Lee Berrien Powell
Middle name is
Berrien, not Berrian
1908 - 1944
(Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)
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During the heyday of the B-western, there were many cowboy heroes who rode the range. Most western fans fondly remember Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Charles Starrett, William Boyd, Buster Crabbe, Tim McCoy, Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown, Ken Maynard, Bob Steele, and dozens of others. An overlooked and nearly forgotten western and serial star was Lee Powell, the silver screen's first Lone Ranger.
Lee Berrien Powell was born May 15, 1908 in Long Beach, California to Helen Berrien Powell and Lee Carlyle Powell. In addition to Lee, the Powell family included sisters Sylvia and Virginia.
There are traces of his high school and college years:
His high school and college interests included football, track, dramatics, and Glee Club. He honed his acting skills with the Long Beach Players Guild, Santa Barbara Community Arts Players, and other Los Angeles area theater organizations. And in the 1940 census, Powell reported that he completed four years of college.
On January 1, 1934, Lee Berrien Powell tied the knot with Vera M. Strong in Yuma, Arizona, and the newspaper marriage announcement noted that he was employed by Standard Oil Company of California. Daughter Patsy was born circa 1936.
Powell had a desire to become an actor and there's a few tidbits on him doing plays with the Long Beach Players Guild and other theater groups in the Los Angeles area. He became a pretty good Hollywood action hero, and demonstrated same as the star of two classic Republic serials of 1938, THE LONE RANGER and THE FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS. There's a bit of eerieness about Powell's starring role as a Marine in THE FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS, as he would be wearing a real Marine Corps uniform during World War II and fighting his way through various Pacific island jungles.
(Courtesy of Fred D. Pfening, Jr.)
"Spartanburg, S. C. --- In a decision handed down here by Federal Judge C. C. Wyche, Lee Powell, actor, was granted full right to advertise himself as 'The Lone Ranger' of talking pictures ..."
You can read the (lengthy) decision in LONE RANGER, INC. v. COX which was issued on June 26, 1941. Powell and Wallace Bros. won the suit because Powell wasn't calling himself The Lone Ranger. Instead, he and Wallace Bros. used "Lee Powell, The Original Lone Ranger of Talking Picture Fame", et al. And Federal Judge Wyche found that billing was true as Powell portrayed the masked man in the serial THE LONE RANGER (Republic, 1938) and the feature version HI-YO SILVER (Republic, 1940). (Link to that full lawsuit ruling will open in a separate window / tab: https://www.leagle.com/decision/194152639fsupp4871384.xml)
But there was an appeal, and on January 5, 1942, Judge Wyche's original decision was reversed by Judge Parker, Circuit Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit. (Link to that full lawsuit ruling will open in a separate window / tab: https://www.leagle.com/decision/1942774124f2d6501568.xml)
There was coverage of the appeal and decision in January, 1942 newspapers and tradepapers. Excerpt below from the January 17, 1942 issue of the Motion Picture Herald:
"... a United States Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Richmond, Virginia, where the court enjoined E. O. Cox [sic], doing business as the Wallace Brothers Circus, and Lee Powell, actor, from advertising, and appearing as, 'The Lone Ranger'; and the court confirmed that the character belongs to the radio station which evolved it, station WXYZ, Detroit ..."
Powell toured with the circuses for about two and a half years, and there's scores of ads and articles on him in newspapers during the period from March, 1939 through late 1941.
Circa late 1941, he returned to Hollywood as a member of the new 'Frontier Marshal' trio western series for low budget Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). Six films were released in 1942. By then, his movie career was in a real tailspin, as he was billed third behind western songsters Art Davis and Bill 'Cowboy Rambler' Boyd (not the William Boyd of Hopalong Cassidy fame).
Powell enlisted in the Marines on August 17, 1942 in Los Angeles, and reported to the Marine base at San Diego, California as a recruit. After boot camp, he was assigned to the 2d Battalion, 18th Marines (Engineers), 2d Marine Division at Camp Elliott, California. Powell saw action at Tarawa (in 1943) and Saipan (in 1944). On July 30, 1944, Sgt. Lee Powell, serial number 442926, died on Tinian (Marianas Islands). World War II era reports indicated he was killed in action, and that information has been carried forward to current times.
Trade publications carried reports of Powell's death:
September 1, 1944 Film Daily: "Sgt. Lee Powell, USMC, 35, who portrayed the Lone Ranger in motion pictures, has been killed in action, his widow, Mrs. Norma Powell, reports."
September 9, 1944 Motion Picture Herald: "Sergeant Lee Powell, 35, of the U. S. Marine Corps. was killed in action, according to word received by his wife. He was the Lone Ranger of the motion picture serial. Sgt. Powell fought in Tarawa and Saipan but place of death was not disclosed."
