People in Elizabeth City are taking sides in a fight over a proposed monument, and the outcome could have international implications.
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 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 fliers – American, Canadian and Russian – look off into the distance.
“And then there’s the airplane, the military version of the Catalina, is depicted coming out of the water…” Boyd said.
The monument honors a World War II program called Project Zebra. Americans trained hundreds of Russian fliers on amphibious bombers that then they flew home to fight German and Japanese submarines.
Officials Approve The Deal, Then Back Out
Almost a year ago, Elizabeth City approved a deal with the Russian government to accept the monument as a gift. 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 councilmember 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 dumb-ER 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 African-Americans or women.
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 tried to interfere 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.”
'Cheerful Culture Clashes' In Elizabeth City When Russians Visited Shops
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 somewhere to train more than 300 Russian pilots.
M.G. Crisci is the author of a book on Project Zebra.
“We then went ahead and made 185 of these 11-crew planes in the Philadelphia Naval yards and painted red stars on them and flew them down to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, which was selected because 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,” Crisci said.
Crisci said there were cheerful culture clashes when the Russians visited the shops downtown, and were surprised at things like being able to buy as much ice cream as they wanted. Some townspeople, meanwhile, were briefly taken aback at how loud and close-up the Russians talked.. but figured out that it was a harmless cultural difference.
“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.”
Could Turning Down The Monument Hamper International Relations?
That's what the Russians say they want to honor with the monument. And supporters say if Elizabeth City turns them down, it could have an unexpected consequence: It could hamper 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 Russian fliers went missing during Project Zebra.
The commission’s U.S. chairman, retired Air Force General Robert Foglesong, said its work could be hobbled if the Russians are offended by Elizabeth City's decision.
“Potentially, the Russians could deny us the opportunity to go in the archives,” he said. “They could deny us the opportunity to come and do site work.”
U.S. researchers hunt through Russian archives for clues about MIAs, for example, who went missing in the Soviet bloc during the the Cold War, or who were shot down in Vietnam, where some missile crews had Russian advisors.
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.