The U.S. forces in Vietnam were then at two hundred thousand and growing, with casualties spiking, and the men in West Point’s class of 1966 were well aware that they would serve, and quite possibly die, in that far-off war. But West Point’s motto, “Duty, Honor, Country,” affirms that its graduates will always obey the decisions of our elected government, and the men of ’66 were dutiful: of the 579 who graduated, 30 died in Vietnam and roughly five times that number were wounded. Since this would be the men’s last Army-Navy football game as cadets, they wanted to go out with a bang, not a whimper.
Carhart tells the incredible true story of how, in stealing that Navy goat, the cadets unknowingly reenacted the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece from Greek mythology. The caper is interwoven with an insider’s narrative about the private lives of six West Point cadets in the early 1960s, who, against all odds, hurled their last hurrah of triumph to America before flying off to fight its wretched war in Vietnam.
For more information about The Golden Fleece visit carhartthegoldenfleece.com.
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About the Author
?Tom Carhart is a West Point graduate and a twice-wounded Vietnam veteran. He earned a law degree from the University of Michigan and a PhD in American and military history from Princeton University and has lived and worked in Paris, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Brussels, and Washington DC. The author of eight previous books on military history, Carhart lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Jan.
Wesley Clarkis a retired U.S. Army four-star general, Vietnam War veteran, and valedictorian of the West Point class of ’66.
Read an Excerpt
SPNSS, 0010 Hours, 21 November 1965
I shivered involuntarily, my scalp prickling in the frigid breeze that washed over the back of my head. All five of us were cold, shivering and blowing and stamping our feet silently on the bed of pine needles, restless wild horses while we waited.
Off to our left, a half-dozen high-security communication towers soared 250 feet into the sky, each studded with flashing red lights. It was an eerie sight, as they looked for all the world like a row of rocket ships ready to blast off into space. Off to our right, a few hundred yards down a grassy slope and bathed in a halo of floodlights, was the main guardhouse that blocked the gate into the most secure section of the Severna Park Naval Security Station (SPNSS), Maryland.
It was a moonless night, and we knew that, at the edge of the wood line, we couldn't be seen from the road or the guardhouse. But we also knew we were already trespassers inside the barbed-wire-topped fence of the highest security installation in the U.S. Navy. We were at that moment already in violation of federal law, and we had been warned that if we were seen by either of the U.S. Marine guards stationed at the guardhouse, they had orders to shoot to kill.
We never really believed that, but that's what we had been told by Mr. Acton, the anxious father of one of our number who happened to live nearby. He also told us the story of some teenagers who, weeks earlier and wanting to test the stories going around about this installation, had intentionally thrown a golf ball over the fence, just to see what might happen.
To their great surprise, a voice over a loudspeaker warned them that whatever they had just thrown had violated a federal security installation, that they would not be able to recover it, that they should keep their distance from the high electrified fence and stay where they were until U.S. Marine guards approached them to investigate.
The kids ran, of course, but word went around about that moment, and somehow had been, we thought, exaggerated to include the "shoot to kill" comment. We had talked about this in the Acton home. Mr. Acton's son was our West Point classmate Adam Acton, who had started as part of our group, and I could understand his not wanting his son to run any foolish risks. But, we had argued, we are at peace now, not at war, and they're not going to shoot at us for being little more than "off limits" if we went inside the fence. That seemed like pretty common sense to us, and four of us had been able to talk the others into carrying off this proposed raid. Relax, we said, that threat is almost laughable, they're not going to shoot at us.
But at the last minute, Adam Acton and Billy Blake, another of our classmates, had agreed that the danger was just too great and so had backed out and stayed at the Acton house, leaving the other six of us to conduct our raid. And now, having already violated federal law by penetrating the security station's fence and waiting in the frigid dark, I was of a somewhat more sober mien and began to rethink my words.
Will they shoot at us? Really?
