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Details come to light about WWII secret mission in N.C.

NORFOLK, Va. — It's almost as if the crash never happened.

There are no old news clippings about it and few recorded interviews with anyone who might have witnessed it.

That's how secret the operation was.

On Jan. 11, 1945, a seaplane took off in the darkness from a Coast Guard base in Elizabeth City. It was piloted by a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force and carried eight other aviators. The destination: Russia.

Not long after becoming airborne, the plane nosed down and plummeted into the Pasquotank River, killing five people aboard. The pilot and three others survived.

Last month, members of a club from the Ukrainian city of Odessa, who are planning a 70th-anniversary celebration of the end of World War II, wrote Elizabeth City officials to find out more about that night. One of the men who died, Capt. Vladimir M. Levin, was from Odessa.

City officials researched the incident and plan to send a letter with a few details to the Odessites.

Although wartime secrecy kept residents in the dark, a 92-year-old Maryland man who worked with the pilots remembers the crash well.

"The entire project was top-secret," said Gregory G. Gagarin, who was a Navy avionics specialist and translator stationed in Elizabeth City. His parents had immigrated to the United States from Russia in the 1920s.

In 2009, Gagarin donated copies of documents and photographs from the mission to the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City. He's also given a couple of radio interviews on the topic to The Voice of Russia.

A U.S. Navy program known as Project Zebra brought pilots and crew members from the Soviet Union to the Elizabeth City Coast Guard base in the latter part of World War II. The mission was to train the crew on a modified version of the PBY Catalina, an aircraft known as "the flying boat" because it was able to land and take off from the water. The model going to the Soviet Union was the PBN-1 Nomad, built by the Naval Aircraft Factory.

The mission? To find German submarines and drop ordnance on them, Gagarin said.

The airplanes would fly in lazy-eight formations, he said, and dozens of Russians were sent to Elizabeth City in 1944 and '45 to learn how to pilot them. Gagarin, who was fluent in Russian and English, helped train the Project Zebra pilots.

While the mission was covert, the Russians often traveled into downtown Elizabeth City to buy American products from popular stores such as F.W. Woolworth, Gagarin said. They could not speak English, but they carried U.S. currency issued by Russian banks. They stayed some nights at the Virginia Dare Hotel, still an Elizabeth City landmark.

"The shopkeepers were delighted," Gagarin said.

The Russian commanding officer provided a late-model Chevrolet with a chauffeur to drive his men into town. The driver learned to operate the American car but did not have a license. The police chief let him drive without one for a couple of weeks until the license examiner returned to town, Gagarin said. The chief told the commander he would take care of it if the chauffeur was caught driving.

Resident Charles Lane, 90, worked at the base as a civilian, handling administrative duties. Lane remembers the Russians mostly keeping to themselves.

"They were held close to the base," he said. "I never saw them socially."

The Russian crews flew more than 100 aircraft out of Elizabeth City. Flights took 40 days on circuitous routes south to avoid severe icing conditions on a northern path.

Lane does not remember the crash, and city officials couldn't find others who might recall the incident.

That night in January, the plane was loaded with fuel and American goods, Gagarin said. The pilot reported that he followed the straight line of flares on the river as he took off. He lost his bearings when he switched from flying by sight to using instruments once he flew past the flares.

The pilot felt he was rising too quickly and turned downward, hitting the water.

"He admitted he lost his horizon," Gagarin said.

Death certificates at the Pasquotank County courthouse show that Capt. Levin, the Odessite, and Russian aviators Lt. j.g. Afanasie Borodin Sr., Lt. D.M. Medvedev and H.N. Chikov died at 10:05 that night, along with Canadian radio operator Peter Nataros.

Project Zebra continued for a few months until the end of the war, when the final Nomads took the long flight from Elizabeth City to Russia. Gagarin never heard how successful the mission was in eliminating enemy subs.

"The Russians very much appreciated what the Americans did for them," he said.

jeff.hampton@pilotonline.com
 

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