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

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

Mar 7, 2007 at 4:00 am
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.

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.

On July 3, 1968, a tugboat pushed the 184-foot Inaugural to its new home on the St. Louis riverfront. The warship's engines no longer worked, but the vessel was otherwise in decent shape.

"It was virtually untouched since the war," recalls O'Brien, now a 70-year-old retiree living in Frontenac. "The ship logs were still inside. So were all the spare parts."

O'Brien doesn't remember how much the Inaugural cost him, but newspaper clips from the time report that he paid around $250,000 to purchase, paint and lug the ship up the Mississippi. More than a few onlookers considered the ocean-going gunboat to be out of place in St. Louis, but O'Brien figured that plenty of Midwest landlubbers would pay $1 to tour a genuine Navy warship. He was right.

Over the next ten years, thousands of vacationers, schoolchildren and military buffs climbed the Inaugural's gangplanks, explored its cabins and eyed make-believe kamikazes through its gun sights. By the late 1970s, though, O'Brien had had enough. Maintenance costs were skyrocketing, and keeping the boat anchored against the ever-fluctuating river had proved a far greater headache than he'd anticipated.

O'Brien found a buyer in show-business promoter Frank Pierson, who owned the American Theatre (now the Roberts Orpheum Theater) and the Goldenrod Showboat, a paddle-wheel excursion boat that played host to musicals and dinnertime dramas.

The Inaugural seems not to have been a business boon for Pierson, who died in 1988. According to newspaper accounts, at the time of his death, Pierson was being investigated for passing bad checks. His will left just $2,391 to his wife and children. Creditors claimed that he had owed $850,000.

Missing from Pierson's estate was the Inaugural. According to St. Louis Port Authority documents, Floyd Warmann had taken over the mooring lease for the Inaugural in 1984. A politically connected businessman who now sits as a member of the St. Louis County Police Board, Warmann had already begun expanding the tourist attraction by the time Pierson died. (Warmann did not return calls requesting comment for this story.)

Adjacent to the Inaugural's port side, Warmann tied a floating Burger King restaurant fashioned to look like a nineteenth-century steamboat. Onto that he installed a heliport barge from which sightseers could embark on air tours of the river. A third barge housed a Taco Bell restaurant. Warmann called his flotilla the "The Spirit of the River" and operated the entertainment complex under a company called St. Louis Concessions.

The Spirit of the River enjoyed initial success, but Warmann soon had trouble keeping his other business interests afloat. In 1992 the oil company that he inherited from his father, Warmann Oil Co., filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, one of his banks was suing him to collect $1.7 million in defaulted debt. Another claimed that Warmann had reneged on a $500,000 loan.

In need of cash, Warmann saw his $3,000 riverfront lease with the city as a remedy that might pay off in spades. Riverboat gaming was making its first inroads into Missouri in the early 1990s, and Warmann knew that if he could convince City Hall to change his lease, a casino company would pay dearly for his mooring rights.

His plan almost backfired in January 1993 when one of his strongest champions, Anthony Ribaudo, a state representative running for mayor of St. Louis, denied — then admitted to — owning shares in Warmann's St. Louis Concessions.

The scandal cost Ribaudo the mayor's race, but the lure of casino dollars proved no deterrent to the Board of Aldermen. In June 1993, the board approved a measure changing Warmann's mooring lease to allow for a gambling boat.

The deal would pay the city $16 million for allowing Argosy Gaming Co. the rights to set up a casino. Warmann would receive $33.5 million in Argosy stock for selling his lease to the gaming operator.

Neither the city nor Warmann ever saw the bulk of the promised riches. The lease agreement still required approval from then-Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. — who, only months before, had won a nasty election against Warmann's compatriot and business partner Ribaudo. Moreover, Bosley reiterated on several occasions his disapproval of adding more gaming boats to the downtown riverfront.

Far away, a much larger problem was brewing. Throughout the spring of 1993, cataclysmic rain punished the upper Midwest, flooding the fields and tributaries that drain into the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. By late June, the runoff converged at the rivers' confluence north of St. Louis. For weeks the water kept rising, setting new flood records with each passing day.

On August 1, with the water halfway up the stairs to the Arch, the river crested at 49.58 feet. At 10:45 p.m. that night, a park ranger, responding to the sound of an explosion on the Spirit of the River, arrived in time to witness the entire complex — the U.S.S. Inaugural, the Burger King, the Taco Bell and the heliport — float into the darkness.

Moments later, the flotilla slammed into the Poplar Street Bridge. The force of the collision ripped away the upper decks of the Burger King restaurant and left the bridge's steel superstructure dented and scarred.

Separated by the impact, the component parts of the Spirit of the River spun downriver. The Coast Guard issued an urgent "breakaway" call, requiring all able-bodied ships to assist in the rescue. Moments later, the heliport smacked into the Illinois shore, and the Taco Bell vanished beneath the churning, black water.

Four miles downstream, a tug captured the shattered remains of the Burger King and waited for other boats to help it push the massive structure to shore. The last of the fleet to be rounded up was the Inaugural. At approximately 1:20 a.m., the tugboat Mary Burke guided the World War II relic to a spot along the Missouri side of the river, just south of Chouteau Avenue.

During the chaos, the Inaugural lost its mast and suffered a six-inch gash above the waterline. The Coast Guard reported no other damage to the steel-hulled boat, which had missed more vulnerable targets, such as the floodwall and fueling stations south of the city. As Warmann told the Post-Dispatch the next day, the results could have been much worse.