Television/movie actor and retired Marine Corps Officer Brent Davis did some investigation into Powell's death on Tinian, and info follows:
1. Brent referred me to a book about Hollywood personalities in the Marine Corps - STARS IN THE CORPS - Movie Actors in the United States Marines by James E. Wise, Jr., and Anne Collier Rehill (ISBN 1557509492, Naval Institute Press, 1999). James E. Wise, Jr. is a retired Navy captain and authored many books on military history, biography, and the performing arts, and another of his books is James Arness: An Autobiography by James Arness with James E. Wise, Jr. (McFarland, 2001). STARS IN THE CORPS - Movie Actors in the United States Marines includes a section on Lee Powell and following are quotes from pages 164-165:
"Sgt. Lee Powell lived through some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War. But then, on the same day that the Tinian battle ended, he died of acute poisoning. Newspapers at the time assumed he had been killed in action, but Sergeant Powell's USMC files report not only the alcohol poisoning, but some sort of "misconduct", the nature of which was "undetermined". Hypothetically, it must have had something to do with cutting loose a bit too much after having survived the hellish battles in which he was involved, perhaps by celebrating with vast quantites of methyl alcohol. Even small amounts of this highly toxic substance can kill; it can only be hoped that the courageous and successful warrior at least got to have one last good party with his buddies.
But the United States's erstwhile masked man carried the mystery to his grave. He was buried in the Marine Cemetery on Tinian and later, at the request of his father, moved to the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
Sergeant Powell, age thirty-five when he died, was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, the Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign Medal with two stars, and the Victory Medal World War II. The latter two awards were sent to his widow in September, 1948."
2. About a dozen years prior to the publication of the above mentioned book, Brent was thinking about authoring a screenplay called "The Death of the Lone Ranger", and conducted his own research into the death of Lee Powell. In 1988-89, he was able to contact a dozen or so Marines who knew or served with Powell. Some were on Tinian. Some had recollections about Powell's death. Others simply reported what they heard via the grapevine. Their comments and recollections coincide with the info in the Wise book - Lee Powell (and one or more other Marines) found or concocted some kind of beverage to celebrate the Tinian victory. Powell was taken ill and passed away (and one of the Marines celebrating with him had to be hospitalized and was temporarily blinded for several weeks).
The former Marines had some additional remembrances of Powell and italics added to highlight quoted text. Some were in their late teens and Powell was in his mid thirties and one referred to him as a "father figure". Others noted "... would remember Lee with affection" and "... we all liked him" and "I remember Lee fondly" and "he had a singing voice that was beautiful" and "Lee was really a great guy, a good story teller, and such a generous person ..." and Powell was "a good Marine". Several recalled that they found out about Powell portraying the Lone Ranger and and got in some good-natured ribbing with taunts of "Hi Yo Silver!". Another mentioned that "Lee never did try to impress any of us, if anything, he played down his notoriety."
For those who may not be familiar with World War II history, Tinian was a key island in the Pacific and an airbase was constructed there. On August 6, 1945, a B-29 Superfortress bomber named the "Enola Gay" took off from Tinian on its atomic bomb run to the Japanese mainland and a city named Hiroshima.
Our age of innocence was over ... in a few short years the B-western and serial would completely fade away, replaced by more realistic cinema, a deluge of sci-fi movies, the Cold War, and some new-fangled gadget called television. On the "tube", Clayton Moore starred as the Lone Ranger, and became the consummate Masked Rider of the Plains.
Today, few people recall Lee Powell and his brief Hollywood career. But for those who do, he will always be remembered as the first cinema Lone Ranger.
(Courtesy of Ed Phillips)
Sergeant Lee Powell was interred in the Marine Cemetery on Tinian, Marianas Islands, and later, at the request of his father, moved to the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. Above - the grave marker for Powell at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii (AKA The Punchbowl), Section F, Gravesite Number 1246. Powell enlisted in the Marines on August 17, 1942 in Los Angeles.
Ancestry.com had 1943 - 1944 Marine Corps Muster Rolls with names of personnel who were arriving, leaving, injured, deaths, etc. Ye Old Corral webmaster cropped and pasted the Lee Powell death info from those Muster Rolls into the above image file. The Rolls confirm his July 30, 1944 death (the ★30 indicator) on Tinian, Marianas Islands. And he "died as a result of wood alcohol poisoning, not in line of duty, not result of own misconduct".
Was his death from drinking so-called "torpedo juice"? According to Wikipedia, "the standard recipe for torpedo juice was two parts ETHYL alcohol and three parts pineapple juice".
Wikipedia also has info on the dangers and toxic properties of WOOD / methyl alcohol.