All five of us were wearing jeans and dark turtlenecks, our white hands and faces smeared black by the burnt cork we had rubbed on them before we left the car, its big engine still running with our sixth co-conspirator, Bob Lowry, at the wheel. And now, having come this far, we had long passed the point of no return. We had to make our strike fast and furious, then get back through the fence to the car with our prize. But time dragged while we waited.
Off to my right was Art Mosley, to my left Deme Clainos, Mike Mewhinney, and Mike Brennan. Clainos had a black towel and a small crowbar, maybe two feet long and a half-inch in diameter. But this was supposed to be a backup tool to break the padlock securing the cage, as our primary tool was a big set of bolt cutters we had borrowed from the Post Engineers back at West Point. Their two handles were painted black, but each arm ended with a shiny brass ball the size of a tangerine. And on one arm "Property Corps of Engineers West Point" was stenciled in small white letters.
When we had reached this final rally point only minutes earlier, we checked our equipment: lassoes, check; crowbar, check; (black) towel to muffle the sound of breaking lock, check. But somehow, I had forgotten the bolt cutters. I remembered having them earlier, but for the life of me couldn't remember where I had put them. Were they in the trunk of the car, where they had been earlier? I had no recollection of putting them there, but that was their most probable location.
I admitted my error, but we agreed that if I ran back there and looked for them in the trunk, that could take twenty minutes or so. In any case, we weren't even sure they were there, and we didn't have that much time to spare. No, we couldn't afford any delay, as the arrival of another car at the gate within minutes would be our launch signal. We quickly agreed to just press on and hope that five of us pulling down on the crowbar would provide enough leverage to break the padlock.
The main guardhouse was bathed in a bright pool of light, but we were then inside the fence and looking at it from the rear. There was no activity we could detect, and on the back side of the small brick building, on our side, we could see a large square area no more than twenty feet on a side and enclosed by a Cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. Inside that we could just make out what looked like a small hut. That, we knew, was the cage in which the Navy goat, Billy XIV, was kept, and he was probably inside the hut sleeping.
I checked my watch, which read 12:15. It was a cold Saturday night — or by then, Sunday morning — and we knew that two uniformed Marines manned the well-lit guard post. But while we had watched for ten or fifteen minutes, the Marines just stayed inside. The road through the fence was blocked at the guard post by a big metal barrier whose movement was obviously controlled from inside.
As we watched, one car drove up to the barrier and stopped as one of the Marines came out and checked his pass. Then the barrier was swept back, the car drove in, and the barrier was replaced. That car drove past us no more than fifty feet away, but obviously the driver had no idea we were even there. It seemed strange that there would be any traffic this late on a Saturday night, but we knew nothing of what went on inside all those buildings. We only suspected that it was something very classified that went on day and night, given the high-security nature of the installation.
It seemed almost funny, as the only threat we could imagine to this well-guarded post would be a Soviet agent of some sort. But nothing like that had ever happened, or if it had, he or she must have had very good phony ID. So it was not an enviable position for those poor Marines, pulling the graveyard shift on a cold, lonely Saturday night in November.
I shivered and stamped in the cold, then blew on my hands. It was 12:25 a.m., and the car was expected to arrive any minute. I looked over at Mike Brennan on my left and started to ask him something when Mosley hit my arm as his loud whisper turned my head:
"Here they come!"
Sure enough, a station wagon was rolling into the halo of light, then stopping as it drew close to the barrier.
Brennan's words came in a harsh whisper: "Let's go!"
As one, we dashed out of the woods and swooped down the grassy slope toward the light, our feet only barely touching the ground.
On July 1, 1962, Art Mosley's flight landed at New York's LaGuardia Airport. Having just graduated from high school in Panama City in the panhandle of Florida, Art was, by virtually any high school standard, a bit of a hotshot: number one in his class (he had never gotten a grade lower than "A"), he was also student body president and a star player on his high school baseball team. He was just the sort of high-performing, well-rounded teenager who could have gone to any college in the country.
