The mystery of Billy Powers

Billy Powers is shown in a photo that was printed in The Mining Journal after he went missing in 1944. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — On a Wednesday afternoon, an 8-year old boy came home from school, changed his clothes, and went outside to play.

His family never saw him alive again.

While that may sound like a plot from a best-selling mystery or a ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie, it actually happened in Marquette, in March of 1944, to a young boy named Billy Powers.

Despite the fact that World War Two was going on strong, and despite the fact that a presidential election was being waged, the disappearance of an 8-year old boy galvanized Marquette. Front-page newspapers stories were run daily, hourly updates were broadcast on the radio.

For two months, residents of the city followed the saga of a missing boy. And it all started on March 1, 1944.

Billy Powers was a third-grade student at the old St. John’s School in Marquette, a block away from where he lived with his grandparents. His dad, William, was serving in the Army, while his mother was living in Detroit. He came home from school on that fateful Wednesday, changed into play clothes — including brown army mittens — and went out to play in the snow.

He was observed by several people in the next hour, including at the 5th Street railroad crossing, where he was noticed in the company of an older boy. When he failed to return home that night, his grandparents, obviously concerned, notified authorities. In the next two days, searchers combed the city, looking through vacant buildings, garages, even the Lower Harbor ore dock, but found no trace of Billy. They asked bus drivers and train conductors if they had seen the boy; none had. They searched through the wreckage of the Piggly-Wiggly grocery store downtown. The store had burned down several days earlier, and some thought Billy might have fallen into a flooded cellar. They even contacted his mother in Detroit, who said she had not heard from him in some time.

Police were stumped. Billy was a bright kid who, in the words of then Police Chief Don McCormack, “knew the city like the back of his hand.” They talked to Billy’s friends, who said they knew of nothing out of the ordinary. They had last been with him playing by the downtown railroad trestle. He was wearing his brown army mittens, and seemed to be in good spirits. They also could not help police in determining the identity of the “older boy” who had been with Billy at the railroad crossing.

Over the next week, the search intensified. Billy’s picture was published in all U.P. newspapers, and WDMJ broadcast updates to the search, even putting his grandparents on in an attempt to contact anyone who had any information. Authorities were also interested in the disappearance of a Manistique boy two weeks prior to Billy’s disappearance; no trace of that youth had been found, either. The FBI joined the investigation, while Billy’s father William received an emergency furlough to return home. Still, no sign of Billy was uncovered, and the identity of the “older boy” was a continuing mystery.

Marquette residents and authorities became alarmed as March stretched into April, with still no break in the case. Billy’s picture was sent out by the FBI to several states around Michigan, and while he hadn’t been found, several young runaways had been discovered because of the search. Billy’s classmates and friends were questioned over again, and a new investigation failed to turn up any sign of the “older boy” with whom Billy was last seen.

Then on May 1, 1944, a Marquette father and son were fishing in Lake Superior by Gaines’ Rock, and noticed something floating in the water. Pulling it to shore, they noticed it was a body, and called the authorities. Immediately, the police determined it was the body of Billy Powers, still dressed like he was ready to play outside. In fact, his brown army mittens were still on his hands.

Investigators found no sign of foul play on Billy’s body, aside from a couple of superficial bruises. They have no idea how he got into the water; the currents in the area were not very strong, so his body obviously hadn’t traveled very far. Unless they could find the “older boy”, they concluded, they may never know what happened to Billy.

They never did find the “older boy”. And to this day, no one knows exactly what did happen to Billy Powers on March 1, 1944.

Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the only tragedy in the Powers’ family in 1944. Three months after his son died, William Powers had to write home to tell his parents that his brother, John, had been shot and killed while serving in the Army in France.

He was the victim of a Nazi sniper while standing in line to get his lunch.


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