Under the cover of darkness over the weekend, Army cadets from the United States Military Academy at West Point crept into a secret compound, on a mission so dear to the cadet corps that it has survived generations of evolving warfare and official rebuke: stealing Bill the goat.
The goat is the mascot of the Naval Academy, the 37th in the line of goats of various breeds to hold that distinction. All 37 have been named Bill, and over the last 70 years, Army cadets have stolen Bill at least 10 times, beginning in 1953 with a plan that involved a convertible and some chloroform.
Navy midshipmen once nabbed the Army's mule mascots as well. And Air Force Academy cadets have gotten a few heists in.
The pranks, euphemistically called spirit missions, are generally timed to precede the annual Army-Navy football game, where both sides' mascots are expected to appear.
Officially, mascot stealing is forbidden by a high-level formal agreement signed in 1992, after Navy midshipmen cut phone lines and zip-tied six Army employees while stealing West Point's mules. But the pranks are so deeply ingrained in the lore of interservice rivalry that leaders of the schools have never been able to stamp them out. And privately, the military leaders that forbid the missions at times have also chuckled with glee.
Sometimes the thefts are elaborate and dazzlingly executed, complete with commando teams with blackened faces and decoys sent to distract guards. One heist was so stealthy that it went unsolved until cadets ran an ad in The New York Times that read, "Hey Navy, do you know where your 'kid' is today? The Corps does."
Others were little more than ham-handed brawls, including a melee in a stadium parking lot in 2015 that landed Bill No. 35 in a veterinary clinic for a week.
This weekend's effort was more of a Bay of Pigs-style embarrassment. West Point raiders reconnoitered a private farm near Annapolis, Md., and tried to sneak up to the paddock where the current goat mascot, a young angora with curly white wool, was pastured with others, including at least one retired Bill.
The noisy assault team spooked the goats into a run, though, and when the fumbling cadets gave chase, they managed to grab only one goat — and not the right one. After a four-hour drive back to West Point, they unveiled not Bill No. 37 but Bill No. 34, an arthritic, 14-year-old retiree with only one horn, according to a joint statement released by the Army and Navy in response to questions from The New York Times.
The usual post-raid gloating has been decidedly muted.
Word quickly spread among students, but both service academies have tried to keep the incident quiet. While many military leaders privately admire the ingenuity and determination needed to swipe a mascot, they do not like how it looks in public — especially when animals get hurt.
In 2018 an endangered gyrfalcon named Aurora was the Air Force Academy's mascot. When Army cadets shoved her into a dog crate, she beat her wings bloody trying to escape, seriously injuring herself.
Bill No. 34 was returned safely on Monday, according to the Army. A veterinarian who checked the goat said he was in good health, a military employee said.
The superintendents of the two academies — Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams and Vice Adm. Sean Buck — said in the joint statement on Monday night that stealing animals was off limits and that they were investigating the raid.
They said they were "disappointed by the trust that was broken recently between our brothers and sisters in arms," and added, "These actions do not reflect either academy's core values of dignity and respect."