Citizens urge council to accept WWII monument
By Jon Hawley
Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Elizabeth City City Council took no action Monday night to reverse its recent rejection of a Russian-funded World War II monument, despite an outpouring of public comment mostly in support of the project.
The US-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs proposed the monument to the city last year, earning council's support then despite reservations expressed by Councilors Johnnie Walton and Darius Horton. The monument, which would be funded by the Russian Ministry of Defense, would recognize Allied aviators who participated in the formerly top-secret “Project Zebra” during World War II, five of whom died in a plane crash on the Pasquotank River in 1945.
Last month, however, Councilors Anita Hummer, Gabriel Adkins and Kem Spence joined Walton and Horton in voting to reject an agreement allowing the monument to be placed at Elizabeth City's U.S. Coast Guard Park.
In opposing the monument’s placement at the park, Walton, Horton and Hummer cited constituent opposition. Walton also criticizing provisions of the agreement and Russia itself for “hacking” and interfering, he said, with U.S. elections.
A number of city residents disagree with council’s rejection of the agreement, however. Six spoke at Monday’s council meeting in favor of the project.
Rick Boyd presented a petition he said contains the signatures of 569 citizens who support the project. He also said he’s collected 200 names on an online petition.
Boyd urged council to accept what he called an “absolutely beautiful monument to a time when the United States and Russia put aside their differences.” Though the U.S. and Russia were “strained” allies then, he argued Russians' help during World War II saved American lives.
Boyd also said 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.”
Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6060 also supports the monument, retired Army Staff Sgt. Dan Serik told councilors. He shared a letter from Post 6060 Cmdr. Ken Sandridge.
“In a resounding unanimous vote, the members of Post 6060 are in full support of this monument,” the letter states in part. “The monument's purpose is to honor the WWII coalition pilots who lost their lives during Project Zebra's training. It is a marker to world history (and Elizabeth City history), not a reflection of the off-topic rhetoric surrounding today's US-Russia politics.”
Other citizens who spoke in favor of the monument were Stephen Changarry, Steve Barry, Bill Hiemer and Mickey Golden, the last of whom said his father and his wife's father served during World War II. He acknowledged the strained relationship between the U.S. and Russia, but argued that Russian soldiers who helped the U.S. win World War II deserved the recognition.
“The monument that is there on offer is not for Mr. Putin, Stalin or anything,” he said, referring to current and past Russian leaders. “It's for ordinary, everyday, heroic Russians who did an extraordinary job, and they need to be commemorated.”
Elizabeth City Tourism Development Authority Director Christina Rehklau also spoke in favor of the monument, claiming Elizabeth City has a “unique” World War II story to tell that would attract people to town.
Speaking in opposition to the monument were Hezekiah Brown and Ernest Sutton, who also said they were military veterans. Brown and Sutton both said Elizabeth City should not accept a gift from a country that threatens U.S. interests and, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, meddled in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 and plans to target this year's elections as well.
“What in the world is going on? The Russians are the same people who crashed our electoral system,” Brown said. “These are our friends, I guess.”
Brown also claimed the monument will not improve U.S.-Russian relations, but could make people look negatively at Elizabeth City.
“I think that people will look at us and say, 'wow, we're at war — we're at cyber war — with the same people,'” Brown said.
He also suggested the city should not trust Russian promises to pay for the monument. “Anything 'free,' you better look at it real hard,” he said.
The proposed agreement between the city and the Russian Ministry of Defense calls for Russia to reimburse the city for installing a base that can hold the monument, with Russia to cast and deliver the bronze statue for placement. The city would be responsible for more than $200,000 worth of improvements around Coast Guard Park, and, according to City Manager Rich Olson, would inherit maintenance responsibilities for the statue.
Similar to Brown, Sutton argued against the monument because “the optics are bad” and “we have bigger fish to fry.”
He also argued other military veterans should be recognized before the city prominently honors Soviet veterans.
“While we honor anyone who helped preserve our democracy, I don't think we ought to honor, in the optic of a statue, because we have other men and women who sacrificed their lives, and we have not built a statue to them,” he said.
Alice Redding also addressed the monument controversy, explaining she doesn’t oppose the concept but opposes putting it in Coast Guard Park if it prevents development of property she owns there, or if it prevents the city from launching fireworks during the N.C. Potato Festival or on the Fourth of July.