The Russian ambassador to the United States led a delegation of Russian and American officials Saturday in honoring five World War II airmen killed in a plane crash on the Pasquotank River during a top-secret mission 75 years ago.
Ambassador Anatoly Antonov was among the officials from both countries attending Project Zebra Day ceremonies at Museum of the Albemarle and Waterfront Park in Elizabeth City.
Project Zebra was a top-secret World War II agreement between the Soviet Union and the U.S. that featured the U.S. providing both PBN-1 Nomad seaplanes and the training to fly them to the Soviet government. The PBN-1 was a modified version of the PBY Catalina used to bomb German submarines during the war.
The U.S. trained the Soviet pilots to fly the PBN-1s at what was then a Navy air station in Weeksville and today is Coast Guard Base Elizabeth City. Some 300 Soviet pilots received training to fly the PBN-1 over an 18-month period in 1944-45.
Saturday’s ceremonies commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Jan. 11, 1945 crash of an overloaded PBN-1 into the river. Five of the airmen aboard the plane — four Soviets and one Canadian — died during the crash.
To honor the fallen aviators, two Russian Army officers dropped a wreath into the river on Saturday and Antonov and more than a dozen officials from both countries each dropped a rose into the water.
Before the wreath-laying ceremony, Antonov told an overflow crowd in the museum’s auditorium that Project Zebra was a great example of “the spirit of gratitude in arms” between the United States, the Soviet Union and other Allied countries that worked together to defeat Nazi Germany.
“I am very much pleased to be here and I am surprised to see how many people decided to join us to commemorate the event for those guys who sacrificed their lives to permit us to live on this planet,” Antonov said. “Today, we honor these men as well as millions of soldiers, sailors, (and) air force (airmen) that fought courageously and saved the planet.”
Antonov said the Russian government will “always remember our allies” in World War II.
“But, we also know that the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the vicious attack of Hitler,” he said. “Peoples of the Soviet Union paid a tremendous price in the victory: 27 million lives. Our common duty is to prevent the tragic events of those years from happening ever again.”
Although Project Zebra wasn’t declassified until 2012, the presence of Soviet pilots in Elizabeth City in 1944-45 was anything but a secret.
Raymond Sheely was a 17-year-old clerk at the department store Rucker and Sheely in downtown Elizabeth City during Project Zebra. The 93-year-old city resident remembers Soviet airmen coming into the store to buy American goods.
Sheely said the Soviets bought items like sheets, pillow cases, towels and fabric in bulk. One of the reasons for the fatal crash was attributed to the fact that the plane was overloaded with goods the Soviets were attempting to take back to their war-torn country.
“The Russians would always come in in a group,” Sheely said. “They would buy it by the bulk. The story was they overloaded the plane and it crashed.”
Sheely said he heard about the crash through word-of-mouth in the days following the incident.
“Everything was censored, but we knew about it (crash),” Sheely said. “We all knew why they were here, flying planes back to Europe. We finally got a name” for it when the project was declassified.
Sheely recalled that an American fluent in Russian tried to make money off both store owners and the Soviet airmen.
“A woman would come in and she would try and get them to pay her for translating,” Sheely said.”Then she tried to get us to pay her to translate back. We didn’t do that.’’
Elizabeth City Mayor Bettie J. Parker read a proclamation at the event declaring Saturday Project Zebra Day in Elizabeth City.