Tanks for the Memories -or- Travelling by Tank in Mississippi

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.

WARNING IMAGE MAY CONTAIN TANKS! Intersection of Main and Market Streets Columbus, MS c. 1918.

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?

Detail of above photo showing M1917 6 Ton Light Tank

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!

Renault FT-17 tanks being operated by the U.S. Army near Argonne, France c. 1918

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.

Renault FT-17 Tank Internal Layout Diagram

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.”

Rendering of Ira Welborn's act of bravery from "Deeds of Valor: How America's Heroes won the Medal Of Honor"

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.”

Second Lieutenant Ira Clinton Welborn with Medal Of Honor c. 1900

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.



Categories: Columbus, Historic Preservation, Military

13 replies

  1. Thank you Mr. Rosell & Mr. Demery for the great photos! Took me a while to find the tank. Felt like I was playing “Where’s Waldo?” Good eye! Fun to see downtown Columbus during that time. It would have been so nice to have had those trolleys when I was at the W in the late 60′s! But we probably would not have been allowed to ride one without written permission from our parents :)

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  2. Fascinating – what a wonderful entry point into the American life side of the “Downton Abbey” WWI era.

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  3. I love this post for all the connections you make into this sometimes overlooked era in Mississippi. Plus that tank drawing has got to be one of my all-time favorite historic sketches on MissPres! Those tank men had to be tough but wiry and it looks like our Col. Welborn fit the bill! Tanks for introducing us :-)

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    • The tank drawing is a favorite of mine too. To be honest I love cross sections in general.

      I’m sure growing up in Mississippi the high temperatures inside the tank did not bother Col. Welborn either.

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  4. Although this may certainly be a local publicity effort of some kind, I suspect that this was a Liberty Bond rally. The government promoted the purchase of Liberty Bonds by, for example, having members of the Army Air Corps fly to towns where people had never seen a plane. Celeberities such as Douglas Fairbanks and others toured the country by train to sell such bonds at events. There were four issues of Liberty Bonds during the War, and one post-war issue in 1919 , the Victory Liberty Bond. I know that the Victory Liberty Bond was promoted by a stunt involving the French tank; “Little Zeb” was sent to attack Pike’s Peak but, alas, never made it to the top, being defeated by snow drifts. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberty_bond and http://pikespeak.us.com/Learn/fun-facts.html Mention is made of sending “Liberty Tanks” for bond-raising rallies across the country in an Ohio photograph collection, items 284 and 285. http://www.ohiomemory.org/cdm4/browse.php?CISOROOT=/p15005coll20&CISOSORT=title%7Cr&CISOSTART=11,281 I believe that a little more research could produce more examples of such rallies; I do not know whether a review of WWI bond records, army records or local newspaper accounts could verify that that is what this photograph as about.

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    • Thank you for sharing the links, they are great!

      I bet you are right about it being a Victory Liberty Bond rally post-war. The tanks were in such short supply during the war the Tank Corps had to come up with other ways to train with out them, so I cannot imagine Col. Welborn willingly giving up tanks for a publicity stunt. But after the war he was all for any publicity the tanks could get to keep the fledgling Corps going.

      I wondered why this demonstration in Columbus was not held by a rail yard, but the Ohio photos answer that by showing that the tanks were pulled from town to town on a trailer by truck. I had hoped it might be the same tank but the Columbus tank looks to have camouflage painting and the Ohio tank does not.

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    • The Annual Report of the Chief of Tank Corps for fiscal year 1919 states:

      “LIBERTY LOAN ACTIVITIES: About March 20, 1919, parties consisting of 1 officer and 18 enlisted men with 12 light tanks were sent from Camp Meade, Md., to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Cleveland, Atlanta, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Kansas City to report to the Victory loan committees at these cities. All but 10 of the tanks were shipped direct from the factories. These tanks were used extensively and incessantly during the Victory loan campaign. Tanks and crews returned to Camp Meade in the two weeks following May 6, 1919.”

      This would jive with the Ohio tank photos being dated April 19 of that year. Interestingly the Ohio tank may have been one of the tanks shipped directly from the factory since the tanks were produced in Ohio and that’s why it lacks the camouflage paint that the Columbus tank sports.

