Man On Quest For WWII Monument Will March In Russian Parade

May 8, 2018

A model of a bronze monument that would commemorate a top-secret World War II program that brought hundreds of Russian aviators to Elizabeth City to train alongside Americans.
Credit Jay Price / WUNC

A man who wants his Virginia museum to be the home of a monument honoring a secret World War II spy mission has traveled to Russia, where he plans to march in a parade while advancing his case.

Jerry Yagen offered to host the 25-ton bronze monument after the town of Elizabeth City in North Carolina, rejected it in March amid growing tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Yagen wants to place the monument in front of a Russian hangar that stores Russian planes, but he has to obtain the hangar first.

"If Elizabeth City doesn't want it, I'll be glad to put it in front of a Russian hangar," Yagen said in a phone interview.

He said Maxim Alekseyev, head of the Russian side of U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIA Affairs, invited him to spend a week in Russia and march in the annual Victory Day Parade in Moscow that marks Germany's surrender to the USSR at the end of World War II.

And he agreed.

"It's not politics with me," he said in a phone interview before he left for Russia. "It's history with me. Russia was an ally in the Second World War, and people forget that sometimes."

In March, a newly elected city council in Elizabeth City refused to sign a memorandum of understanding for the monument. Less than a year earlier, the previous council had voted to accept the monument.

The joint commission wanted to place the monument in an as-yet undeveloped park in Elizabeth City because a top-secret WWII operation was based at U.S. Coast Guard station there. Declassified just a few years ago, Project Zebra helped train about 300 Soviet aviators 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.

Retired Air Force Gen. Robert Foglesong, chairman of the U.S. side of the joint commission, said Monday that the group continues to look for alternate locations for the monument.

Yagen said he hopes to make progress on finding a hangar that can be disassembled for shipping and rebuilt in Virginia. That, he said, could be a step toward the Russians approving his aviation museum in Pungo, Virginia, as the location for the monument.

The aviation museum is in Pungo, Virginia, just 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Elizabeth City.

"I think it would look very nice in front of a Russian hangar," Yagen said. "That would tell a story all on its own."