return, Powers was criticized for not destroying his plane and the intelligence cache, and for not taking a suicide pill before the Soviets captured him.

He was debriefed by the CIA and testified before the Senate Armed Services Select Committee. It was determined that he followed orders and did not give away critical information to the Soviet Union.

Powers worked at Lockheed Martin for seven years and later served as a helicopter pilot broadcasting traffic updates in Los Angeles. He died in a 1977 helicopter crash.