Last month we finished Frank Brooks’ book Travelling by Trolley in Mississippi, our chapter-a-week Thursday feature for most of the late summer and fall. Recently in response to those posts, reader Leroy W. Demery Jr. has been sharing some of his good research on Mississippi’s trolly system, including this link to a blog published by the Columbus Lowndes Public Library.
I checked out the page and clicked on a nice image of a crowd scene in Columbus that contained two trolley cars. In the lower left corner to my confusion I spotted a Renault FT-17/ M1917 6 Ton Light Tank?! Can you spot it in the picture above?
When I mentioned this to Malvaney, I got a snarky comment about the rowdy population of Columbus, but it got me thinking, of all places why was there a tank in Columbus, Mississippi? Obviously it was creating a lot of buzz in the photo!
The Renault FT-17 was designed and built in France. Through a war-time exchange program a Renault FT-17, along with detailed drawings, and a French engineer arrived in the United States in December of 1917. The resulting American-produced tank was simply referred to as M1917 6-Ton Light Tank. The American versions were built by three different companies: Van Dorn Iron Works of Cleveland, Ohio, and Maxwell Motor Company and C. L. Best Tractor Company both of Dayton Ohio. Approximately 950 of the two-man crew M1917 6-Ton were made in three different versions: the standard M1917 6-Ton with a 37mm gun or machine gun, the Signal Tank version of the M1917 6-Ton that was used for scouting and had no guns, and the M1917A1 6-Ton that was slightly longer to accommodate a different engine and drive train configuration. It is difficult to tell if the tank in the photo has any armament or how long it is due to the crush of the crowd in the photograph.
So how did this tank end up In Columbus? The tanks were not being made in the Golden Triangle, or anywhere in Mississippi for that matter, and the Tank Service was training troops on this cutting edge new technology at Camp Meade in Maryland, and at Camp Colt in Pennsylvania, no where near Columbus. Looking at the folks around the tank in the photo from Columbus, it doesn’t appear that any of them are in military uniform. The closest connection I can draw between the tank service and Columbus, Mississippi, was a man named Col. Ira C. Welborn.
Ira Clinton Welborn was born in the rural community of Mico in northern Jones County on February 13, 1874. He enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1898 just in time to join the Spanish-American war. Second Lieutenant Welborn fought quite bravely, and for his actions of bravery during the battle of Santiago, Cuba he was awarded the Medal Of Honor. Specifically for “voluntarily leaving shelter and went, under fire, to the aid of a private of his company who was wounded.”
Welborn returned to Mississippi after the war and taught Military Science and Tactics from as early as 1903 until 1908, at Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College, better known today as Mississippi State. The advent of America’s entry to World War One saw Welborn promoted to the position of Director of Tank Corps in the United States. His role was coordination of the Tank Corps state-side, recruiting for the Corp, creating training programs and schools, and getting his fighting units shipped off to Europe. This directorship of the fledgling Tank Corps put Col. Welborn in a commanding position not only of a new technology and a new wing of the service but also as senior commander for future great military leaders such a George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower. The connections Welborn made during his time spent in Golden Triangle might be how the tank ended up on that street corner in Columbus. Its quite possible that Welborn sent the M1917 to Mississippi as a recruitment tool for the Tank Corps. While his post as director was brief (March 1918-August 1919) the success of his work was recognized and Col. Welborn was presented with the Distinguished Service Medal “for especially meritorious and conspicuous service in the organization and administration of the Tank Corps.”
Welborn retired from the Army in 1932 after rising to the rank of Colonel and being decorated with the military’s top two medals for both valor and service. He retired to Gulfport and passed away in 1956. He is the only Medal of Honor recipient buried in Biloxi National Cemetery.
Click to watch a video of the Renault FT-17/ M1917 6 Ton Light Tank in Action. While these vehicles might not be as deadly as their kin today, their image can still strike as much terror on the battlefield as they did when they were new, wondrous machines. There may be a M1917 parked in front of a civic building or VFW, lurking somewhere in Mississippi. Have you seen one? I’m sure someone a lot smarter than me knows the story behind the tank in Columbus that day but I sure had fun learning about how it might have got there. I hope you did too!
for more info on WWI tanks check out this link.