One of the most complicated aspects of the U.S’s foreign policy in the ‘50s and ‘60s had to do with its uber enemy of the time - the dreaded U.S.S.R., now Russia. As it came to be known, the “Cold War” was an arms race unmatched in history. Both sides researched, drafted, rocketed, test-piloted, and developed some of the most dangerous weapons in history. As we now know, this was largely being done by both sides out of fear and not on actual reconnaissance or data collected on what the other side was doing.
Out of the mysterious desert of Nevada came one of the U.S.’s most effective assets of the Cold War. The U-2 spy plane was developed at the military’s top secret test facility at Area 51 and was quite the technological terror of its day. It could fly up to an altitude of 70,000 feet, that’s over 13 miles for those of you counting at home. It was so fast, and would fly so high, that test pilots would leave Area 51 heading east and would be in Kansas before they knew it. They would bank left over Nebraska and then back through Colorado and south through New Mexico before heading back to Area 51.
So why did it need to fly so high? Well, a couple of reasons. First, the U-2s were being sent straight to an airstrip in Pakistan that was being used by the United States to fly planes over the Soviet Union for spying. Those pesky Soviet anti-aircraft missiles could go way up in the air…but not quite 70,000 feet. Second, the Soviet prime minister at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, had this paranoid delusion that the United States was spying on his country with spy planes. Crazy! So he picked up the phone and contacted President Dwight Eisenhower and asked him, man to man, if the United States was flying spy planes over the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower, of course being one of the greatest presidents we’ve had, answered him directly…“absolutely not.”
That conversation was in late April 1960. Why is that date important? Well, a U-2 pilot by the name of Francis Gary Powers took off from the little Pakistan air strip a couple weeks later on May 1, 1960 and was shot down over the Soviet Union…along with his camera…and the photos he took of those Soviet things called missile silos, airfields, etc.…and his obvious Americanness…and his ultra cool spy plane that had been driving the Soviets crazy for quite some time. Oops.
Mr. Khrushchev was, um, shall we say, not happy.
So you are Francis Gary Powers. You’ve just been shot down in the absolute worst place in the world an American could be shot down, and at the absolute worst time in history an American could be shot down there. Rescue? Negative Ghostrider, not happenin’. All U-2 pilots were equipped with uniforms that had no insignia so that they could tell their captors the “official cover story”…that they were simply weather pilots checking on atmospheric conditions. The planes were equally devoid of insignia to help with the subterfuge. Also this of course made the pilots 100% expendable to the United States. The U-2 pilots knew that if they were ever shot down they were as good as dead. As for Powers, once the Soviets developed his photographs it would become clear right quick that those military sites in the photos were not white fluffy clouds.
Its hard to imagine the fear that Powers must have felt isn’t it? You are not only a foreigner in a foreign land, you are hated. You are vile. You are the enemy. And your president had just flat out lied to the leader of the Soviet Union. And worst of all, you are a spy.
Flash forward to 2014, and pick just about any year in between. Our men and women in the military have one essential mission - to protect our country and our freedom. And they do it day in and day out, 24/7. They do it on our home soil and on foreign soil. They do it in the most peaceful of places and in the most hostile of places. They do it in places where Americans are loved and they do it in places where Americans are hated. They do it without fail. They do it relentlessly. They do it for love of country and because their country asks them to.
So when you see some military folk on Tuesday be sure to thank them for their service to our country. We wouldn’t be here without the countless numbers that have served and died for our freedom.
P.S. What happened to Francis Gary Powers you ask? Well, those dang Russkies tried him and convicted him of espionage because he was a darn good American (I added the good American part). He spent over a year in prison in Russia and then the United States got him back via a spy trade. He lived in America the rest of his days…and had some damn good photos to share.