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.