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

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

Venable died last summer. A parade of military vehicles accompanied his coffin to the funeral. Stasiak claims that Venable was one of only a handful of people who knew where to find the artillery piece.

Staskia believes that Venable tipped off John Patzius with the location of the gun or accompanied him in the theft. Stasiak has also discovered that Patzius once owned the very warehouse from which the gun disappeared.

"I'd like to find John Patzius now and ask him how he got that gun," Stasiak says. "The Post-Dispatch article called him a 'romantic'? My foot!"

For the record, Patzius is something of a romantic. His girlfriend is 28 — more than 40 years his junior. What's more, Patzius boasts that he has fathered fifteen children. "I wore two women out," he says. "I'm working on number three."

As for charges that he stole the anti-aircraft gun, Patzius argues that it was his to take.

Around the time the gun disappeared from Stasiak's possession, John Patzius was earning a curious — if not comedic — reputation among the river men working the banks of the Mississippi.

In 1998 Patzius gained title to the U.S.S. Inaugural in a cashless transaction with the boat's previous owner, Floyd Warmann. The deal freed Warmann of any debt and liability associated with the vessel. In return, Patzius could do what he wanted with the rusting remains of the warship. His immediate goal was to cut off the bow of the vessel and give it to his friend Bob Cassilly for display in the City Museum. Patzius would sell the rest of the ship for scrap metal.

If only it were that easy. The wreck of the Inaugural lies in a dogleg of the river some twenty yards from shore. To the north and west, the riverbank abruptly rises high above the waterline. Patzius' plan was to build a ramp into the river and drag the 600-ton ship to shore.

He leased from the city a few acres of riverbank property and went about building the ramp out of dirt, concrete and other infill. Employees of nearby Breckenridge Material, a concrete company located just north of Inaugural, say it wasn't long before dump trucks were lining up to unload their debris into the river.

"At $15 to $20 per truck, he was making a handsome chunk of change turning the place into a landfill," says Bob Davis, Breckenridge's former plant manager. "We had to install concrete barricades to stop all the trucks from crossing onto our property."

Davis says transients soon took shelter in the trailers Patzius left on the site, lending the riverfront the look and feel of a modern-day Hooverville. Davis says Patzius' efforts never amounted to progress.

"Whenever I talked to him, he said he was always waiting for this or waiting for that, but nothing ever got done," Davis recalls. "One time, I did see him out on the boat with a crew. Everyone was walking around the overturned hull except for Patzius. He's on all fours, moving an inch at a time. He looked absolutely petrified. I thought to myself, This is the guy who's supposed to be salvaging the ship? He had absolutely no business being out there."

Today, all that's left on the site is one of Patzius' old trailers. Grapevine and other weeds blanket the infill that was supposed to have made the ramp. The Inaugural still lies just beyond reach.

Patzius now can be found approximately twenty miles north, along the stretch of riverfront property where Cassilly is erecting Cement Land. The 53-acre property looks something like the stage set of an apocalyptic sci-fi flick. (Think Planet of the Apes, the scene in which the bust of the Statue of Liberty is seen rising from a desolate stretch of beach.)

Mounds of dirt — hauled in by a never-ending stream of dump trucks — swallow the smokestacks and silos that once rose hundreds of feet above the surface of the old cement plant. Smashed buses, airplane fuselages and giant pieces of industrial machinery litter the landscape. A castle is rising in the corner of the property. Cassilly plans to build a lake in front of the fortress and connect it to the nearby smokestacks with a series of bridges.

At the entrance to the compound sits the Inaugural's 40-millimeter anti-aircraft gun. Its ice-blue base is lopsided and bent. Corrosion has eaten off chunks of its handles and rails. The rusted twin barrels are lodged at a 45-degree angle pointing to the far-off horizon of downtown St. Louis.

A few hundred yards away, John Patzius drives a bulldozer atop one of Cement Land's massive hills of dirt and debris. He wears an insulated flannel shirt, black Wranglers and work boots. Wiry gray hair pokes out from under his muddied camouflage hat. A John Waters moustache graces a razor-thin part of his upper lip. Two of his four front teeth are gone.

He kills the engine and climbs down from the dozer. In the distance lies the battered and broken wood pier where Patzius plans to dock the Inaugural as soon as he raises it this summer. His most recent plan is to dig a channel around the boat, fix its various leaks and then pump the channel full of water. "She'll pop up right on her own," he says.

« Previous Page
Next Page »