Details come to light about WWII secret mission in N.C.
By Jeff Hampton
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,
Not long after becoming
airborne, the plane nosed down and plummeted into the
Last month, members of a
club from the Ukrainian city of
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
"The entire project
was top-secret," said Gregory G. Gagarin, who was a Navy avionics specialist
and translator stationed in
In 2009, Gagarin donated
copies of documents and photographs from the mission to the Museum of the
A U.S. Navy program known
as Project Zebra brought pilots and crew members from
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
While the mission was
covert, the Russians often traveled into downtown
"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.
"They were held close to the base," he said. "I never saw them socially."
The Russian crews flew more
than 100 aircraft out of
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
Project Zebra continued for
a few months until the end of the war, when the final Nomads took the long
"The Russians very much appreciated what the Americans did for them," he said.