Ghost Walk to explore top-secret ‘Project Zebra’
By Anna Goodwin McCarthy
Sunday, October 6, 2019
A little-known chapter of Elizabeth City — and world — history will come to life next weekend during the 23rd annual Historic Ghost Walk.
The two-day event, which is a combination historic home tour and history lesson about Elizabeth City’s past, will focus on “Project Zebra,” the one-time top-secret program created by the U.S. government to train Russian pilots to fly large amphibious aircraft in the fight against Germany in World War II.
The Russian pilots received their training at a U.S. Navy base in Elizabeth City where today’s U.S. Coast Guard Base is located. The U.S.-manufactured planes and their newly trained crews were then flown to the Soviet Union where they were put to work bombing German submarines and carrying out other war missions. Project Zebra was such a tightly held secret that its existence wasn’t declassified by the U.S. government until a few years ago.
This year’s Ghost Walk will be held at eight different venues in Elizabeth City’s downtown, waterfront and historic district on Friday and Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. each night.
Marjorie Ann Berry, who has written all “ghost” scripts for Ghost Walk for the past 16 years, said a 10-member committee of the Elizabeth City Historic Neighborhood Association chose to focus this year’s Ghost Walk on Project Zebra. This year’s event is titled: “Project Zebra: Elizabeth City’s Top Secret Role in World War II.”
Berry, an Elizabeth City native and author of the book, “Legendary Locals of Elizabeth City,” said this year’s Ghost Walk scripts are based on the 2017 book by M.G. Crisci, “Project Zebra: Roosevelt and Stalin’s Top-Secret Mission to Train 300 Soviet Airmen in America.” Crisci in fact will be at Arts of the Albemarle on both nights of Ghost Walk to sign copies of his book and talk about Project Zebra, Berry said.
Project Zebra was a program initiated during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency.
“Three hundred Russian pilots came to Elizabeth City to be trained to fly large amphibious war planes,” Berry said. “The whole point was the Russians would fly the planes (back home) to fight Hitler’s forces.”
Some of Berry’s scripts for this year’s Ghost Walk will offer glimpses into the point-of-view of some of the main characters who took part in Project Zebra. Others will offer the perspective of local residents who saw a lot of Russians in their city’s downtown, but because of the secrecy of the project, didn’t know why they were here.
Tom Campbell, who is portraying his 20th character for Ghost Walk this year, will play Maxim Chibisov, the Russian commander of the pilots who trained for Project Zebra. Campbell will be located at Mariners’ Wharf Park where he will talk about a plane crash involving Russian and United Kingdom aviators that occurred on the Pasquotank River during Project Zebra. According to Crisci’s book, the plane was overloaded with goods the Russians were taking home with them when it crashed in January 1945, killing three Russians, a Ukrainian and a Canadian who were on board.
Al Del Garbino will portray Gregory Gagarin at the Virginia Dare Apartments at 110 South McMorrine Street.
“He was an American of Russian descent,” said Berry. “He was the glue that held the project together.”
Berry said Gagarin acted as an interpreter, translating Russian and English for Project Zebra participants.
Phil McMullan will portray President Roosevelt at the Joseph W. Pool House at 813 W. Main Street.
“He will say why he chose Elizabeth City for Project Zebra,” said Berry.
Kent Luton will portray Joe Flickenger at Museum of the Albemarle.
“Joe was a local teacher who loved airplanes,” said Berry.
Flickenger also became a lifelong friend of Gagarin’s after Project Zebra.
At the John A. Kramer House at 313 West Main Street, Judi Stuart and Christina Shepard will portray fictional locals of the era who catch a glimpse of the Russian pilots shopping in downtown Elizabeth City. The skit is comedic, Berry said, because their characters see all these young pilots and “don’t know what to make of it because Project Zebra is top secret.”
Berry said from her research, many of the store shelves in Elizabeth City’s downtown during Project Zebra “were bare because the Russians were buying goods they could not get in Russia.”
At the Wiley M. Baxter House at 708 West Church Street, Izzy Kelly-Goss and Hunter Hewitt will portray two fictional teenagers who discuss their recent trip to the beach. Their characters will talk about how people at the beach were being asked to black out their windows and place tape over their car headlights so German submarines patrolling off the North Carolina coast couldn’t see the silhouettes of U.S. ships from light at the Outer Banks.
Andrew Nelson-Redondo will play Yuri Nabokov, a Russian pilot who recounts vivid and humorous details of his first trip to the beach at Kitty Hawk. Nelson-Redondo will be telling his character’s story at the Dr. Herbert White House at 500 West Main Street.
Ghost Walk will also feature a musical USO show at Arts of the Albemarle’s Maguire Theatre, which will again serve as Ghost Walk headquarters. Live stage show times will be at 6 p.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Ghost Walk attendees can also pick up a complimentary bus pass at the theater for free transportation to all eight venues.
Berry said she enjoys writing the scripts for Ghost Walk.
“I just love to bring Elizabeth City’s history alive,” she said. “I learn so much with every theme. I really enjoy doing the research.”
Berry hopes attendees enjoy this year’s Ghost Walk, and she wants people to understand that the annual event it is not “scary.”
“Some people hear the word ‘ghost’ and they think ‘spooky,’ but it is living history,” she said.
Tickets for the Historic Ghost Walk are available at Arts of the Albemarle, Page After Page, The Shoppes at Kenyon Bailey and Muddy Waters Coffeehouse. Tickets are $15, $12.00 for military personnel and children 12 and younger.