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

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

Moore is less forgiving and vows that Stasiak is not going to get away from him again. "He's a thief, ain't he?" he asks. "Where is that gun, anyway? I'm going to go get it."

In March 2002, Noel Stasiak and his girlfriend, Leigh Leonard, were browsing inside a Soulard pet store when they made an unusual discovery. On the floor, next to a parrot cage, lay a billfold stuffed with $10,000 in cash. Without a moment's hesitation, Stasiak handed the money and the wallet to the store owner.

A few weeks later, a photo of Stasiak (dressed in his Navy uniform) graced the front page of the Suburban Journal. The wallet belonged to a charity worker who planned to use the funds for international aid. The headline that accompanied Stasiak's picture read: "Little shop of good deeds; sailor finds $10,000, returns it to missionary."

Today, Stasiak has but one question for Okie Moore: "Does that look like a thief to you?"

Seated inside his home in the south city neighborhood of Carondolet, Stasiak pores over a scrapbook full of old newspaper clippings. There are stories from when he ran for Eleventh Ward alderman in 1996. Other articles report his various civic endeavors: organizing a neighborhood booster group, spearheading a local flea market, protesting at City Hall.

Another scrapbook holds the dozens of news articles that he has archived on the U.S.S. Inaugural. The most recent addition — the story describing John Patzius' plans to donate the ship to Bob Cassilly's Cement Land — leaves Stasiak shaking his head.

"The soul of that boat is gone," he says, "but to make it part of an amusement park? That's wrong. They need to scrap the ship or bury her at sea."

As for Okie Moore's allegations that he stole the gun from him, Stasiak calls the conflict "a misunderstanding." He claims that Moore was supposed to present him with the donation letter, not vice versa. When Stasiak never heard from the salvage operator, he figured Moore didn't want to bother with the paperwork.

Stasiak says his plan was to return the gun to its original splendor and then donate it to the Soldiers Memorial downtown. He says the mayor and the memorial's director, Ralph Wiechert, were aware of the plan.

Stasiak likes to boast that he made a similar contribution in the mid-1990s when he donated a nine-ton anchor to the Soldiers Memorial on behalf of the Navy League and the Merchant Marines. Others don't remember it that way. They say Stasiak was running for alderman at the time and wanted the anchor for a park inside his ward.

"When we found out that the Soldiers Memorial still wanted the anchor, we said the hell with that park," recalls Ed Dierkes, president of the local chapter of the Merchant Marines. "We had quite a few squabbles with Noel Stasiak over that anchor. He was, 'Oh, what can I say?' He was all bullshit, I suppose."

With the anti-aircraft gun, Stasiak says he soon realized that he was in over his head. Years of water damage and rust had taken their toll on the artillery piece. Both barrels were bent, and other components were damaged beyond repair. An expert who surveyed the gun estimated that it would require some 2,000 hours of labor to mend and replace its various parts.

In need of greater manpower, Stasiak says he made a deal with the devil: He offered the gun to Captain Venable.

A wheelchair-bound polio survivor who dressed in military fatigues and lambasted friends and foes with equal venom, "Captain" Carol Venable ran Alton's Armed Forces Museum. The organization existed as a museum in name only. Its membership consisted mostly of guys like Venable — men who had never actually served in the military but found common ground in collecting and repairing old Jeeps, half-tracks and tanks. Once in a while, the members would roll out their brigade for a parade or other community event.

Like its leader (whose ill temper once led to half the organization's members resigning en masse), the Armed Forces Museum has had a checkered, if not combative history. On more than one occasion, the group has lost free garage space at military bases and other civic institutions when it became apparent that the museum never opened to the public.

Also in question was the provenance of several of the group's vehicles, some of which may not have been decommissioned. In 1997 the Post-Dispatch reported that Venable had been interrogated by Army investigators regarding his acquisition of a World War II M-3 tank.

Stasiak says he arranged to temporarily donate the gun to Venable and his crew. When they finished restoring the ordnance, Stasiak planned to donate it to the Soldiers Memorial. Included with the gun would be a plaque commemorating the Armed Forces Museum for its repair work.

With the deal brokered, Stasiak says, he called Venable with directions to the south-city warehouse where the gun had sat since leaving Okie Moore's Chouteau Island compound.

"A few days later, the owner of the warehouse calls me up, irate," Stasiak recalls. "He thought that I smashed down the gate to get the gun. I called Venable. He said he didn't know anything about it, either."

« Previous Page
Next Page »