EC played key role in one of WWII’s untold stories
By Marjorie Berry
Sunday, October 6, 2019
One of the last untold stories of World War II happened right here in Elizabeth City. It was known as Project Zebra.
A part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Lend Lease program, Project Zebra was a top-secret mission to train Soviet pilots to fly large amphibious war planes known as PBY Nomads. The planes were manufactured in Philadelphia to Russian specifications, then flown to Elizabeth City. Once the Soviet pilots were trained to fly the planes, they would be ferried to Russia by teams of multinational pilots.
Having met with communist dictator Joseph Stain in Tehran in 1943, President Roosevelt realized that the two ideological enemies had a common goal: the defeat of Hitler’s evil regime. In order to achieve this, the Soviets desperately needed to beef up their naval air fleet.
So the PBN Nomad was created. It was a modification of the existing PBY amphibious airplane. The Nomad was essentially a giant flying boat. The Philadelphia plant manufactured the planes with Soviet markings, since the Soviet Union was their ultimate destination.
Why was Elizabeth City chosen for this monumental project? Roosevelt had visited Elizabeth City in 1937, and was impressed by the warmth and patriotism of its citizens. But there were other, more pragmatic reasons: Elizabeth City was located about 300 nautical miles from the factory in Philadelphia, which facilitated transport of the planes. Also the town already had a fully functioning naval air base. Located on the Pasquotank River, this discreet, but accessible location made the base virtually undetectable by the German U-boats prowling offshore.
In April of 1944, 300 Russian pilots arrived in Elizabeth City and were sent to Zebra World Headquarters, at the present-day Coast Guard base. Then the training began.
The whole project had no precedent. Project Zebra’s commanders were flying by the seat of their pants, so to speak. None of the Russian pilots spoke English, and it was soon discovered that the training manuals were in English-only.
Enter Gregory Gagarin. Gagarin was an American of Russian descent who spoke fluent Russian. During training he would sit on the floor of the plane between the pilot and Soviet trainee. The pilot would shout instructions, and Gagarin had seconds to translate to the Russian pilot.
In spite of all obstacles, the project produced a squadron of Soviet pilots trained and ready to go every 20 days. The U.S. produced 186 PBN Nomads altogether. They destroyed numerous Nazi U-boats and Japanese submarines in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, without losing a single plane. So Project Zebra was a great success.
One local tragedy did occur. On Jan. 10, 1945, an overloaded Nomad took off and crashed in the Pasquotank River. The Russian pilots had filled the planes with crates of cigarettes, whisky and other items that were hard to obtain in the Soviet Union. Five crew members were killed. Their bodies still rest at the bottom of the Pasquotank.
Project Zebra is the theme of this year’s Elizabeth City Historic Ghost Walk, which will be held Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 9:30 each night. Come out and see the major players of this historic project brought to life.