The Russians are coming.
Several diplomats from the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and a broadcast crew from Russian State Television will visit Elizabeth City next Saturday to take part in Museum of the Albemarle’s Project Zebra Day.
Project Zebra Day will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the crash of a PBN-1 Nomad warplane into the Pasquotank River during the top-secret mission called Project Zebra.
Project Zebra was a World War II agreement between the Soviet Union and the U.S. that featured the U.S. providing both PBN-1 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 training of the Soviet pilots to fly the PBN-1s was provided at what was then a Navy air station in Weeksville and today is Coast Guard Base Elizabeth City. Around 185 Russian crews were trained to fly the plane over an 18-month period in 1944-45.
Local and state officials have also been invited to attend Project Zebra Day, Museum of the Albemarle Director Don Pendergraft said last week.
“This only happened at one time and at one place and that is here. It was a very important project,” he said.
On Jan. 11, 1945 an overloaded PBN-1 crashed into the Pasquotank River, killing five aviators, four Soviets and one Canadian. The crash, and the entire project, was kept secret for decades and wasn’t officially declassified until 2012.
“It was a gunship,” Pendergraft said of the plane that crashed. “One of the contributing factors in the crash was because the Russian pilots had gone to all the stores downtown and purchased bulks of fabric and perfume and they had the plane overloaded.”
Project Zebra Day will take place from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and will include Project Zebra character reenactments at the museum, a wreath-laying ceremony on the waterfront and a reception at the museum.
The character reenactments will feature three of the actors from October’s Elizabeth City Historic Neighborhood Ghost Walk that told the story of Project Zebra. Back for Project Zebra Day will be actors portraying President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Soviet commander in charge of the pilots who trained in Elizabeth City, and an American translator who was fluent in Russian and helped with the Soviet pilots’ training.
“We are bringing three of the acts back,” Pendergraft said. “The actor who portrays FDR will talk about why Elizabeth City was chosen and how he and (Soviet premier) Joseph Stalin picked the city for this project through the Lend-Lease Act. There will be a portrayal of a Russian general who will describe his feelings for Elizabeth City and the reaction of the people. Without the translator, the project would not have been as successful as it was.’’
A U.S. Navy chaplain will lead the wreath-laying ceremony and then light refreshments will be served at the museum.
“We are going to put a wreath into the river to honor the people killed in the crash,” Pendergraft said. “We will then play taps and have a 21-gun salute. The social time will allow people to talk about what happened and appreciate the cooperation that occurred for a brief time between the two countries.’’
Project Zebra Day was hatched after author M.G. Crisci gave a talk on his book, “Project Zebra: Roosevelt and Stalin’s Top-Secret Mission to Train 300 Soviet Airmen in America,” last October at the museum.
“We listened to his presentation and one of the Russian diplomats who was here approached us and said they would like to have a commemorative service for the people that were killed 75 years ago,” Pendergraft said. “The Russians are so committed to honoring their World War II dead because of what they lost in that war.’’
Many historical sources estimate Soviet military deaths in World War II at more than 8 million. Total Soviet deaths in the war, including civilians, at approximately 27 million.