Tank Leaves a Com­bat­ive Path, An­swer Man Finds

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro Week -

F or many years, there was a World War I-era tank (I be­lieve it was a French Re­nault) placed as a me­mo­rial in front of what was then the Alexan­dria Rail­way Sta­tion, be­low the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Ma­sonic Me­mo­rial. Some time ago, the tank was moved. It has been many years since it dis­ap­peared, but I would still like to know why it was moved and where it is now.

— Clay Corry, Ar­ling­ton County

The story of Alexan­dria’s wan­der­ing tank is a con­vo­luted one in­volv­ing mil­i­tary mem­o­ra­bilia col­lec­tors, lawyers and the cit­i­zens of a small town in West Vir­ginia with the won­der­fully ex­plo­sive name of Nitro.

“You’ve hit a sore spot with old Rusty,” said Nitro’s mayor, Rusty Casto, when asked re­cently about the tank, which went from Alexan­dria to Nitro around 1987. About two years ago, some­one loaded the tank onto a flatbed trailer and car­ried it away. “I want the thing back here in Nitro,” said the mayor. “They’re ei­ther go­ing to give it back, or we’re go­ing to take them to court.”

An­swer Man will re­turn to that, but first a lit­tle about the ve­hi­cle: It’s not a French tank but a U.S. ver­sion of the Re­nault FT-17, built in this coun­try for World War I. Be­cause of the war’s end, it was never shipped over­seas. The proper name is an M-1917, two-man, six-ton spe­cial trac­tor.

In 1941, the rare tank was taken from Fort Meade and lent to VFW Post 609 in Alexan­dria. In the 1980s, it came to the at­ten­tion of Jack Moody, a res­i­dent of Nitro. The town, in the state’s far west, was cre­ated as a place to make ex­plo­sives — hence the name. Moody, a col­lec­tor of mil­i­tary gear, thought the tank would be the per­fect sym­bol for the town — and the cen­ter­piece of a mu­seum he hoped to build.

In 1987, Moody bro­kered a deal with the Alexan­dria VFW, said Nitro his­to­rian Billy Wintz. For $5,000 (or $10,000 or $26,000, de­pend­ing on whom you talk to), Nitro could have the tank. It was dis­played out­side Moody’s mu­seum, un­der the aus­pices of Nitro VFW Post 9248.

Moody died in Jan­uary 2005, and not long af­ter that, the tank was spir­ited away by his heirs, who in­sisted that it be­longed to them. An M-1917 is worth up­wards of $65,000.

Not so fast, said Ed Woolver­ton, the civil­ian in charge of the Army Do­na­tion Pro­gram, the out­fit that lends large, de­com­mis­sioned weapons to mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and or­ga­ni­za­tions for use as memo­ri­als. “We don’t give stuff away,” Ed said. “It’s a con­di­tional do­na­tion.”

Ac­cord­ing to Ed, the M-1917 tank was not the Alexan­dria VFW’s to sell to Jack Moody, al­though it could be trans­ferred to an­other post. And it def­i­nitely wasn’t his heirs’ to take.

“We feel the right­ful cus­to­dian of the tank is the city of Nitro and the VFW post in Nitro,” he said.

The prob­lem is, al­though Ed can trace much of the tank’s his­tory, he can’t find the orig­i­nal trans­fer doc­u­ment out­lin­ing the 1941 loan to Alexan­dria.

“Right now, it ba­si­cally falls on [Nitro] to go af­ter Mr. Moody’s heirs to re­trieve it,” said Ed, who added that he’s still search­ing for the pa­per­work prov­ing that the tank be­longs to Un­cle Sam. Where’s the tank now? “The tank is where it should be,” said Jack’s daugh­ter Beth Moody. But she wouldn’t say where that was.

An­swer Man traced the tank to the Rop­key Ar­mor Mu­seum in Craw­fordsville, Ind., which bought it from the Moodys 11⁄ years

2 ago for an undis­closed amount.

But don’t the Feds say they still own it? “They’re com­pletely wrong on that,” said mu­seum founder Fred Rop­key, a for­mer Marine tank of­fi­cer. He added: “No­body cared about this tank when it was sit­ting in front of a train sta­tion in Alexan­dria.”

Once rusty and for­lorn, the lit­tle tank has been re­stored to orig­i­nal run­ning con­di­tion.

PAT­TON MU­SEUM OF CAL­VARY AND AR­MOR

An M-1917 like this, a six-ton tank built for World War I but never shipped, once sat in Alexan­dria.

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