Reconsider WWII monument; it's ours, too


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Despite disagreeing strongly with the decision, we do understand the underlying motive a majority of Elizabeth City city councilors had for recently rejecting an agreement to install a Russian-funded monument at the city’s Coast Guard Park: anger at the Russian government for attempting to hack our elections.

There are legitimate reasons to be angry with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cyber army, 13 of whom were recently indicted by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Moscow’s meddling and potential collusion with President Donald Trump’s campaign during the 2016 election. As Mueller’s indictments of the Russians show, Putin’s cyber forces engaged in a range of online misbehaviors designed to sow discord and confusion among the American electorate before ultimately deciding to do what they could to sway voters to support Donald Trump and oppose his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. 

So we get the concerns some Elizabeth City residents apparently have about placing a Russian-funded monument that memorializes Russian, American and British aviators at a city park — concerns strong enough to persuade a majority of City Council to reject an agreement with the Russian Ministry of Defense to accept the 25-ton statue. 

It is, however, the wrong decision. It’s wrong because the monument the Russians want to put up at our park is more than about our political disagreements of the moment. Unlike Confederate monuments, which pay tribute to a divisive period of our nation’s past, the Russian monument would pay tribute to one of the best moments of our past — our collaboration with Russia and Great Britain to defeat Hitler’s Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

The story of that collaboration in Elizabeth City is still not well known. In April 1944, the first Russian aircrews participating in a top-secret mission known as “Project Zebra” arrived in Elizabeth City for training on how to fly U.S.-built seaplanes the Roosevelt administration was donating to the Russian war effort in Europe. Over the next year, hundreds of Russian aviators would learn to fly the PBN-Nomads at a U.S. Navy facility that after the war would become U.S. Coast Guard Base Elizabeth City. Tragedy struck on Jan. 11, 1945, however, when one of the PBN-Nomads on its flight home to Russia crashed in the Pasquotank River, killing five aviators aboard. Four of those killed were Russians, the other was a Canadian radio operator.

Because of its highly secret origins, and most likely because of the ensuing Cold War between the U.S. and Russia after World War II, Project Zebra largely remained classified until 2012. Since then it’s become of great interest to historians and authors — M.G. Crisci published a book about it in 2017 — not just because it’s an interesting story, but because of its message: cooperation between adversaries in the fight against a greater evil.

The fatal crash of one of the Nomads on the Pasquotank River also caught the attention of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs, the agency that honors soldiers, sailors and aviators from both nations whose remains have never been found. It was that agency, not the Russians, who proposed the monument to the fallen aviators in Elizabeth City. The monument’s design in fact honors aviators from all three countries that took part in Project Zebra, not just Russia. So the monument isn’t just a tribute to Russia’s efforts to defeat Hitler; it’s also a tribute to American contributions, and specifically Elizabeth City’s. In other words, this is our monument, too. 

So arguments against accepting the monument like those advocated by Councilman Johnnie Walton just don’t hold water. Walton claimed prior to council’s vote that the monument is a “Trojan Horse,” designed as some kind of Russian hacking device to disrupt communications at the Elizabeth City Coast Guard base. This despite the fact U.S. officials would scan any monument that would be placed at our park to ensure it’s not a security threat. There’s also the fact that U.S. Coast Guard officials plan to accept a smaller version of the Russian-funded monument to place on base later this summer. If Coast Guard officials don’t see the monument as a security threat, it seems silly that Elizabeth City officials would.

Walton’s objections to the monument were expected. He’s opposed to anything that was an initiative of former Mayor Joe Peel, the official who led the effort, along with the Joint Commission, to get the monument placed in Elizabeth City. We are surprised and disappointed, however, that current Mayor Bettie Parker seems opposed to the monument. Mayors are supposed to rise above petty fears and politics and do what’s best for the city or town they lead. There’s still time for Parker to do that. We’d urge her to reconsider her opposition and convince a majority of council to accept this worthy tribute to our city’s past.