MEDIA

PRANKS IN THE RANKS

MIDSHIPMEN PULL OUT ALL THE STOPS FOR SPIRIT MISSIONS

By Kelsey Schagemann

Pranks. Hijinks. Spirit Missions

No matter what you call them, they’re the stuff of legend at the U.S. Naval Academy. From strange happenings around the Yard before the annual Army-Navy game to midnight raids at the other service academies, the perfect prank can take months to plot—and midshipmen are up for the challenge.

The best pranks are clever, creative and cause no lasting damage. “I am sure that pranks are part of the fabric of most colleges and universities, and the Naval Academy is no different,” said Commandant of Midshipmen Captain Robert B. Chadwick II ’91, USN. “Some of the best pranks around here have centered on our rivalries with our sister academies.”

Like many alumni, Captain Chadwick has a favorite prank (see “Off We Go Into the Wild [Navy] Blue Yonder” on page 17). He says the midshipmen who pulled off that prank “won my eternal admiration.” It’s a great example of a spirit mission that is hilarious while remaining within appropriate boundaries. “As Commandant, I have taken on an increased interest in ensuring pranks do not involve risk of injury or damage to personal or government property,” Chadwick said.

Narrowing down the many pranks that have been successfully executed over the years was no easy task, but it was a delightful problem to face. We’ve compiled some of our favorites. Which ones did we miss? Send us your favorite pranks at shipmate@usna.com.

The Unbelievable but True Story of the Great Mule Heist
One of the greatest Naval Academy pranks of all time involved reconnaissance missions, assumed identities, getaway drivers and months of planning. It’s not a blockbuster movie, but it might as well be. The intended targets were Spartacus, Traveller, Trooper and Ranger. Nope, those aren’t code names. Those were Army’s mules in 1991.

The plot to kidnap Army’s mascots required the efforts of 17 people on the ground, plus three additional midshipmen who assisted with planning. On scouting trips to West Point, the team pretended to be tourists so they could quietly take photos and conduct surveillance. A midshipman studying electrical engineering scoped out the alarm system. The team procured molasses-spiked feed and a horse trailer from a Maryland mule farmer who, it turned out, had worked at the Naval Academy dairy farm when Army cadets stole the mascot goats in the 1950s—and liked the idea of payback.

To deflect suspicion on heist day, the midshipmen posed as soldiers and military police. They drove cars with New York license plates and bumper stickers reading “Beat Navy” and “I Love My Cadet.” At the veterinary clinic where the mules lived, the team claimed to be delivering feed. Once inside, the midshipmen restrained one guard with plastic ties used as handcuffs and locked the others into a room. A midshipman led the mules out of the clinic and into the trailer, shaking the food enticingly. Lured by the molasses, the mules followed him obediently into the trailer.

Quickly, the midshipmen took off. One of the guards had broken free and sounded the alarm, so there was a brief high-speed chase as far as the West Point gate. Guards there took the vehicles’ license numbers, but the midshipmen had planned ahead. The group with the mules took a circuitous route, heading north and then south, while a decoy group traveled the expected path to Annapolis. By this point, Army helicopters had been deployed. State and military police were on the lookout. Federal marshals descended on the Naval Academy. Mascot-napping was a tradition that dated back to the 1950s, but it was still theft of government property.

When the midshipmen and mules arrived, the marshals and Department of Defense police were ready. But they didn’t anticipate facing Lieutenant Angela Smith, USN, the command duty officer, who reminded the authorities that Navy property was within her jurisdiction. In fact, she requested that instead of arresting the midshipmen, the police escort them—and the mules—into the pep rally, where the midshipmen were greeted as heroes.

The week concluded in the best possible manner: After a dismal 0-10 season, Navy trounced Army that Saturday. And although the heist resulted in a joint Army-Navy moratorium on mascot thefts, the Commandant of Midshipmen honored the brave pranksters with membership in an exclusive new club, “The Order of the Mule.” To the holders of this title, we salute you.

No White Flag of Surrender Here
On Thanksgiving Eve 1980, two midshipmen in uniform flashed their military IDs to security guards as they entered the Pentagon. After hiding overnight in a meditation room, they ascended to the roof early the next morning to complete their mission.
In a television news clip, grainy footage shows a giant banner unfurling from the Pentagon’s roof, covering the building’s exterior with those timeless words: “Go Navy, Beat Army.”

“Security at the Pentagon was breached by two infiltrators operating under the cover of early morning darkness,” the newscaster read. The midshipmen, who are interviewed with their backs to the camera so as to protect their identities, reveal that it took nine months to sew together 67 bedsheets, making the banner 100 feet long and 40 feet high. The finished product, when displayed, covered the office windows of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense.

“The middies of Annapolis proved they will take the back seat to no one, especially Army, when it comes to daring originality, meticulous planning and methodical execution,” the reporter asserted. But, he said, in reference to the historic interservice rivalry and associated pranks, “Somehow, I think we haven’t heard the end of all this.”

