ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (AP) — Back in World War II when the U.S. and Russia were allied against the Nazis, hundreds of Soviet aviators were trained on the North Carolina coast as part of a secret spy project — but now, an effort to honor their mission has triggered a miniature Cold War in a small American city.
The Russian Ministry of Defense wants to place a 25-ton bronze monument in Elizabeth City, where the recently declassified “Project Zebra” was carried out. Russia would pay for the 13-foot tall monument, with the city footing the bill for improvements to the as-yet undeveloped park on the Pasquotank River where it would be located.
But amid international tensions and fears about Russian hacking of U.S. elections, Elizabeth City elected officials have rejected a memorandum of understanding that was to be the next step.
“We are living in troubled times, and people are very concerned about a lot of things,” council member Anita Hummer said at the meeting where the council voted 5-3 to reject the memorandum. “And I realize that it’s about honoring fallen heroes from World War II, and we have Americans who fought in World War II who are buried in Russia. But times were different then.”
One council member warned the monument could be a Trojan horse. Johnnie Walton worries the Russians could put something in it that could be triggered remotely to disrupt the internet or electrical grid.
“Russia is known for hacking now. They’re experts at hacking, and then we’ve got the largest Coast Guard base (that) can’t help anybody because our computers have gone down, because Russia controls our mouse,” Walton said at a committee meeting, according to The Daily Advance of Elizabeth City.
A Russian-American joint commission on POWs and MIAs wanted the monument in Elizabeth City because of a top-secret WWII operation at U.S. Coast Guard station there. Declassified just a few years ago, Project Zebra helped train about 300 Soviet aviators. Their mission was to find German submarines and bomb them.
One night in 1945, three Russians, a Ukrainian and a Canadian were killed when a seaplane bound for Russia crashed in the Pasquotank River. Their sacrifice was never publicly recognized and the crash was forgotten for decades.
After Project Zebra was declassified in 2013, efforts slowly developed to honor it with a monument, which would include three figures — one each of Soviet, U.S. and United Kingdom aviators.
The previous city council unanimously approved the statue in May 2017. So supporters were caught off-guard by when the new council backtracked and voted nyet in February — especially because three of the negative votes came from incumbents who had supported it earlier.
Located in northeastern North Carolina near the Virginia border, Elizabeth City was founded in 1793 and has a population of about 18,000. Locals describe the area as progressive in some ways but also fiscally conservative.
In 2013, the local Republican Party challenged an African-American college student’s candidacy for city council. Eventually, the State Board of Election interceded, and the student ran for office and won.
And for what may be the first time, the council’s majority is African-American and so is the mayor.
Public discussion has played out along mostly racial lines; four of the five council members who oppose the monument are black, and two of three who support it are white. At one meeting, council member Darius Horton asked the city manager if Elizabeth City has any monuments to minorities or women.
Information about the monument didn’t filter to the African-American community as well as it did to the white community, said Hezekiah Brown, one of two citizens who spoke against it. Not that he’s convinced that more information would matter.
“We’re at war with Russia still. We’re in a cyberwar here,” Brown said. “They interfered in our election. And they’ve not said they won’t do it again. … The war has to end. Then you do something. You don’t do it while you’re at war.”
For its part, Russia is sensitive to actions it regards as disrespectful to the Soviet Union’s military campaign against Nazi Germany. In 2007, weeks of cyberattacks shut down websites of government ministries, banks and news media in the former Soviet republic of Estonia amid a dispute with Moscow over plans to relocate a statue of a Red Army soldier in the capital Tallinn. Estonian officials accused Russia of orchestrating the onslaught.
Elected officials also are hearing from citizens such as Rick Boyd, who turned in a petition with 569 local signatures supporting the project. He said another 200 people have signed an online petition. 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,” he told the council.
Mayor Bettie Parker suggested the vote might have turned out differently if it had happened earlier. “I keep hearing now is not the time to deal with anything that’s coming from Russia,” said Parker, who only votes in a tie.
Council member Billy Caudle, who supports the monument, says people who are concerned about the appearance of an alliance with Russia are “confusing current events with history.”
Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Robert Foglesong, chairman of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs, has asked the city council to reconsider its vote. But for now, the council majority seems steadfast.
Members complained at their most recent meeting that the monument debate has divided Elizabeth City and they need to concentrate on more important issues. Walton said he was sick of discussing the monument and recommended that it be erected in Russia.
“Those people’s relatives live in Russia,” he said. “Give them the opportunity to ride by on a Sunday, say a prayer, do all the things that people do when you’re memorializing somebody.”
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