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After Coastal NC Town Says 'Nyet' To Russia Monument, Others Say 'Da'

A model of the "Project Zebra" memorial stands in the Arts of the Albemarle building in Elizabeth City. The monument to Russian soldiers killed while training in the United States during World War II may still find a home in America.
Martha Waggoner

A monument honoring a secret World War II spy mission could still find a home in the United States after a North Carolina town rejected the statue because of current tensions between the U.S. and Russia.

The Military Aviation Museum in Virginia has offered a place for it. So has a coastal North Carolina funeral home owner.

And the co-chairman of a Russian-American commission on POWs and MIAs said the group is looking for locations other than Elizabeth City for the 25-ton bronze monument that would honor Project Zebra, after the city council there said no to putting it in a local park.

"We're willing to continue to find some place to honor Project Zebra and the cooperation we had in World War II," said retired Gen. Robert Foglesong, co-chair of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs. "The ideal location would have been in Elizabeth City, but we'll consider other locations."

At least one other Elizabeth City option remains a possibility.

David Twiford, owner of Twiford Funeral Homes in Elizabeth City, has offered a spot on his property.

"I think it loses its meaning if it's not in Elizabeth City," he said. "The airmen died here, not up in Virginia."

The aviation museum, which has offered space for the monument, is in Pungo, Virginia, just 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Elizabeth City.

But putting the monument anywhere other than Elizabeth City would be a travesty, said Joe Peel, who was mayor in May 2017 when the city council voted unanimously to accept it. Placing the monument in Virginia "would be like artifacts from the Battle of Gettysburg being displayed in Maryland," Peel wrote in a column this month in The Daily Advance of Elizabeth City.

The monument's location was thrown up in the air in March, when a newly elected city council refused to sign a memorandum of understanding for it. The new panel includes some incumbents who voted yes in 2017.

The joint commission wanted the monument in an as-yet undeveloped park in Elizabeth City because a top-secret WWII operation was based at U.S. Coast Guard station there. Declassified just a few years ago, Project Zebra helped train about 300 Soviet aviators to find German submarines and bomb them.

One night in 1945, three Russians, a Ukrainian and a Canadian were killed when a seaplane bound for Russia crashed in the Pasquotank River. Their sacrifice was never publicly recognized and the crash was forgotten for decades.

After Project Zebra was declassified in 2013, efforts slowly developed to honor it with a monument, which would include three figures — one each of Soviet, U.S. and United Kingdom aviators.

Council members who voted last month against the monument cited fears about Russian hacking of U.S. elections and overall growing tensions between the two countries. Since then, a possible chemical attack in Syria, a Russian ally, prompted the United States, France, and Britain to strike at suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities.

"Our relationship with Russia right now is incredibly complex," Foglesong said. "We certainly hope to keep politics and political intrusion into this humanitarian effort to a minimum."

The politics haven't diminished the interest of Gerald Yagen, president and founder of the Military Aviation Museum, in the 13-foot tall monument.

Yagen hopes to acquire a WWII bomber hangar that's in Moscow, and if that works out, then he would like to place the monument in front of the hangar, said a spokeswoman, Amy Wiegand, who said Yagen declined to be interviewed.

All options are on the table, Foglesong said, including the original location.

"If the city council changes its mind, we would want to re-entertain that," he said.

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