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Great Mule Caper detailed, finally Mids nabbed 4 Army mascots on eve of big game

April 28, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

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."

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