February 10, 1962: The Real Bridge of Spies

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A Brief History

On February 10, 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union exchanged spies that had been captured by each country at the Glienicke bridge over the Havel River in Berlin, later known by a more romantic sounding name, “The Bridge of Spies.”

Digging Deeper

Perhaps the most famous American spy captured by the enemy since the Revolutionary War, Francis Gary Powers was a pilot for the CIA flying the top secret U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union when he was shot down and arrested for espionage.  The U-2 spy plane is a jet powered extremely high altitude plane capable of flying above the effective height of enemy anti-aircraft weapons, or at least it was for the first few years it flew (1956-1960), soaring over 70,000 feet high, too high for enemy interceptors to shoot it down.  Equipped with powerful precision cameras, the U-2 was used to spy on all sorts of countries, including US allies, and the US denied using such a plane for such a purpose.

When the Soviets ground to air missile technology caught up with the capabilities of the U-2, the US was taken by surprise.  Powers was shot down over Soviet airspace on May 1, 1960, on a mission to fly all the way across the USSR and an indignant USSR complained to the world that the US was engaged in aerial espionage.   The Soviets had launched 14 SA-2 missiles at Powers, and also sent up a MiG-19 interceptor, but the missiles shot down the Soviet plane as well as the U-2.  President Eisenhower denied the US had been spying, and claimed the U-2 was a weather reconnaissance plane that had gone off course.

The Soviets proudly showed off the largely intact wreckage of the U-2 and the still living pilot that had already been thoroughly interrogated.  Eisenhower and the US were quite embarrassed!  It appears the U-2 was equipped with a self-destruct package, but that Powers was unable to trigger it when he was thrown from the damaged plane.

Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years, 7 of which would be in a labor camp.  Meanwhile, the US had arrested Soviet spy Vilyam Fisher, known as “Rudolf Abel,” in 1957 and sentenced the KGB Colonel to 30 years for espionage.  Powers and an American student that had been arrested, Frederic Pryor, were exchanged for “Abel” at the aforementioned bridge on February 10, 1962.  The Glienicke Bridge was used as the exchange location several times during the Cold War when captured spies were exchanged between the Western Allies and the Soviet Bloc, giving the bridge the nickname, “Bridge of Spies.”

In 2015 a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks was released, titled The Bridge of Spies, and the film featured the Powers-Abel exchange.

The film was a success, and gathered a box office of over $165 million on a budget of only $40 million.  The film was nominated for 6 Academy Awards and won for Best Supporting Actor (Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel).

Gary Powers went on to work as a Lockheed test pilot (the makers of the U-2) until 1970 while being paid by the CIA, and then to a post-CIA career as helicopter pilot traffic reporter in Los Angeles.  On August 1, 1977 Powers crashed his traffic helicopter, dying in the wreck along with his cameraman.  Although beset by rumors of falling asleep during his historic flight in the U-2 and failing to destroy the plane, and even being criticized for not using his suicide poison to avoid capture, Powers had been exonerated officially and was something between a hero and a goat.  Powers was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and other awards for his service in 2000, and in 2012 was awarded the Silver Star for his loyalty and courage while in Soviet custody.  (“Abel”/Fisher died of lung cancer in Moscow in 1971.)

Incredibly, the US is still flying U-2 spy planes 60 years after they entered service!

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.