ANNAPOLIS -- When they disguised themselves as soldiers and executed a daring commando-style raid on the enemy stronghold, 17 Naval Academy seniors risked their careers -- and perhaps even jail -- to make their mark in the Class of '92.
They assured their place in academy lore as the fabled guys who stole the mules.
These weren't just any mules. They were the four Army mascots, and the foray, slashing like a cutlass into the heart of West Point, was on the eve of the 101st Army-Navy game.
The Army reacted furiously, launching an interstate manhunt that ended that night at the Naval Academy gates, where Defense Department security agents ambushed the mule-nappers and tried to take the animals back to West Point.
"They were accusing us of federal crimes: misappropriation of government property, grand theft mule," chuckled Midshipman 1st Class Chris Middleton of Laurel, a planner and leader of the foray.
The raiders' luck held, though. The academy's duty officer rode to the rescue, ordering the cops to take the mids and their four-legged trophies to a jubilant pregame pep rally. Two days later Navy's football team added injury to insult by winning the game, 24-3, for its only victory of the season.
The raiders became the heroes of Annapolis. The embarrassed Army never pressed charges. And the commandant of midshipmen even created a unique honor for them: "The Order of the Mule," certifying their exploit to be "in the highest traditions of the naval service."
Although the Great Mule Caper was reported at the time, only now are the mids able to talk about it publicly, a group of them said in Annapolis last week.
Here is their story, a tale of rivalry, revenge and military planning that has a generation of future admirals chuckling:
The mule raid, a year in the making, was conceived by members of the Class of 1991 after the 1990 Army-Navy game and passed along to the incoming seniors for execution.
"They've come down and taken Navy's goats many times," said Midshipman 1st Class Bill Wiseman of Cockeysville, the other Marylander in the group. "But the goats are on a farm 20 miles from here. There's only a farmer there, so the cadets cut a lock and take a goat. No big deal."
The Army mules were a different story, however. Locked in a veterinary compound at West Point, they were surrounded by guards in the heart of a military complex that also serves as a federal silver repository.
"No one ever did it before, and I don't think anyone will get the mules again," Mr. Middleton said. "We penetrated right into West Point."
Disguised as tourists, midshipmen reconnoitered West Point, 50 miles north of New York City, taking video and still photographs to devise entrance and escape routes.
An initial attempt to steal the mules at Thanksgiving failed when a mule tender changed the feeding time. Then Army tightened security after word leaked that Navy was planning to steal the mules. Time was running out.
Mr. Middleton recruited a new, smaller group of seniors, devoted volunteers who will enter special training after graduation May 26 as pilots, Marines or members of the SEALS, the Navy's elite commando unit.
At a motel near West Point, the mids disguised themselves as Army Military Police and soldiers. Plastering their vehicles with "Beat Navy" stickers, they checked their radios, synchronized watches and drove unchallenged to the veterinary office and stables.
But instead of a lone mule tender on a quiet Thursday morning, the raiders found several soldiers and a civilian employee. Improvising quickly, the invaders "subdued and restrained" the people, Mr. Middleton said. In layman's language, that means they were bound with plastic handcuffs and gagged.
Meantime, elsewhere in the building, a midshipman disguised as an MP was conning another group of employees into believing the raiders were Army security men checking reports of an attempted Navy incursion.
Outside, using molasses-sweetened feed as a lure, the mids had bridled the four mules and were loading them into a waiting horse van.
Then, at the last minute, fortune frowned.
The last raiders were leaving when one of the "prisoners," a 6-foot-3-inch Ranger sergeant, shattered a window and rolled outside, shouting an alarm, the midshipmen said.
One soldier tried to block the last fleeing Navy car, then leaped into his own car for a brief high-speed chase to the West Point gate, they said. The fugitives evaded the gate guards -- but the guards got the tag number of the last car.
"If that hadn't happened, they never would have caught us because no one had seen any of the vehicles," said Midshipman 1st Class Dave Rudko of Long Island.
Meanwhile, the van with the mules embarked on a route known only to the men with them. "We didn't want anyone else to know, so that if we were caught we couldn't tell," Mr. Rudko said.
The Army scrambled three helicopters to search for the mules, the midshipmen said. State police were alerted and stationed at New Jersey Turnpike toll booths. Defense Department security police gathered at Naval Academy gates.
But the mids with the mules, anticipating pursuit, took evasive action.
Instead of heading south from West Point, the shortest way, they drove north to Albany. There, they turned southwest to Scranton, Pa., then followed a roundabout route south through Pennsylvania to the academy dairy farm outside Annapolis, where the mules were fed and watered.
From there they linked up with the other raiders for the final -- for the pep rally and glory for the Class of '92.
The young men laugh now as they describe the surreal scene at the academy's back gate that night, but they were scared at the time.
The mule convoy reached the gate about 7:15 p.m. Suddenly, lights flashed and police cars roared out of the darkness. Defense Department agents hauled the midshipmen from their vehicles and spread-eagled them against a baseball backstop, the mids said.
"They dragged us out and treated us like criminals," said Mr. Rudko.
But fortune's smile returned, probably as a big grin.
Mr. Wiseman, who had driven through the gate before the trap was sprung, sped across campus to alert Lt. Angela Smith, the command duty officer.
As duty officer, Lieutenant Smith, who captained Navy's 1983 women's basketball team, was in temporary command of the naval station.
Taking in the scene, she ordered the agents to release the midshipmen and escort them -- and the mules -- to the waiting pep rally, where all hands received a triumphant welcome, Mr. Middleton said.
"They were humiliated, they went from arresting criminals to escorting heroes," Mr. Wiseman chortled.
Meanwhile, Navy brass, who knew a plan was afoot to steal the mules, were concerned as phone lines burned between West Point and Annapolis with Army allegations of what the midshipmen had done, Mr. Middleton said. It took the mids a while to explain.
"We didn't get to debrief the admiral [Superintendent Thomas Lynch] until 9:30 p.m. Once he heard our side of the story, he believed us. The Army had given him bad information," the midshipman said.
"We didn't hurt anyone and we compensated for everything we did," Mr. Middleton said. "We took along new locks to replace what we cut and we paid that big sergeant for ripping his uniform."
The testimony of a commissioned officer who went along -- just in case -- also helped, he said.
On Friday, tension mounted as game day neared. Army demanded that the mules be returned to West Point. Navy demurred, telling the cadets they could collect their mascots in Annapolis. Cadets finally caught the 1,000-pound animals -- after a chase around a big field because the mids had turned the mules loose. The big week ended the next day, Dec. 7, when Navy's football team clobbered Army 24-3 -- its only win of the season -- as the Brigade of Midshipmen chanted "We stole your mules" at the crestfallen cadets riding their recovered mascots around Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium.
It took until February to settle the dispute over the incident, including the threat of possible charges, said Mr. Middleton, who then published an account in the campus magazine, the Log.
Although the incident still smarts, West Point spokesman Ray Aalbue credited the sailors with excellent planning and execution. "Their ingenuity was incredible. They flat caught us," he said.
"The mules are very important to West Point; we were very concerned about them being taken," he said. Security has been tightened, "so they won't do it again," Mr. Aalbue said.
Both sides agree that the mules likely won't be snatched again, at least not for many years.
"We'll get 'em next year. Army will avenge its loss on the field and tradition will march on," said Mr. Aalbue. That, he added, leaves the door of retaliation "as wide open as I can leave it."