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

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

"It sure makes for a heck of a story, though," Dunn says. He now directs sightseeing excursions on behalf of Gateway Arch Riverboats, a subsidiary of the Metro transit authority. "People are fascinated by the Inaugural. We always make sure to point out the remains of the ship to our tour groups. People love to hear the story of how it survived World War II but couldn't survive the Mississippi."

River salvager Okie Moore dismisses conspiracy theories, including rumors of bilge-opening intruders and dynamite-planting saboteurs. He says the ship sank from general neglect. He ought to know: After the Inaugural went down, he raised the vessel, only for it to sink again. Moore is also the first person to have made off with the ship's anti-aircraft gun.

To get to the headquarters of Okie Moore Diving and Salvage Inc., take Interstate 270 east across the Mississippi River. Get off the highway and head back over the river on a one-lane bridge to arrive at Chouteau Island.

Follow a dirt road past the rolling acres of farmland that populate this river island. When you reach a crossing marked by hundreds of red shotgun shells littering the ground, hang a left. Keep going until you come to the East Winds, a 1940s tugboat that floated ashore during the flood of 1993 and has stayed grounded ever since.

For years, the East Winds served as Moore's principal salvage vessel as he cruised the nation's waterways raising shipwrecks few others dared to tackle. At the age of 70, the grizzled and taciturn Moore remains as colorful as his legend. He refers questions to his nephew, Bruce Gibson, to whom he recently ceded his business operations. When Moore does interject, he flavors his words with the salty brogue of a sailor.

Moore and his crew have raised tankers from the Gulf of Mexico and pulled overturned barges from the rapids of Appalachian rivers. In 1977, Moore salvaged his current tugboat, the three-story-tall Stephen Foster (named for the composer of "Camptown Races" and "My Old Kentucky Home"), from the bottom of the Mississippi at Memphis.

The boat was so full of sediment, it had to be pumped for weeks before anyone could set foot inside it. That was a dirty job, Moore says, but not nearly as nasty as raising the Inaugural.

The minesweeper, according to Moore, lay directly below a sewer pipe. "Everyone claims the runoff from those pipes is so clean, you can drink the water," Moore says. "That's bullshit. The shit was so thick inside the hull, we had to shovel it out of there. At one point, we tried to cut a hole in the side of the ship to rig a cable. A spark from our saws caught the sewer gas on fire. It scared the shit out of us."

Moore further recalls the FBI visiting and questioning his crew as they worked to raise the ship. "Everyone believed Warmann let loose that flotilla and scuttled the minesweeper from the inside," he says. "I don't buy it. The ship was rotten. When we put a wire around the boat to pick it up, the cables cut right through the hull."

By the time Moore realized that the ship was beyond repair, his bill for working on the wreck had climbed into the tens of thousands of dollars. Warmann wasn't paying.

As part collateral and part souvenir, Moore says, he ripped the anti-aircraft gun from the bow of the Inaugural and placed the rusty weapon on the front of his salvage barge. For months, the gun remained on deck, earning Moore a reputation as something of a freshwater pirate as he plowed up and down the river.

Moore eventually took the gun off his barge and set it beside the old East Winds tug on Chouteau Island. It was around then, he says, that Noel Stasiak first got in touch with him. "He told me he wanted to donate the gun to some museum," recalls Moore. "I explained that I was owed money and [was] keeping the gun as collateral."

The two agreed on a deal: Moore would donate the gun to a nonprofit neighborhood association operated by Stasiak. In return, Stasiak was to provide Moore with a letter listing the value of the gun at $10,000. Moore planned to use the letter as documentation for a tax write-off. In the meantime, Stasiak arranged for a National Guard flatbed truck to pick up the gun and haul it from Chouteau Island to his friend's warehouse in south St. Louis.

Weeks went by without the promised letter from Stasiak. Months turned into years. Moore and his nephew, Bruce Gibson, say they'd forgotten about the entire episode until one morning in 2004, when Stasiak popped up from the undergrowth of Chouteau Island.

As part of the troupe re-enacting the Lewis and Clark expedition, Stasiak and his crew spent the night on the island and wanted to run an extension cord from their camp to Moore's salvage operations.

"He was like, 'Remember me? I'm the guy who took that anti-aircraft gun from you,'" Gibson recalls. "He was so cheery. I didn't bother to remind him that he never reimbursed us for it. I figured, let bygones be bygones."

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