      The report is some what confusing as I cannot tell if there were 9 parties (one going to each city) or 12 parties (one for each tank) going out for the loan activities

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  5. A closer look at the crowd appears they are looking at the man on top of the tank. Perhaps he was one of the early movie stars making the trip to see the Liberty Bonds, Who else would demand such attention other than the President himself? Beautiful story I’ve not read anywhere. Thanks to Mr. Rosell for this bit of history.

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  6. Thanks indeed are due! I came back to my desk after several hours and found that you, Mr. Rosell, have advanced the story considerably. What was an interesting photograph is becoming fast a fascinating one!

    I have one diffident suggestion. If you contacted the local historical society there, they might take on the project of giving a more definite date to this, perhaps some newspaper account and, also, informatoin about Col. Welborn’s connection to this or other activities. BTW, about this time companies were being named “Liberty Loan” companies and buildings were named the “Liberty Building” and so on. You might ask the society about such memoralization of the WWI days. (The outburst of patriotism after America finally entered the war was great. One much repeated claim was that a centurian, a woman 101 years of age, herself a daughter of Revolutionary War soldiers, requested and became the first person to buy a WWI Liberty Bond. True or not, that claim shows the ferver of our participation in Mr. Wilson’s War, as it later became known.)

    Columbus and Lowndes County Historical Society
    Jack and Emilie White
    922 7th Street North
    Columbus, MS 39701
    Phone: 662-328-7084
    Email: jhwhite@cableone.net

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  7. Two other points, somewhat related, come to mind. Both arise from Mr. Rosell’s mention of the train station as an alternate place and Ms. Vivian’s supposition that only a movie star or the President could command such a crowd.

    I think a very nice set of facts might be developed by the local historical society on the number of places in which public speeches, rallies, “parades” such as the Liberty Loan rally, and other events were held in Columbus from, say, 1880 through 1960. I suspect that today we would be bewildered both by the variety of forums and their use. It is difficult, nowadays, to recall that political campaigns often ended with torchlit parades (I think the last one here in Chicago was in 1952), that formerly most towns had spaces (and tolerance) for public soapbox speaking by everyone from bimetalists to anti-vivisectionists and pre-WWI socialists, and that a wide variety of events such as revivals, Chataqua tents and so on called people together. And from som eexamination of what sorts of things occurred in which spaces one might develop some sense of rules, recognized or unrecognized, about what meetings were held near churches, near the railraods and post offices, and so on. The multiplicity of places then necessary for people to congregate outdoors is something we really don’t understand today — in some towns the courthouse and other squares have become parking lots.

    That use of space in those earlier times in turn influenced the public sense and use of architecture as well, of course, since in the course of a four or five hour “meetin” one’s eyes do tire of seeing the same unchanging courses of bricks, for example.

    Now we all go home readily to our household god-in-a-box called television, fed and placated by monthly fees to cable companies, or to our even smaller computer boxes with even more choices of smaller dieties, but before these times news, opinion, instruction and entertainment were much more public events that dictated much of the arrangement, use and appearance of architecture.

    Ms. Vivian supposes only a celebrity could call out a crowd in those days, whereas, in short, I rather suspect any one calling for a crowd could speedily hustle one up of some size although the usual difficulty was holding their interest any length of time. Remember, these were the days in which newspapers commonly put news bulletins up on their storefronts by hand as the day wore on, which resulted in people assembling to discuss what the five or ten or 15 words scribbled and put before them “meant”. There were no radios, no televisions, and while there were silent films, there were not, as yet, news reels as we later came to know them. People hungered for information, for rumor, and for excitement, and the architecture of the towns were meant to provide such opportunities.

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  8. I concur with both statements about public speech but am of the opinion that regardless of who they are or what they are saying, anyone standing on a active tank in the center of my town would have my undivided attention. :)

    I’m glad y’all like this post so much. Ive been wanting to write about Col. Welborn for a while and the Columbus tank photo provided the opportunity.

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    • “… regardless of who they are or what they are saying, anyone standing on a active tank in the center of my town would have my undivided attention.” Well put, pithy and true! Congratulations, with much appreciation!

      Still, if you contact that historical society, you just might connect the dots about the good Col. W., the tanks, architecture, and the answer to the question of the meaning of life and everything else. (Apologies there to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

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