Time Machine

Time Machine: The story of a stowaway from Cedar Rapids

Before returning to Iowa to attend UI and become a publisher, Coe grad spent a year at sea

This photo of Tom Powell (left) and Dick Westerfield ran with a July 30, 1939, Gazette story headlined, #x201c;Two Cedar
This photo of Tom Powell (left) and Dick Westerfield ran with a July 30, 1939, Gazette story headlined, “Two Cedar Rapids boys scorn city careers to win success in weekly newspaper field.” The story was prompted by their purchase of the Anamosa Journal. (Gazette archives)
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Thomas Brundige Powell Jr. embarked on a lifelong career as a newspaper publisher in 1939 but not before he spent more than a year as a stowaway.

Powell was the son of Mary and Tom Powell Sr., a Cedar Rapids lawyer who served on the Linn County draft board before being appointed a superior court judge in 1922.

The younger Powell graduated in 1927 from the old Cedar Rapids Washington High and from Coe College in June 1931, after serving as editor of the Coe Cosmos student newspaper his senior year.

Travel for free

After graduating from Coe, the younger Powell headed to the West Coast, hoping to get a job on a steamer. Three months went by with no job, and, with his funds dwindling, he hatched a plan to travel for free — by stowing away.

In San Francisco, Powell saw the SS President Harrison, a cargo ship on the Dollar Line, getting ready to set sail. He nearly abandoned his scheme after seeing how many people were at the dock.

While he watched policemen and crew members searching for possible stowaways, he went to the ship’s upper deck with his camera, posing as a traveler about to begin a voyage.

Another passenger pointed out two stowaways being escorted off the ship and suggested Powell take their picture. He did and then stayed put as the ship slowly made its way out of the harbor.

Powell spent the night moving from one spot to another until about 4 a.m., when he went into a washroom to shave. When the boat was well at sea, he revealed himself to an officer on deck, who escorted him to the ship’s chief officer.

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The chief officer was angry and immediately reported Powell to the captain, while trying to figure out how to transfer Powell to the SS President Grant, also of the Dollar Line, which was headed back to San Francisco.

The captain seemed a bit amused someone had eluded his vigilant chief officer. He told the chief officer to take Powell to the boatswain’s mate and put him to work until the Grant was sighted. Rough seas made that transfer impossible, so Powell remained aboard until the Harrison docked in Hawaii, then a U.S. territory.

An immigration officer questioned Powell and had his luggage inspected, but he wasn’t arrested. After a few hours, he was told he was free to go.

Other ports

Powell continued his journey, stowing away on a ship to Shanghai in China, where he ran into Cedar Rapidian John Mokrejs in Chapei, a district in Shanghai, after it had been demolished during a Japanese advance on the city.

Mokrejs took Powell on a behind-the-lines tour of the Shanghai war districts within view of Japanese sentries.

Powell’s next stop was in Canton, China. His letters described the rainy season there as less than livable.

He tried to stow away on a ship to Manila but was arrested and jailed for three weeks. Somehow, presumably as a stowaway, he arrived in Manila on June 15, 1932.

After that, he headed home to Iowa, though how he got home was never addressed in news stories at the time.

Newspaper career

In July 1933, Powell graduated from the University of Iowa with a master’s degree in journalism and political science and began working for the Hardin County Citizen, in Clayton County in northeast Iowa.

A month later, the paper changed hands, and Powell stayed on with the Iowa Falls Citizen.

He married Geraldine Graves in October 1934 in Coe’s Sinclair Memorial Chapel and became city editor of the Citizen in November, moving on to the Fayette County Union in West Union in 1937.

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Two years later, Powell partnered with Richard Westerfield of West Union and Westerfield’s father, Charles Westerfield of Cedar Rapids, to buy the Anamosa Journal.

After the U.S. entered World War II, Powell, having had that experience at sea, enlisted in the Navy in 1943. He served in the South Pacific and was promoted to lieutenant in December 1944.

Anamosa papers

After the war, Powell returned to Iowa and became sole owner of the Anamosa Eureka and the Anamosa Journal in 1952. The Westerfields took over the West Union paper.

Powell was asked in a 1958 Gazette interview what he’d say if his son, Thomas Powell III, wanted to try replicating his father’s journey and stow away on ships.

“I’d say OK,” he said. “I think it’s good experience.”

His son instead enlisted in the Army in February 1959. By March 1960, he was reporting for the Stars and Stripes military newspaper in Korea, where he met former Gazette photographer Jerry Mosey, who was working for Armed Forces Korean Network. The two occasionally worked together reporting events in Seoul.

After his service, Tom Powell III joined his father in co-ownership of the Anamosa papers until 1968, when they sold the businesses. Tom III moved to the Washington, D.C., area, and Tom Jr., the intrepid stowaway, retired.

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