Hannibal Journalist John B. Powell paid a high price for outspoken views against communism

MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

A man of unparalleled conviction, John B. Powell rests eternally in Hannibal’s Riverside Cemetery, his once tortured and scared body at rest while his spirit is at peace.

The Marion County, Missouri native and journalist by profession, suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of the Japanese during World War II, in retaliation for his relentless pursuit of civil liberty as editor and publisher for the China Weekly Review.

A 1910 graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Powell first worked for the St. Louis Star, where he wrote stories for the publication’s almanac. His next career move brought him back to his home county, where he was hired to serve at city editor, working under the leadership of publisher W.J. Hill at the Hannibal Courier-Post.

His journalism stint at Hannibal was short lived. By March 1913, when his engagement to Miss Martha Hinton of Hannibal was announced in The Evening Missourian, he was employed as an instructor in advertising for the University of Missouri’s newspaper.

In 1917, he left Columbia for Shanghai, China, to work for Millard’s Review, later known as the China Review. He served as editor for this publication for many years, until the start of World War II, where he was staunchly vocal in anti-communism messages. His wife, daughter and sister, Margaret Powell, joined him in China.

Little could they have known what perils awaited just over the horizon.

In May 1923, an estimated 1,000 bandits seized the Shankhai-Peking express train in the Tientain-Pukow railway and took captive 150 of its passengers. Among the Americans reported held were Robert Scripps, a newspaper publisher, and J.B. Powell, editor of the Weekly Review at Shankhai.

Seventeen days later, Powell, held as a prisoner by the Chinese bandits at Pao Tzu Ku, was paroled to take part in a conference for the release of the other captives.

His work resumed and continued until the start of World War II, when he was captured again, this time placed in a Japanese prison camp. Powell suffered loss of his feet through Japanese treatment while an espionage suspect.

His assistant at the China Weekly Review, Frances Long, visited Powell while he was a recovery patient in Presbyterian hospital in New York following his release. She told of Powell’s experiences in an interview that was circulated by the Associated Press. Her story was published in the Jan. 29, 1944 edition of the Maryville Daily Forum, Maryville, Mo. (newspapers.com)

Excerpts follow:

“When I was Powell’s assistant before the war, he was a cheerful, slender man of 157 pounds.

“I saw him today in Presbyterian hospital, a changed man: haggard, nervous, embittered. He has lost both feet. His weight today is 120, a gain of 45 pounds since his repatriation.

“Long regarded as an enemy because of his sympathy for the Chinese and his outspoken editorials in their behalf, the Japanese threw him into the bridgehouse on Dec. 20, 1941. From that day until March 1942, he lived in a 12x18 foot cell with 40 other persons, most of them Chinese.

“On the first day of March 1942, Powell was taken to Giangwan and put in solitary confinement until the latter part of May. He was forced to write letters to friends in Shanghai to the effect that he was being well treated and well fed, despite the fact his daily ration of one bowl of rice had been cut in half.

“Gangrene set in his feet because of malnutrition and cold weather.”

Homecoming

On May 29, 1945, J.B. Powell received a hero’s welcome upon his return to Hannibal. The Associated Press reported:

“Today was J.B. Powell Day here and Hannibal’s most illustrious son since Mark Twain hobbled back to the county of his birth, minus much of both feet which he lost in a Japanese prison camp, to announce he’s headed straight back to Shanghai as soon as his health and conditions permit.

“’I want to resume my work where I left off just as soon as possible,’ Powell said in an interview. He indicated he intended to re-establish his famed China Weekly Review, published in Shanghai for many years prior to Dec. 7, 1941, the editing of which won the hatred of Japanese military forces and nearly cost Powell his life.”

Powell’s teacher in 1890, Mrs. Mary P. Phillips, was on hand for the celebration. She taught the returning hero at Scott school, 25 miles northwest of Hannibal, at Maywood, near the farm on which he was raised by Robert W. and Flora B. Powell.

The event marked Powell’s first visit to his home county since 1922. The welcome home was tied to war bond sales, and students who had won honors by selling bonds were given certificates for Powell’s forthcoming book, “My Twenty Five Years in China.”

Untimely death

Alas, his dreams of returning to China and reviving his famed newspaper were not to be. At the end of February 1947, Powell unexpectedly died at the age of 60, following an address to University of Missouri alumni at a gathering in Washington, D.C. His burial followed at Hannibal.

Martha Hinton Powell died on Nov. 17, 1967, in Columbia, Mo., and is buried at her husband’s side in Hannibal’s Riverside Cemetery.

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