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Tank Leaves a Combative Path, Answer Man Finds

By John Kelly
Sunday, April 22, 2007

For 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 1 1/2 years 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.

Julia Feldmeier helped research this column. Questions:answerman@washpost.com.

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