The Parade Went That Way
Certain pranks have been repeated time and time again, and the parade prank is one of these. It’s simple enough to execute—it’s just a matter of slightly adjusting the blocks on Worden Field. These small blocks indicate where each company should turn and come to a stop during a parade formation. If the blocks aren’t where they’re supposed to be, well, so much for looking “nice and square and professional,” as Commander Craig Washington ’89, USN (Ret.), senior director of engagement operations at the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association, put it.

In 2007, this prank was carried out during the retirement ceremony for Admiral Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr. ’70, USN (Ret.). “As you look at the field from the stands, the blocks had all been moved just enough to the right so that when the final company marched onto the field, there was one spot short,” recalled Giambastiani’s classmate Commander Skid Heyworth III ’70, USN (Ret.). “Instead of ‘milling about smartly,’ the last company commander had the presence of mind to execute a left turn and take his charges back to Bancroft Hall and enjoy some extra time to themselves.”

Heyworth said his classmates thought it was hilarious (though the Commandant was not amused), and imagining this debacle makes Washington laugh as well. “Parades are such formal, dignified events,” he said. “To have this company marching right off Worden Field because they didn’t know what else to do—the visual is just too good.”
 
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When it comes to pranking the other academies, students on Service Academy Exchange Programs have obvious advantages. As pseudo-insiders, they possess critical knowledge of campus activities, schedules, layout—and access is a non-issue. But pulling off a major prank in rival territory takes guts and gumption. Here are three times Navy succeeded behind the lines.

Off We Go Into the Wild (Navy) Blue Yonder
How many gallons of paint does it take to cover a fighter plane?

The 12 midshipmen who gave a makeover to a McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II at the Air Force Academy know the answer.
In October 2005, these exchange students snuck out under cover of darkness to engage in a bit of midnight mischief.

The fighter jet in question, which is displayed in a prominent space in the center of campus, was tan and green in color—until the midshipmen gave it a fresh coat of paint.

When the campus came to life the next morning, a few days before the Navy-Air Force football game, the fighter had been transformed. There in its place rested a U.S. Navy Blue Angels aircraft, immediately identifiable thanks to its deep blue color and gold lettering.

“They have created a little bit of a legacy,” acknowledged John Van Winkle, an Air Force Academy spokesman, in the Annapolis newspaper The Capital on 6 October prior to the game. The caption for the accompanying photo said it all: “An Air Force Academy cadet does a double-take on the paint job 12 visiting Naval Academy midshipmen gave a Vietnam War-era plane.” 
Alas, the double-takes were limited to one day. In accordance with spirit mission rules, the midshipmen returned the plane to its original look within 24 hours. No word on how many gallons of water it took to remove the blue and gold.

Nothing “Sub”-Par About This Prank
Three years after the Blue Angels prank, in advance of that year’s Navy-Air Force football game, a new crop of exchange students made their mark in Colorado Springs. They chose The Terrazzo, the same highly visible section of central campus where the fighter jet is displayed, to pull off their feat.

On 30 September 2008, a truly strange sight arose from the grassy gathering area of The Terrazzo. It was the top half of a ballistic missile submarine, looking as though it could plow straight through the Air Force Academy’s buildings.

Elisabeth Reed ’10 was one of the midshipmen involved in the construction of the faux sub. “If I recall correctly, we used wood, PVC pipe and tarp,” she said. “I think the best part of the prank was that the ‘sub’ was structurally sound enough for a few mids to stand up on it and do colors while the cadets were walking by on their way to class.”
The mock sub sported the name USS BANCROFT (SSBN-643)— of course.

For Whom the Bells Toll
Joe Parks ’89, human resources specialist at the Academy, spent the fall of 1987 on exchange at West Point. While there, Parks and his fellow midshipmen replicated a prank that had been a success for former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot ’53 in 1975. The hijinks required the assistance of the West Point chaplain, a civilian position at that time, whose home was next to the chapel.

“We knocked on his door and when he opened it and saw us, he immediately said, ‘No,’” Parks recalled. “Then he kindly asked what he could do for us and invited us into his study.” After the midshipmen explained why they were there, the chaplain revealed a secret door to the chapel hidden behind a bookshelf.

In the chapel, the group ascended the stairs until reaching the floor with the bells. “They are arranged sort of like a piano keyboard, but with wooden handles instead of keys,” Parks said. Armed with a music book, and with assistance from the chaplain, the midshipmen launched into their inaugural carillon concert. “We each took a couple of the handles and then the chaplain pointed at the handles for us to ring the bells … like a conductor,” Parks explained.

Down below on the paths of West Point, as the cadets were filing into dinner, their pre-meal reverie was rudely interrupted. The sharpest ears among them quickly recognized the peals of music emanating from the chapel. No, this was not “On, Brave Old Army Team.”

