Elizabeth City marks 75th anniversary of deaths in secret WWII project

FILE – This March 12, 2018 file photo shows a model of the “Project Zebra” memorial in the Arts of the Albemarle building in Elizabeth City, N.C. The monument to Russian soldiers killed while training in the United States during World War II may still find a home in America even after Elizabeth City rejected it because of tensions between the two countries. (AP Photo/Martha Waggoner, File)

ELIZABETH CITY — The Russian ambassador to the U.S. is among those expected to attend a service to mark the 75th anniversary of the deaths of five people during a top-secret World War II mission when hundreds of Soviet aviators trained on North Carolina’s coast.

The service to remember Project Zebra and the five aviators killed when their seaplane crashed into the Pasquotank River will be held Saturday in Elizabeth City, news outlets report. The pilot and three others survived the crash.

A framed description of “Project Zebra” hangs on the wall of the Arts of the Albemarle building in Elizabeth City, N.C., on Monday, March 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Martha Waggoner)

State and local officials also will attend Project Zebra day, said Don Pendergraft, director of the Museum of Albemarle, which is sponsoring the event.

The Project Zebra collaboration was among the last of its kind between the two nations, Pendergraft said.

“I think it is accurate to say that we did at that point have a beautiful relationship,” he said. “It was an experiment that went very well.”

Project Zebra Day will include character reenactments at the museum, a wreath-laying ceremony on the waterfront and a reception.

The project, declassified in 2013, helped train about 300 Soviet aviators in 1944 and 1945. Their mission was to find German submarines and bomb them.

On Jan. 11, 1945, three Russians, a Ukranian and a Canadian were killed when their seaplane bought for Russia crashed in the Pasquotank River. After the project was declassified, efforts began to honor it with a monument.

A Russian-American joint commission on POWs and MIAs wanted to build the 25-ton (22.6-metric ton) brass monument in Elizabeth City. The city council, citing fears about Russian hacking of U.S. elections, rejected the monument in March 2018 amid international tensions that have only worsened since then.

The commemoration will include the attendance the Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov; Russian students and elected officials.