In 1944-1945, Elizabeth City hosted over 300 Soviet naval pilots who were trained by US instructors to operate seaplanes — a total of 185 PBN Nomad amphibious bombers with top-notch equipment, including radars and computer-like bombsights — that the United States gave to its ally as part of a multi-billion Lend-Lease defense assistance. It was not until the 1990s that Project Zebra was declassified in both countries.
"Project Zebra is a great example of the spirit of brotherhood-in-arms which existed between our nations back in those days. Here in Elizabeth City, aviators from the USSR, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada worked side by side united by a common goal," Russia’s Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov said, addressing a fully packed hall of the local museum on Saturday.
A Sputnik correspondent at the scene reported that the turnout exceeded the room's sitting capacity but people still stood in the aisle and along the walls. The event was timed to the 75th anniversary of a tragic incident that took place near Elizabeth City within Project Zebra on 11 January 1945. One of the seaplanes crashed as it failed to take off from the Pasquotank River, leaving four Soviet pilots and a Canadian radio operator dead.
This was the second and the last Nomad lost during Project Zebra. In June 1944, another aircraft on the final leg of its journey to the Soviet Union over Nazi-occupied Norway hit a cliff, leaving all six Soviet crew members aboard killed, including the first Project Zebra commander Viktor Vasiliev. After the Norwegian crash, the northern route, albeit the shortest one, was deemed too risky and abandoned for the sake of trails across Alaska and Siberia or through South America, Africa and the Middle East.
“Today we commemorate these warriors as well as millions of soldiers, sailors and officers who courageously fought with the enemy and saved peace on the planet. We will always remember our allies in the anti-Hitler coalition,” Ambassador Antonov said. “But we also know that the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the fascist attack as Hitler threw in three quarters of his troops to the Eastern Front. Peoples of the Soviet Union paid an enormous price for the Victory – 27 million lives.”
Americans joined the Russian ambassador in standing up and bowing their heads in a moment of silence.
The ceremony continued at the river bank where Russian diplomats and local officials tossed a wreath and red flowers onto the water accompanied by a prayer chant and rifle salute performed by war veterans from the American Legion association.
“I fear that if we don’t have ceremonies as such people won’t remember. People need to remember history. If you don’t, you start making the same mistakes again,” one of the veterans told Sputnik.
The ceremony hosts staged humorous re-enactments of US President Franklin Roosevelt explaining a decision to launch Project Zebra to US Navy officer Gregory Gagarin, an offspring of a Russian aristocratic family, who contributed immensely to the mission's success by flying as an interpreter on a cushion in between two pilot seats, and a universally loved Soviet commander Maxim Chibisov, whose impersonator crowned his performance with singing a Russian folk song.
Though Project Zebra was long shrouded in secrecy, with all its participants now passed and the number of first-hand witnesses dwindling, there are still those who fondly recall the pilgrimage of the Soviets to the nearby site, where the Wright brothers flew the world’s first airplane, their volleyball matches and boat races against Americans, their shopping habits or how on Victory Day, 9 May 1945, they were asked to hoist the American flag in front of the town hall as a token of gratitude.