Elizabeth City, NC — Project Zebra Monument Hits a Snag

 In History

During WWII, the United States and Russia were allies against the Germans. A top secret operation known as “Project Zebra” brought hundreds of highly trained Russian pilots and crew members to the East Coast of the US. In 2017, the town of Elizabeth City, North Carolina supported a monument to the memory of project members who were killed in a plane crash in 1945. But now, a different city council has decided they think Russia will plant something inside the monument, so they want nothing to do with it.


Project Zebra was a top secret US Naval operation that began in 1943. Between 1943 and 1945, about 300 Russians came to the small town of Elizabeth City, North Carolina at the US Naval Air Station/Coast Guard facility to learn how to pilot the PBY Catalina, an amphibious aircraft designed to drop bombs on submarines. It could land and take off from water. Gregory Gagarin, a Russian immigrant and Navy Avionics specialist, helped train them.

The PBY Catalina- its Russian counterpart was the PBN-1 Nomad

January 11, 1945  

Jeff Hampton of the Pilot reported,

That night in January, the plane was loaded with fuel and American goods, Gagarin said. The pilot reported that he followed the straight line of flares on the river as he took off. He lost his bearings when he switched from flying by sight to using instruments once he flew past the flares.

The pilot felt he was rising too quickly and turned downward, hitting the water.

“He admitted he lost his horizon,” Gagarin said.

Death certificates at the Pasquotank County courthouse show that Capt. Levin, the Odessite, and Russian aviators Lt. j.g. Afanasie Borodin Sr., Lt. D.M. Medvedev and H.N. Chikov died at 10:05 that night, along with Canadian radio operator Peter Nataros.

Project Zebra continued for a few months until the end of the war, when the final Nomads took the long flight from Elizabeth City to Russia. Gagarin never heard how successful the mission was in eliminating enemy subs.

“The Russians very much appreciated what the Americans did for them,” he said.

Five crew members were killed, three survived after the aircraft crashed.


This plaque and the model of the monument are now in the Arts of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City- Screenshot via Marine Corps Times

Screenshot –a model of the proposed memorial

Russia originally received support to create a 25 ton bronze monument honoring those who died as allies in WWII, and were part of the top secret project. But now a different council is in office, and even those who once supported it are saying no to the memorandum of understanding that would allow the project to continue.

Because…Russians. One councilman even babbled about Russians possibly hacking the statue and that it might be a “Trojan horse.”

The Marine Corps Times reported,

Elected officials in Elizabeth City also are hearing from citizens such as Rick Boyd, who turned in a petition with 569 local signatures supporting the project. He said another 200 people have signed an online petition. The monument offers the two rival nations a chance “to show that we worked together in the past, and that we can work together in the future,” he told the council.

Mayor Bettie Parker suggested the vote might have turned out differently if it had happened earlier. “I keep hearing now is not the time to deal with anything that’s coming from Russia,” said Parker, who only votes in a tie.

Council member Billy Caudle, who supports the monument, says people who are concerned about the appearance of an alliance with Russia are “confusing current events with history.”

Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Robert Foglesong, chairman of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs, has asked the city council to reconsider its vote. But for now, the council majority seems steadfast.

Good idea or really bad idea?


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