Last week we began the story of Barbara Moore, the Live Oak-born wife of Air Force and CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers who rose into the international spotlight in 1960.  Today we conclude the article of this interesting tidbit of Suwannee County history.

The Soviet Union was aware that American aircraft were making incursions into their airspace, but until 1960 the extreme altitude at which the U-2s flew had kept them safe from harm.  However, the Soviet Union had recently installed more modern missiles that could reach high altitudes, and they were ready for Powers’ spy plane when it entered their airspace.  Repeated attempts by fighter jets and missiles finally shot down Powers’ plane (as well as one of the pursing Soviet fighters), but Powers was able to bail out.  He was captured by the Russians.

American forces quickly realized that Powers’ plane had been shot down.  However, as it was a top secret mission and there was to be an international peace summit within days, a cover story was created.  The official story was that the aircraft was a weather research plane whose pilot had experienced oxygen difficulties and ejected while over friendly Turkey; the aircraft had continued on auto-pilot until it crashed deep inside the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately for the United States, the Soviet Union had a partially-intact aircraft and a living pilot in their custody, and embarrassed the United States through the international media.  The peace summit made no progress, and instead accelerated an arms race that lasted until the breakup of the Soviet Union 30 years later.

Francis Gary Powers was tried by the Soviet Union for espionage in August of 1960.  Live Oak-born wife Barbara, as well as Powers’ parents, were present during the trial and appeared devoted to her during the long ordeal.  Barbara vowed to stay in Moscow until “I’ve done everything possible” to have her husband released, hiring her own attorney separate from her in-laws’ attorney.   Powers was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison and seven years of hard labor.  Before Barbara returned to the United States, Soviet authorities allowed her one hour with her husband behind closed doors.

Two years later, in February of 1962, Powers was finally released from Soviet captivity in exchange for a captured Soviet spy.  Powers appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to answer questions about the ordeal; oddly enough, Barbara was not present with him, nor for the Virginia homecoming that followed.  She stated that she had personal affairs to settle at her mother’s home in Georgia.  Barbara’s mother would later state, “Barbara hasn’t been herself since Gary was shot down.”

In August of 1962, only six months after Powers’ release from Soviet prison and return to America, he filed for divorce from Barbara on grounds of cruelty and intoxication.  He charged her with “habitual intoxication” and that she cursed and abused him without cause.  Powers further added that he and Barbara had been separated since May 27 of that year, and that in April, she had overdosed on sleeping pills and been admitted to a hospital for three days.  It did not help Barbara’s cause that she was nicknamed “Gay Barbie” (using the original meaning of the word:  “light-hearted and carefree”, not its current sexual usage) because of her alcoholic behavior at the Officers’ Club over the years.  Powers himself later wrote that he had suffered more from Barbara’s torture than he had from Soviet interrogations and prison!

The divorce was finalized and Powers moved on with his life, marrying again in 1963 to a CIA psychologist named Claudia Sue Edwards Downey who debriefed pilots upon their return from foreign missions.  They would have one son, Francis Gary Powers, Jr., and a daughter, Dee.  Powers himself would die in a civilian helicopter crash in 1977.

As for Barbara, she returned to Albany and worked at a Marine Corps Logistics Base, which she later sued for unfair labor practices.  It was determined by a judge that the Base had violated Barbara’s right to have a union representative present at an interview likely to result in disciplinary action against her.

Barbara went on to marry Ray Drake, whose father purchased numerous tax deeds in the Albany area.  Barbara and her husband planned on opening a bar and went so far as to build the structure, but they never received a permit.  Instead, they decided to live in the building.  Barbara and her husband appear to have faded into obscurity after that.  They supposedly had a daughter and Albany sources stated that both Barbara and her husband had died prior to April of 2008, but I have not been able to find confirmation.

Whatever happened in her final years, Barbara Moore was in the international spotlight for a brief time during an important period of American history when the world could have seen a nuclear holocaust.  Her Live Oak roots have been all but forgotten, but it’s when I find information such as this that I feel privileged to have access to our county’s records.

Join me next time as we talk about more of Suwannee County’s history.

Eric Musgrove can be reached at ericm@suwgov.org or 386.362.0564.

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