For Donald Bowman, times were tough and most decent paying jobs were hard to come by, so he decided to serve his country. He rode the bus to Ashland, Kentucky where he took the required tests, got a physical, and met with a recruiter. He considered enlisting for six years as a helicopter pilot but ended up committing to a shorter enlistment of three years as a tracked vehicle mechanic. Once his career was decided, he made everything official by taking the oath to protect his beloved country. He was given a date and a bus ticket to report to Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training and sent back home until his reporting date.
Throughout Don’s youth, he and the rest of the world had watched as the tension between democracy and communism grew to fill the world stage. During the Cold War, there were two major instances where the United States actually confronted communism on the battlefield: The Korean War and the Vietnam War. However, there were also countless skirmishes and confrontations going on that were kept from the headlines. Otherwise, most of the “fighting” was done in the shadows with clandestine activities, including spying on each other to gauge what the other side was doing. One such method utilized by the United States to spy on the Soviets involved the U-2 spy plane. While we spied on each other, the military prepared for a confrontation that seemed inevitable by increasing the number of troops and equipment deployed in Europe.
The U-2 was designed to be extremely light and slender with long wings so that it could fly at a height of seventy thousand feet. This was very important because it allowed the plane to fly out of range of the Soviet’s radar, anti-aircraft weapons, and missile systems. To be able to fly at this extreme height, the plane had to maintain its maximum speed or it would begin descending and be seen by the Soviets. Flying at this altitude created another problem for the pilots. The plane’s engines would stall if the speed dropped by twelve miles per hour from its maximum speed. This left the pilots with very little room for error. The pilots had to wear flight suits similar to those worn by astronauts and oxygen-fed masks because of the extreme altitudes at which they had to fly. The plane was mounted with high resolution cameras to be able to take quality photographs from this height.
On May 1, 1960, fifteen days before an extremely important East-West summit in Paris, a United States U-2 plane departed from Pakistan on an operation code named Grand Slam. The mission for the operation was to photograph numerous ICBM sites within the Soviet Union. The U-2 was spotted and shot down by a battery of surface-to- air missiles that forced the pilot to eject. In an effort to cover-up the missing plane and its mission, President Eisenhower and his staff began issuing false statements. They tried to convince the Soviets that it was a NASA plane that had gone missing and must have accidentally veered into Soviet air space. Unbeknownst to anyone, the Soviet Union had the mostly intact U-2 plane in its possession. They had also captured the pilot, who confirmed that the plane was operated by the CIA and was spying on the Soviets. Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev played along with this cover-up, allowed the United States to spin their story, and bided his time before showing his hand. Once he felt the Americans had dug themselves deep enough into a hole with their lies, he released pictures of the aircraft and the pilot. Finding itself cornered, the United States reluctantly came clean on the truth of the U-2 and its mission. The pilot was convicted of espionage and sentenced to six years of hard labor. He would serve only two years of this sentence before being exchanged for a Soviet prisoner. This incident would become a major motion picture released in 2015 called Bridge of Spies starring Tom Hanks.
Read more of Donald’s story in the second installment of We Were Soldiers Too.