The Strange, Strange Tale of the U.S.S. Inaugural

An old warship meets its most formidable enemy — the Mississippi River.

Details blur with the passage of time, so exactly when Noel Stasiak came into possession of a Navy anti-aircraft gun is really a matter of conjecture. It may have been 1998. Perhaps it was 1999. Surely it must have been sometime during the administration of former St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon (1997-2001), because Stasiak says he talked to the mayor about donating the piece of artillery to the city.

For decades, the 40-millimeter gun graced the St. Louis riverfront aboard the U.S.S. Inaugural, a decommissioned World War II minesweeper that served as a tourist attraction from 1968 to 1993.

During the flood of 1993, the ship broke free of its moorings, crashed into the Poplar Street Bridge and eventually came to rest on the banks of the Mississippi River, just south of downtown. Seven weeks later, it rolled on its port side and sank. The Inaugural is still with us, a rusting hulk languishing a mere twenty yards from the Missouri shoreline. When the river is low, nearly three-fourths of the ship pokes above the water.

Launched in 1944, the Inaugural participated in the bloody fight for Okinawa.
courtesy Robert O'Brien
Launched in 1944, the Inaugural participated in the bloody fight for Okinawa.
The U.S.S. Inaugural served as a St. Louis tourist attraction from 1968 until the flood of 1993.
courtesy Robert O'Brien
The U.S.S. Inaugural served as a St. Louis tourist attraction from 1968 until the flood of 1993.


A chief petty officer in the Navy Reserves, Noel Stasiak keeps his flattop as trim and neat as a new recruit's. He quotes the Sailor's Creed — "honor, courage, commitment" — and turns maudlin when lamenting the Inaugural's shallow grave. "She deserves a proper funeral," he says. "To let her just wallow in the mud like a beached whale! It's appalling. It's sacrilegious."

With his acquisition of the anti-aircraft gun in the late 1990s, Stasiak thought he'd secured a lasting tribute to the Inaugural. He hauled it down to a friend's warehouse off South Broadway and, for the better part of a year, worked piecemeal restoring the inoperable weapon.

When he finished the job, Stasiak would give the gun to the Soldiers Memorial downtown. He hoped that future generations might remember the Inaugural and its storied past. But Stasiak's plan never came to fruition. One night — Stasiak thinks it was in 1999 — a thief crashed through the gate of the warehouse, hooked the gun to a truck and drove off. "Poof," Stasiak says. "Just like that, it was gone."

Stasiak maintains that he and the property owner reported the break-in to police. He says the officers who responded all but laughed at their claim. "They were like, 'Yeah, right, someone stole a five-ton anti-aircraft gun? We'll get right on it.'" No police report is on file.

The story could have ended there — a crime left unsolved. Then, on January 2 of this year, Stasiak sat down to read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. On the front page was a story headlined "Romantic wants to raise minesweeper that sank south of downtown." The article recounted John Patzius' plans for the Inaugural.

Patzius is a 70-year-old salvage operator who holds title to the ravaged hull of the Inaugural. He wants to raise the old warship and float it north of downtown, where his friend Bob Cassilly — owner of the architectural funhouse the City Museum — is fashioning an old sandlot into an amusement park to be called "Cement Land." The Post-Dispatch reporter noted in the article that Patzius had "removed the 40-millimeter anti-aircraft gun mount, which sits behind the fences at Cassilly's cement works."

"That's my gun!" Stasiak says. He claims that the weapon at Cement Land — he drove out for a look — is the spitting image of the one he says was taken from him. "He stole it from me! That Patzius guy is a crook."

But details really do blur with the passage of time.

By some accounts, the same anti-aircraft gun has been stolen three times in the past decade, with Stasiak and Patzius just the latest bandits to make off with the weapon. The eccentric cast of characters associated with the venerable craft includes a dubious businessman, a convicted racketeer, a penniless promoter, a boatload of military wannabes and more than one offbeat scavenger.

"Ship of fools" is how some people have come to refer to the sunken warship. "There are a lot of stinkers associated with that vessel. That's for sure," observes North County resident Robert Briggen, a vending-machine repairman and one of several folks obsessed with the Inaugural.

Beyond the missing gun, the biggest enigma may be the suspicious unmooring and sinking of the Inaugural. It's a mystery that still resonates today.

The war in the Pacific was entering its final year when the U.S.S. Inaugural splashed into Washington state's Puget Sound in October 1944 as the newest of the Navy's minesweeper fleet.

Designed to escort larger boats and clear explosives from enemy harbors, the Inaugural arrived off the shore of Okinawa in May 1945. As thousands of U.S. soldiers stormed Japan's southernmost island in what would become the bloodiest battle of the Pacific campaign, the Inaugural patrolled the coast, firing at kamikaze fighters desperate to cut off Allied support from the sea. When the war ended in September 1945, the Inaugural remained on patrol, clearing mines from the bays and harbors surrounding Korea and Japan.

Its duties at last complete, the ship pulled into the Texas coast in September 1946 to join the decommissioned vessels of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet. It remained mothballed there for the next twenty years, until Robert O'Brien, a young St. Louis entrepreneur, spied the boat in a Navy surplus catalog.

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