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North Carolina Town Accepts, Then Spurns Russian Gift

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Soviet aviators with their American colleagues in front of a version of the PBY Catalina aircraft in Elizabeth City, N.C. The U.S. trained Soviet pilots to fly the plane as part of Project Zebra, a secret military program during World War II.

Bed-and-breakfast owner Rick Boyd stands in a downtown arts center looking at a model of a bronze monument that he hopes will soon grace the Elizabeth City, N.C., waterfront.

"It's just one of the most beautiful pieces of art that I've ever seen," Boyd said.

In a heroic style that evokes Frederic Remington's rough-hewn Western art, three pilots – American, Canadian and Soviet – look off into the distance.

"And then there's the airplane, the military version of the Catalina, depicted coming out of the water," Boyd said.

The monument would honor a World War II program called Project Zebra. Americans trained hundreds of Soviet fliers on amphibious bombers that they then flew home to fight German and Japanese submarines.

Almost a year ago, Elizabeth City agreed to accept the monument, valued at an estimated $1 million, as a gift from the Russian government. But in a surprise move, a city council with new members has torpedoed the deal, with some saying the city shouldn't associate with Russia.

"I would caution this council that you, or this previous council, gave your word to another foreign government and I'd be embarrassed, to be honest with you, to go back on your word," City Manager Richard Olson said at a council meeting last month.

"You're talking about the 'hacking government?' " asked council member and ex-pro football player Johnnie Walton, referring to Russia. "Some people say we'd be dumb not to do it. I'd say it would be dumber to do it."

During the same meeting, another council member asked why the city should accept a Russian monument when it doesn't have statues honoring notable African-Americans.

Some locals back the council majority.

Hezekiah Brown, a professional arbitrator and mediator, questions the timing of the Russian offer, given U.S. intelligence agencies' conclusion that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election.

"You can't deny the fact that politics are involved somewhere," Brown said. "You know, you've got the 2018 election coming up."

A secret program in the American South

One reason the Russians didn't propose the monument earlier could be that Project Zebra wasn't declassified until six years ago.

The project began in 1944. The U.S. was making the amphibious bombers for Russia, and needed a place to train more than 300 Soviet pilots.

"We then went ahead and made 185 of these 11-crew planes in the Philadelphia Naval Yard and painted red stars on them and flew them down to Elizabeth City, N.C.," says M. G. Crisci, author of Project Zebra: Roosevelt and Stalin's Top-Secret Mission to Train 300 Soviet Airmen in America.

'It was both a Coast Guard base that had huge airfields that could take these planes, and it had the waterways nearby that they could practice and take off in the water.

"The town was remarkable in that it was essentially cheerleaders and provided these crews things that they wanted and needed and it was actually an amazing team effort," Crisci said.

"There was once a time in America where a bunch of people that didn't know each other, who couldn't speak each other's language, came together through circumstances and built a monument to humanity. While at the same time completing a very successful military mission."

That's what the Russians say they want to honor with the monument.

Saying no to a gift

Supporters say if Elizabeth City turns the Russians down, it could have an unexpected consequence: hampering international efforts to search for missing U.S. troops.

That's because a joint U.S.- Russia commission that supports those searches helped broker the monument deal, in part because three Soviet fliers went missing during Project Zebra.

U.S. researchers hunt through Russian archives for clues about MIAs who went missing in the Soviet bloc during the the Cold War, or who were shot down in Vietnam, where some missile crews had Soviet advisers.

The commission's U.S. chairman, retired Air Force Gen. Robert Foglesong, is concerned the Russians will be offended if Elizabeth City rejects the monument.

"Potentially, the Russians could deny us the opportunity to go in the archives," Foglesong said. "They could deny us the opportunity to come and do site work."

Foglesong said his counterpart in Russia is watching to see how the debate over the monument plays out.

"They have put considerable resources into this and time and effort and in a sense are out on their own limb," he said.

Boyd, the bed-and-breakfast owner, started a petition asking the city council to reverse its decision. Within days he and other monument supporters had collected more than 500 signatures.

And local tourism and VFW officials also are trying to get the city council to reconsider.

Foglesong said if they're not successful, it's unclear if the Russians would try to find another site, or ditch the monument idea entirely.

Copyright 2018 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.

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