Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Small City, Big Contribution: Ironton, Ohio, and the Great War

Ironton, OH, Today
By Joe Unger

Ironton, OH, an Appalachian City of 12,000 in 1910, is nestled on the Ohio River in an iron-rich region. In 1917, the Ohio National Guard had a detachment, Company “I”, 7th Ohio National Guard, hailing from the city.  Mustering into Federal Service on 15 July 1917, the strength of the company was 60 men, commanded by Capt. M.W. Russell. The training was strenuous in the hikes through the Appalachian Mountain foothills surrounding Ironton. It is stated that, 

“Arrangements were made to use the Lawrence Street Public School Building as a barracks, and immediately intensive training was begun to fit the boys for the strenuous overseas service. Long hikes were taken over many hills surrounding Ironton, and through the benefit of these and the close order work, the company soon began to take on a very military aspect under the able officers mentioned above. While two-thirds of the boys were raw recruits, before many days had passed, they bore the ear-marks of old time veterans. The work on most of the boys was entirely different from any they had ever engaged in, but nevertheless, they plunged right into it, never thinking of their blistered feet and aching muscles, but thinking only of the joyful day when they would take a crack at the heinous Hun. It was only for this reason that they withstood the unaccustomed training so splendidly” (Role of Honor of Lawrence County, OH, Miller, 1919).
Company A, 148th Infantry, 37th (Ohio) Division

In September 1917, 16 boys from Company I were sent to Camp Perry, OH, to begin the process of transfer to the famous Rainbow Division. The balance of the company entrained for Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, AL, arriving there on the 16th of October 1917. These men were transferred to Company A, 148th Infantry, 37th Division. In May 1918 the 37th was sent to Camp Lee, VA, and received equipment for overseas service. Company A participated in all of the combats of the 148th Infantry, including the front lines of Baccarat and the Pannes, the Meuse-Argonnes offensives, and the Ypres-Lys offensives. It was in this latter campaign that the 148th had its crowning achievement, it was the first Allied unit to cross the Scheldt River in Belgium on 2 November 1918. This dangerous crossing, under murderous machine gun and artillery fire, inspired the regimental motto: “We’ll do it!”. 

Capt. Lambert
Bg. General Dean
After the war, the men of Company I returned home to Ironton, and marched in the Decoration Day Parade in 1919. It was their victory parade. Other WWI soldiers and airmen, all Irontonians, marched through the streets of the city: Brigadier General James T. Dean, Brigadier General George Richards, Brigadier General James Ancil Shipton, many Lieutenant Colonels, and its most famous son of the Great War: Captain William C. Lambert of the Royal Flying Corps, the second-highest scoring American ace with 22 ½ victories (see Bill Lambert, WWI Flying Ace by Sam Wilson). 

Ironton Red Cross Board Members at Downtown Headquarters

The City of Ironton also had a Knights of Columbus Council that provided Kay Cees to the war effort. A local Home of the Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks sent volunteers to Company I, and an Ironton Chapter of the Red Cross which provided 47,345 surgical dressings, 7000 knitted and hospital garments, 2,292 sweaters, and 3,299 pairs of socks to our soldiers. Not to be outdone, Ironton also had a chapter of the Women’s Council of National Defense, “organized for the purpose of assisting in various ways in the successful prosecution of the War.” The council’s two most notable achievements were 1) leading the efforts of the Liberty Loan drive, and 2) providing thousands of books to various cantonment camps. Members of the Ironton YMCA were also present for duty, as noted by the service record of Miss Katherine Russell Fowler.

Ironton foundries provided iron and steel to the Ford Motor Company, manufacturing Model T trucks, via the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railroad (Henry Ford’s Railroad).  A very interesting note concerns the DT&I RR and the United States Railroad Administration. The USRA took control of the DT&I RR on 1 January 1918. This agency provided the DT&I with 15 brand-new (Russian) 2-10-0 locomotives. They were part of a massive order destined for the Imperial Russian Railway. Diverted by the USRA, each of the locomotives had to have their driver tires re-gauged from the Russian 60 in., to the narrower U.S. gauge. The engines were regarded as stout, by their crews, but the throttles worked just the opposite of the American standard. To close the throttle, the engineer pulled out, to open it, the engineer pushed forward. Several mishaps were reported due to the confusion with the throttle motion. At least one locomotive ended up in a turntable pit as a result of this. At the conclusion of WWI, the railroad was returned to private ownership (see The Detroit, Toledo & Ironton R.R., by Scott Trostel). 

Football Jersey of the Ironton Tanks
(Pro Football Hall of Fame)

After the Armistice, the men of Company I, and several other Ironton veterans, banded together and formed a professional football team. These men, veterans of combat in France and Belgium, likened their team to the great land-ships that crossed the battlefields. Thus was born one of the first NFL teams, the Ironton Tanks (the stadium still stands and is listed on the National Register). These veteran soldiers proceeded to defeat early NFL powerhouses. The Chicago Bears, the New York Giants, and the Kansas City Cowboys all fell to the Tanks. The Ironton Tanks (a name befitting men who had been on the battlefield and on the gridiron) would finally perish because of the Great Depression and would later become the Detroit Lions (see Home and Away: The Rise and Fall of Professional Football Along the Banks of the Ohio, by Carl Becker).

Most of the above history is on view at the Lawrence County Museum in Ironton, OH.

1 comment:

  1. The Portsmouth Spartans ,20 miles of Ironton, was also a member of the NFL. They moved to Detroit and became the Detroit lions