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Unusual Fate of Two American Fathers in Russia

  • Peter Fedynsky

Francis Gary Powers Jr. (left) meets Karl Alperovich, who was a co-designer of the missile that shot down the US U2 spy plane Power's father flew over the Soviet Union in 1960

Francis Gary Powers Jr. (left) meets Karl Alperovich, who was a co-designer of the missile that shot down the US U2 spy plane Power's father flew over the Soviet Union in 1960

The unusual fate of two American fathers and their sons recently intersected in Moscow, where cooperation and confrontation between the United States and Russia are on display in two of the city's military museums.

Sergeant Joe Beyrle parachuted into Normandy during the allied D-Day invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944. Separated from his unit, he was captured and later escaped from a German Prisoner of War camp. Heading east, he met and joined a Soviet tank battalion. He is the only American known to have fought against the Nazis with the U.S. and Red armies.

An exhibit entitled "Joseph Beyrle - Hero of Two Nations" opened Thursday at the World War II Museum in Moscow. His son, John Beyrle, is the current U.S. Ambassador to Russia. He says the exhibit is a symbol of partnership between the United States and Russia. "It should really serve, I think, as a stimulus to us to find ways to recapture the partnership so we can join forces and fight together against the threats and challenges of the 21st century that are no less dangerous than Hitler was in his time," he said.

But the end of World War II signaled the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and Russia in which CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers played a central role. He too parachuted from his aircraft. It was a U2 reconnaissance plane shot down by a Soviet missile 20,000 meters over the Russian city of Sverdlovsk on May 1, 1960. The wreckage is on permanent display at Moscow's Russian Army Museum.

The pilot's son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., is director of the Cold War Museum in Arlington, Virginia. He shared declassified U2 photos during the 50th anniversary commemoration of the U2 incident in Moscow.

"These photographs were taken on April 9, 1960; on the last mission before the May 1st mission. This image here is a Soviet airfield with the bombers and MIGs on the ground that are blown up [enlarged]. You can see their strengths and weaknesses," he said.

Similar photos taken by Francis Gary Powers constituted espionage for which he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was released in a U.S.-Soviet spy swap after serving 21 months.

The U2 was brought down by an S-2 surface to air missile. Its co-designer, Karl Alperovich, told VOA that Francis Gary Powers survived because he did not panic as his plane plummeted to the ground.

Alperovich refers to the pilot as an honorable man who had a mission to carry out just as Russian missile designers had their mission.

Alperovich greeted the younger Powers in Moscow with a long and firm handshake at the Almaz-Antey Air Defense Company, which designed the weapon. Alperovich says he is glad the father was not killed. And the son says he has no ill feeling toward Russians. "I do not feel that I am an enemy to the people of Russia now. I think that Russia and America have very good working relations and can only continue to be improved," he said.

Ambassador Beyrle points to the recent Strategic Arms Reduction Agreement between Washington and Moscow as a sign of better relations. He notes a rich agenda and momentum for further improvement. "Whether it's the fight against international terrorism, whether it's cooperation in space, exchanges in health and ecological sphere; there's a lot America and Russia can do and will do together over the next two years as this momentum in the relationship builds," he said.

Both sons look back with pride at their fathers. Both are also working to overcome suspicions that stand in the way of renewed U.S.-Russian cooperation to meet challenges that could confront their children.

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