WASHINGTON: American U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down in 1960 over the Soviet Union, was posthumously awarded a high honor Friday for his "exceptional loyalty" while in captivity.
It took more than 50 years for the US Air Force to award the Silver Star to Powers, who was sharply criticized after his release in 1962. The medal was given to his two grandchildren at a Pentagon ceremony.
Some said Powers should have taken the CIA-issued "suicide pill" given to him in case of imminent capture, and for flying too low. Some even accused him of revealing secrets to his captors in the Soviet Union.
In 1998, declassified documents showed that Powers -- who left the Air Force with the rank of captain -- worked for a joint CIA-military program, which opened the door to official recognition of his heroic acts.
The downing of the U2, one of the most famous incidents of the Cold War, sparked a crisis between Washington and Moscow, and the eventual failure of the Paris summit that was meant to tackle the status of a divided Berlin.
On May 1, 1960, Powers -- who had already been flying espionage missions over the Soviet Union for four years -- took off on a routine reconnaissance flight.
"The flight plan for this mission took him from Peshawar, Pakistan, to Bodo, Norway over the central part of the Soviet Union," explained his son, Gary Powers Jr, who is now 52 years old and also attended the ceremony.
"In the Sverdlovsk region, there were reports of an SA-2 base that was being developed. So one of his targets was to fly over or close, to confirm if the SA-2 missile base was operational. Well, he found out first it was."
While in a Moscow prison, "Captain Powers was interrogated, harassed, and endured unmentionable hardships on a continuous basis by numerous top Soviet Secret Police interrogating teams," the Air Force citation said.
"Although greatly weakened physically by the lack of food, denial of sleep and the mental rigors of constant interrogation, Captain Powers steadfastly refused all attempts to give sensitive defense information or be exploited for propaganda purposes," it said.
"As a result of his indomitable spirit, exceptional loyalty, and continuous heroic actions, Russian intelligence gained no vital information from him."
Powers was freed in February 1962 in exchange for a Soviet KGB agent caught by the United States. He worked as a US test pilot and later flew a helicopter as a television traffic reporter.
Powers died in 1977 in a helicopter crash.