Twelve long years had passed since “Anchors Aweigh” had echoed through the chapel. Twelve long years had passed since the “Marines’ Hymn” had been played on the bells.
It was about time.

The Case of the New Cadet
Long before retired squash coach Craig Dawson ’73 became the winningest coach in the Naval Academy’s history, he was known for a different athletic feat. At the Army-Navy game on 27 November 1971, Dawson slyly joined the ranks of cadets as they marched onto the field.

No one noticed the new cadet because Dawson was outfitted in an Army cap and an overcoat from the Virginia Military Institute, which bears a close resemblance to the West Point uniform. At an opportune moment, Dawson whipped off the overcoat, revealing his N-Star letter sweater, and began sprinting along the line of cadets. No one made a move to stop him as he ran amok on the field. “Thank goodness for Army discipline,” Dawson wrote in a November-December 2012 Shipmate article. “Not a single cadet would break ranks to stop me, although I do remember hearing some expletives.”

Read more in the November-December 2012 issue of Shipmate at www.usna.com in the archives.


Navy’s list of standout pranks could go on forever, but these are a few more favorites.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s … Ping Pong Balls?
Army hardly knew what hit them. One minute they were enjoying the pre-game parade; the next minute, ping pong balls were raining down from a small plane midshipmen had rented for just this occasion. Take a guess which two words were inscribed on the flying missiles.

Putting the “Rank” in “Prank”
Before game time, some midshipmen took it upon themselves to smear limburger—a famously smelly cheese—on the Army’s section of seats.

Be Careful When You Open the Door
There are endless variations on the popular prank of filling an office with something unexpected. Think balloons, milk cartons, crumpled newspaper, spiderwebs of strings and so on. “Best company officer prank I saw was an office filled wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with interlinked clothes hangers,” recalled Commander Pat Olsen ’95, USN, project officer at Research & Development Support Activity. “Hundreds and hundreds of them. The company officer had dug a tunnel through the hangers and was sitting at his desk as though nothing was wrong.”

Cozy Accommodations, Breakfast Included
A cheeky Airbnb listing offered up a bedroom in “one of Annapolis’ most historic buildings” for only $10 per night. The room included access to “semi-reliable Internet,” “the owner’s fleet of pleasure craft” and “gourmet breakfast.” Alas, a disclaimer at the bottom of the posting made it clear that Bancroft Hall dorm rooms “will not actually be rented.”  

Car Trouble
Here’s some advice for future West Point officers on exchange at the Naval Academy: Don’t let anyone know how much you love your car. If you do, it’s apt to be demolished by midshipmen wielding sledgehammers at a T-Court pep rally. You’ll watch in horror as your vehicle is destroyed, but if you’re lucky, as Major Charles Weurpel was (though he might disagree), you’ll be presented with a check for the full cost of a new car after the debacle concludes.
 
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As much as we hate to admit it, sometimes the Zoomies, Whoops and Coasties get the best of us. Here are a few times we were the ones caught off guard.

• In November 2015, a surprising press release from the City of Annapolis made the rounds on the Internet. “Annapolis City Council Approves First Annual ‘Go Army Beat Navy’ Day,” declared the headline. The article claimed that the mayor-backed resolution was “aimed at addressing the many supporters of Army and West Point among the citizens of Annapolis.” Of course, there was no such resolution; the fake press release had been written by Mike Nemeth, a 2004 West Point graduate.
Nemeth was also the force behind “Discipline: The Annapolis Way (Lessons from the Nation’s 4th-Best Military Academy),” which was entirely blank inside but became a bestseller on Amazon thanks to his social media efforts and those of his West Point comrades. “Use it as your daily notebook/journal,” he suggested  a Facebook post. “It’s a very functional 100+ pages that say ‘Beat Navy’ at the bottom.”

• When Navy Lieutenant Commander Dave Sagunsky ’98, USN, Air Officer Commanding of Cadet Squadron 3, arrived at work at Air Force on 30 September 2016, he discovered he would be conducting business outside that day. His entire office—desk, couch, table and chairs, bookshelf—had been moved to a concrete platform suspended over a reflecting pool in the Air Gardens. Surrounded by bubbling fountains and views of the Rocky Mountains, Sagunsky took the prank in stride. Thank goodness the Navy-Air Force game—and its week of associated pranks—wasn’t in January!

• Sadly, Bill the Goat has been abducted quite a few times, by land (convertibles, vans and other vehicles) and air (an Air Force bomber), by Army cadets wearing Grateful Dead t-shirts and by Army cadets dressed as ninjas. Post-kidnapping gloating has taken the form of a New York Times ad (“Hey, Navy! Do you know where your kid is today? The Corps does.”), a YouTube video with nearly 13,000 views (Operation Good Shepherd) and gameday cheering (“We got your goat!").