So where would Art go? He and his father, the chairman of the local school board, had done a lot of research into American colleges over the past year. And which one did they decide was the best? Not Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, not Stanford, not MIT. No, the school they decided would provide the very best education available for Art was the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. And on that first day of July 1962, that's where he was headed.
Another flight to LaGuardia that day would be carrying Mike Mewhinney, from Denton, Texas. He was another very smart guy — National Honor Society and National Merit Scholar, he was also president of his high school student council and played both basketball and baseball. His father had retired from the navy when he was a teenager and was teaching economics at North Texas State University. Mike had the brains and the scholastic aptitude scores to have gone to any college in the country, and he had won an academic scholarship to Rice University, a top-ranked college nationally.
But Mike was the third of five children, and he was well aware that his parents just could not afford much in the way of providing him a college education. With that knowledge, he had applied to his local congressman for an appointment to West Point. When he won, the free education it promised would solve a lot of financial problems at home.
But Mike had never before flown in an airplane, and when he got to Love Field in Dallas, he was more than a little bit nervous, tasting acid in his throat as he tried not to think about it. They got to the gate, where he kissed his parents goodbye, showed his ticket to the guy behind the desk, and was waved out the door. Then they were walking toward the biggest airplane Mike had ever seen, aDC-7 Super Constellation. This was really happening, he thought; he was about to leap into the sky inside this long metal tube with huge wings and long propeller blades.
He found his seat by the window and buckled his seat belt. They stopped briefly at the end of the runway, then the motors roared, the brakes were released, and they accelerated faster than anything Mike had ever experienced, pressing him back hard into his seat. After they left ground, it was a steep climb for a few minutes. Then the plane reached the right altitude, leveled off, and the noise from the propellers faded. Thereafter, the flight from Dallas to New York City, the first airplane ride he had ever taken in his life, was surprisingly smooth.
From the pre-Kennedy Idlewild Airport, Mike took a bus into the city, where he found himself almost overwhelmed: the noise, the traffic, the enormous buildings looming overhead, the steady flow of people rushing who-knows-where through midtown Manhattan — this was much different from the small Texas town where he had lived, and he didn't like it at all. He got off the bus at the Port Authority bus station, then followed signs to the correct counter, where he finally bought the right ticket.
With that in hand he went upstairs three floors to the correct gate and clambered aboard a bus. It was almost full and he had to go all the way to the back before he found a seat. As he walked he couldn't help but notice perhaps a dozen other young men who looked a lot like him, and it wasn't hard for him to guess that they were all headed to the same place.
As Mike sat down, the guy next to the window stuck out his hand.
"Hi, I'm Mike Brennan from Wisconsin, and I'm going to West Point. How about you?"
That brought a smile to Mike's lips, and he felt relief at breaking the ice with a kindred spirit. Neither of them had ever traveled far from home, and just making their way alone through New York City had been one of the most challenging and exciting things they had ever done.
"Mike Mewhinney, from Denton, Texas, and yes, I'm going to West Point too."
They were soon sharing their giddy anticipation of the next day, when they would formally become Cadets. Both were a little bit concerned about the tough discipline they expected to face at West Point, but they readily trivialized it, for they were two colts on the loose, ready to lope through the wooded highlands above the Hudson River in upstate New York. Both boys — and they were still that — were brimming over with excitement about soon becoming Cadets, a coming-of-age experience both had long dreamed of and were now about to actually taste. They had no way to know it then, but these two would become the closest of friends at the academy.
The bus got to West Point in the early afternoon and the would-be Cadets checked into the Hotel Thayer, where they were billeted in a big room filled with forty or fifty cots. There they left their nearly empty suitcases and were told that, on their last day as civilians, they had the freedom to walk around West Point.
They had to report in officially on the following morning, so the two Mikes decided to walk around and check out the "campus." The Hotel Thayer was just inside the gate from the small town of Highland Falls, and they walked directly north a full mile along Thayer Road in the cool shade of tall hardwood trees. It was a quiet day and a pleasant walk, with large stone houses uphill on their left and the magnificent Hudson River far below them on their right. Then they came to the academy itself, which seemed like nothing more than a castle that had been brought here from somewhere in medieval Europe.