"What if that minesweeper had gone down and hit those tanks at Phillips?" a bewildered Warmann is quoted as saying. "That ship is like a bullet. The Lord was with me."

Though the Inaugural survived the breakaway, its days were numbered. On the morning of September 23, an employee at a nearby river-dredging company arrived at work and reported seeing the ship leaning to one side. By 2 p.m. that day, the Inaugural lay on the muddy bottom of the Mississippi with only its bow rising above the waterline.

Officially ruled an accident, the unmooring and sudden sinking of the Inaugural raised questions of wrongdoing. Fueling the assertions was news that Warmann held an insurance policy on the Spirit of the River valued at $2.7 million — a figure ten times the market value of the complex, according to the city assessor's office.

Further, Warmann was apparently so desperate for cash that on December 9, 1993 — less than three months after the Inaugural sank — he took out a loan from the little-known Illinois firm A.G. Enterprises Inc. The now-defunct Belleville company shared an office address with lawyer Amiel Cueto, who in 2003 was released from a seven-year prison sentence for interfering with the federal investigation of East St. Louis racketeer Thomas Venezia.

In return for the $300,000 loan from A.G. Enterprises, Warmann was to hand his creditors — presumably Cueto and Venezia — $2.4 million in Argosy stock. The lopsided return rate and the shady background of A.G. Enterprises so alarmed Argosy's then-chairman, William Cellini, that he informed his fellow board members in a memo: "Floyd had to give his soul away — along with stock — to get his much-needed funds."

Of the conspiracy theories that followed, the one most often whispered is that Warmann intentionally unmoored the Spirit of the River and scuttled the Inaugural in order to both free up his mooring rights (which still required approval from the mayor) and collect on his insurance policy. This theory is at least partly supported by a 60-page Coast Guard investigation into the cause of the breakaway.

In the January 4, 1994, report, the Coast Guard noted that in the weeks prior to the unmooring, two of the cables securing the Inaugural were seen slacking into the river and tending downstream — rendering them useless against the river current. Meanwhile, a third anchor cable did not break (as was initially reported) but ran out of line because someone had failed to padlock the iron hooks that held the chain in place.

The Coast Guard's investigating officer, Mike Kelly, concluded that the loss of that third anchor cable resulted in the breakaway. He speculated that the hook was "intentionally opened to release the chain," and he casts blame directly at Warmann. "The owner of the Spirit of the River failed to ensure the moorings were properly maintained for the prevailing river conditions," Kelly writes in the report. "If [the owner] had properly maintained the complex moorings, the breakaway may not have occurred."

A second conspiracy theory emerged from a St. Louis Fire Department investigation into the fires that erupted aboard the Sprit of the River as the complex broke from its moorings. This version of events focuses suspicions not on Warmann but on agents of the President Casino, which was moored directly north of the Spirit of the River. A Warmann gaming boat would have been in competition with President Casino.

Fire officials ruled the flames accidental, blaming them on electric cables that snapped during the breakaway. Yet their interviews with witnesses prompt further questions. Most intriguing is the statement from an off-duty sheriff's deputy — backed by testimony of other witnesses — who reported seeing two men paddling a skiff from the Burger King vessel moments after the breakaway.

According to the deputy, the men landed on shore, then kicked their dinghy back into the river's current and appeared "very distressed." When questioned by park rangers, the men identified themselves as employees of Gateway Riverboat Cruises, a President Casinos subsidiary, which also operated along the riverfront. The men, according to the deputy's account, said they were "just doing their job" and that they were told to "disconnect the Taco Bell."

What the men were doing on the Spirit of the River remains a mystery. Were they ordered to sabotage Warmann's potentially competitive operations?

"Doubtful," says Tom Dunn, the former president of Gateway Riverboat Cruises. Dunn says his company contacted the Coast Guard in the summer of 1993 to report its concerns about the precarious manner in which Warmann's vessels were tethered to the shore. He denies that any of his employees were on the Spirit of the River at the time of its breakaway.

"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."

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."

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.

Patzius says the theories surrounding the sinking of the ship are rumor and innuendo. The flood, he says, forced the ship downriver. It hit the bridge and suffered a six-inch gash in its side. End of story.

"What gets me is that, until I got involved with the ship, nobody gave a damn about it at all," Patzius says. "When I start wanting to do something, everyone wants to have a say. Hell, they already tried to steal the guns from me once."

So how did he come into possession of the gun?

"I stole them," says the unapologetic Patzius. "Captain Venable told me where I'd find them, and I knew exactly where they were because I used to own that warehouse where they kept them. One night at about 1 a.m., I got in one of my old trucks and drove down there. I crashed right through the gate and smashed it to hell. I hooked the gun up to my rig and drove off. If you knew the fucking vultures in this business, you'd do the same. We get everything half-ass legal."

A few minutes later, Bob Cassilly arrives by bulldozer to the top of the hill. He's heard plenty of tales about the Inaugural and its sinking, but the story of the anti-aircraft gun is a new one to him. That said, Stasiak shouldn't expect Cassilly — or Patzius — to cough up the gun anytime soon.

"That's a good one," Cassilly says. "But all I know is that possession is nine-tenths of the law, and that gun is on my property." The U.S.S. Inaugural survived World War II. But then the old warship met a more formidable enemy — the Mississippi River.