LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
People in a quiet community near the North Carolina coast are debating whether to accept a million-dollar gift from Russia. It's a statue commemorating a time when the U.S. and Russia were allies, a top secret World War II program when Americans trained Russian aviators. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports from Elizabeth City, N.C.
JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Bed-and-breakfast owner Rick Boyd stands in a downtown arts center, looking at a model of a bronze monument that he hopes will soon grace the Elizabeth City waterfront.
RICK BOYD: It is just one of the most beautiful pieces of art that I've ever seen.
PRICE: In a heroic style that evokes Frederick Remington's rough-hewn Western art, three flyers - American, British and Soviet - look off into the distance.
BOYD: And then there's the airplane coming out of the water.
PRICE: The monument honors a World War II program called Project Zebra. Americans trained hundreds of Soviet flyers in amphibious bombers that they then flew home to fight German and Japanese submarines. Almost a year ago, Elizabeth City approved a deal with the Russian government to accept the monument as a gift. But in a surprise move, a city council with new members has torpedoed the deal. Here's City Manager Richard Olson at a city council meeting.
RICHARD OLSON: Previous council gave their word to another foreign government. And I'd be embarrassed, to be honest with you, to go back on that word you gave to them.
JOHNNY WALTON: You talking about the hacking government?
PRICE: The hacking government council member and ex-pro football player Johnny Walton refers to is Russia.
WALTON: Some people say it would be dumb not to do it. I said it would be dumber to do it.
PRICE: Project Zebra wasn't declassified until six years ago. It began in 1944. The U.S. was making amphibious bombers for its Soviet ally and needed somewhere to train more than 300 pilots. M.G. Crisci is the author of a book on Project Zebra.
M.G. CRISCI: Elizabeth City was selected because it was both a Coast Guard base - but more than that, it had huge airfields that could take these planes. It also had the waterways nearby that they could practice and take off. It was actually an amazing team effort.
PRICE: That's what the Russians say they want to honor with the monument. And supporters say if Elizabeth City turns them down, it could have an unexpected consequence. That's because a joint U.S.-Russian commission that supports searches for missing U.S. troops helped broker the monument deal. The commission's U.S. chairman is retired Air Force General Robert Foglesong.
ROBERT FOGLESONG: Potentially, the Russians could deny us the opportunity to go into the archives. Or they could deny us the opportunity to come and do the site work.
PRICE: U.S. researchers hunt through Russian archives for clues about MIAs, for example, who went missing in the Soviet bloc during the Cold War or who were shot down in Vietnam, where some missile crews had Soviet advisers. Foglesong said his counterpart in Russia is watching to see how the debate over the monument plays out.
FOGLESONG: They have put considerable resources into this and time and effort and, in a sense, are out on their own limbs.
PRICE: Monument supporters have collected more than 500 signatures on a petition. And local tourism and VFW officials also are trying to get the city council to reconsider. Foglesong said if they're not successful, it's unclear if the Russians would try to find another site or ditch the monument entirely. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Elizabeth City, N.C.
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