First they passed the Cadet hospital on their left that rose four or five floors, then other massive gray stone buildings towered above them on both sides of the road. They didn't yet know exactly what these buildings were, but clearly they were at the very heart of West Point.
Some car traffic was moving both ways, other civilians were walking around, and now and then even a few Cadets went by wearing tight gray coats with high black collars and white pants. The two Mikes agreed that they looked very good indeed — even a bit dashing. This, after all, was what they had long aspired to be, and on the edge of admission they were eager to belong. As one Cadet walked past them, Brennan tried to ask a perhaps meaningless question.
"Excuse me, sir, I just got here for ..."
But the Cadet ignored him and kept walking, so Brennan turned to Mewhinney.
"That was sort of rude, don't you think? Not what you'd expect from a Cadet."
"I think he must know who we are and I guess he just doesn't want talk to us yet. They say we're going to have to go through some Mickey Mouse plebe stuff for a while, and they probably don't want to make friends with us just yet. I guess that will come later in the summer."
They kept walking and suddenly found themselves beyond the buildings, and off to their left front was an enormous expanse of neatly trimmed grass. Beyond the buildings they had passed on their left, more gray stone buildings stretched away from them and lined one side of the grass, all partially masked by tall elms. A few hundred yards away, these buildings intersected with another row, which was arrayed parallel with the road along which they walked.
But that side of the Plain, too, was somewhat obscured by tall, formal-looking trees, their massive branches seeming to somehow grace the cold gray stone. Everything they had seen of the academy so far, Mewhinney had to admit to himself, was nothing less than breathtakingly beautiful. Then Brennan's loud whisper interrupted his reverie.
"Wow! This must be the famous Plain we've heard so much about, right?"
"Yeah, I guess so. But you could put a whole bunch of my high school football fields out there and never run out of room. And look, those rows of stone buildings seem to come together back there, so behind that screen of trees it looks like there are buildings on two sides of the Plain."
"Yeah, and look up above them on that hill. Is that a church?"
"I think it's called the Cadet Chapel. But it looks more like some old French cathedral than any chapel I've ever seen."
They continued walking north along the east edge of the Plain, and some distance ahead it looked like they would enter a thin forest of trees. But the road they were walking along also swept sharply to their left some distance ahead, thus outlining the two open sides of the roughly rectangular Plain.
As they watched, a small red convertible with its top down could be seen following the curve in the road and heading toward them. Even from a distance, they both knew it was one of those fancy new Chevrolet Corvettes. And as it got closer, they also could see that the driver was a beautiful blonde woman wearing sunglasses.
The car slowed as it drew near them, then passed and stopped no more than twenty or thirty yards beyond them. Both were speechless as they turned and watched, but before they could even say anything, a Cadet came running out of one of those gray buildings, then opened the passenger door and hopped in. They were close enough that they could see the couple turn and smile at each other, then she stepped on the gas and they were gone. Brennan could barely speak.
"Did you see that?"
Excerpted from "The Golden Fleece"
Copyright © 2017 Tom Carhart.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents1. SPNSS, 0010 hours, 21 November 1965
2. High Aspirations
4. Plebes at Last
5. Holiday Cheer
6. Christmas Dinner
7. World Politics
8. SPNSS, 0025 Hours, 21 November 1965
10. Cold Steel
11. Army Field Training
14. SPNSS, 0030 hours, 21 November 1965
15. Cow Year
16. Firsty Year
17. The Adventure Begins
18. Recon Run
19. Decision Time
20. In Flight
22. Caravan Crisis
23. Laying Low
24. Inside Connections
25. Time to Deliver
27. Falling on Our Swords
28. The Shadow of the Guillotine
29. The Commandant of Cadets
30. Vietnam Veterans Memorial
31. The Engineer
32. Pension Asset Management
33. Saving Apple’s Cookies
34. Taking Baghdad
35. Rocket Man