The Golden Fleece
High-Risk Adventure at West Point
Potomac Books, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2017, 224 pages
Book Review published on: December 7, 2018
Published in advance of the 119th edition of the Army-Navy game, The Golden Fleece: High-Risk Adventure at West Point recounts the harrowing and entertaining, yet poignant, saga of six West Point cadets to capture the mascot of archrival Navy, “Bill XIV,” during the fall of 1965. The ringleader and this book’s author, Tom Carhart, was himself profiled by Rick Atkinson in The Long Gray Line, a retrospective of West Point’s class of 1966. While Atkinson briefly described the mascot heist in a few pages, The Golden Fleece relays the story in its entirety from Carhart’s perspective as a cadet. Interlaced with vignettes of life at West Point in the mid-1960s and youthful perspectives on a Vietnam War gaining momentum far beyond the academy’s walls, The Golden Fleece is a tale that is concise, insightful, and compelling.
While not a military history book in the strictest sense, history does play a key role. The book derives its title from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts; when the father of one of the six coconspirators likened the group’s attempt to kidnap Bill XIV to Jason’s epic journey in search of the Golden Fleece, the characterization stuck. Carhart and his five mates dubbed themselves “the Argonauts.” Additionally, the author regularly interjects historical events into his narrative, demonstrating the impact of seminal occurrences on cadet lives such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and of course, the Vietnam War. At West Point in the 1960s, long before the internet and even without television in barracks’ dayrooms, the New York Times served as the primary cadet conduit to the outside world. Perhaps the most important contribution to history is Carhart’s more focused narrative on the lives of the six Argonauts as they make their four-year trek through West Point—sharing the attitudes, values, and beliefs of this generation of young men as they anticipate graduation in the face of great uncertainty. Finally, the book does touch briefly on the history of the Army-Navy game, and of course, serves as a chronicle of this successful attempt to steal the prized Navy goat—perhaps the greatest quest imaginable for cadets at the time.
The book flows along two parallel tracks. The first is the Argonauts’ mission to kidnap Bill XIV—its genesis, conduct, and aftermath. Carhart immediately captures the reader’s attention by picking up the story as the band of six cadets “assaults” the naval installation housing the Navy mascot. He then backtracks, intertwining his chronology of the quest with the book’s second and perhaps more important theme—life at West Point during the 1960s. In this way, the author is able to get at a key element of the book—describing what was in the minds of a generation of young men aspiring to military service in the face of a burgeoning Vietnam War. Carhart is very effective in tracing the lives of each of the protagonists from their “plebe” (freshman) to “firstie” (senior) year, spanning the rigors of “Beast Barracks” to the challenges of leading the Corps as upperclassmen. Carhart and his close friend Deme Clainos hatched the scheme in order to “do something adventurous and exciting, something that would make the rest of the Corps sit up and take notice.”
The mission itself was no simple college prank. It entailed significant risks in a number of ways for Carhart and his comrades in arms. To begin, Bill XIV was not maintained at the Naval Academy, with its relatively open access from Annapolis, Maryland. Quite the opposite, the Navy held him in what was advertised as one of its most secure installations—the Severna Park Naval Security Station, Maryland—under the watchful eye of some Marine security guards who had orders to use deadly force if necessary. Additionally, all cadets and midshipmen were well aware of the prohibitions from both academy superintendents to not attempt any raids on mascots, under the threat of severe punishment, to include dismissal. Finally, all six of the Argonauts were “firsties,” set to graduate in June 1966. Additionally, four were cadet captains—the top of rung of cadet ranks—who occupied key leadership positions in the Corps. All risked expulsion or worse if the plot was exposed.
So why did the Argonauts risk all to steal the Navy mascot? Was it simply for adulation by the Corps? Perhaps the author best explains it by contrasting the group’s total immersion into the “mythic quest” aspect of the Bill XIV mission with the coming reality of graduation into the “real Army.” Thus, the mission took on immediacy—cadets wanted to accomplish something meaningful and memorable before likely service in a faraway conflict that was already claiming the lives of former friends and prior graduates. While the book focuses on the quest and the relatively insular nature of academy life, the Vietnam War is always a part of the backdrop. Indeed, one of the most poignant scenes in The Golden Fleece is when the harsh reality of the war invades the serenity of West Point; one of Carhart’s acquaintances from an earlier class is killed in Vietnam and buried on academy grounds, with the author and several of his companions in attendance. Accomplishing one great and memorable thing before graduation became a strong motivational force for Carhart and his companions.
The book is not without humor and irony. The allegedly high security at the Severna Park Naval Security Station was almost laughably breached by Carhart and his comrades, ably assisted by female companions who distracted the Marine guards from their sentry duties. It turned out that the Argonauts had a much more difficult time after seizing Bill XIV, whose long horns and bodily functions wreaked havoc as they tried desperately to maneuver his considerable bulk into the back seat of a convertible. Additionally, despite mission success, the heroes were never able to capitalize on it. Alas, as the boys attempted to hide the goat on academy grounds for eventual presentation to the Army football team captain in front of the Corps, Bill’s presence was discovered. Eventually, the chain of command returned the prized mascot directly to the Naval Academy, much to the relief of its outraged superintendent. The Argonauts had to contend themselves with a “goatless” rally in front of the Corps; their fame, however, was secure. Finally, dispensation of justice to the conspirators showed rifts between the different levels of chain of command. While the Academy superintendents maintained a hard line and demanded severe consequences, the “council of colonels” tasked with meting out justice treated the heroes with a wink and a nod, letting them off with one month’s loss of firstie privileges—a laughable punishment compared to what the higher-ups threatened.
While the book cannot compare in depth and nuance to Atkinson’s The Long Gray Line, it stands on its own merit. The book will appeal to aficionados of the Army-Navy rivalry, as well as those interested in perspectives of life at the academies during the 1960s. Perhaps the audience most appreciative of The Golden Fleece will be the West Point class of 1966 and those surrounding it; it will no doubt reawaken long-lost memories and mixed emotions for those attending the academy at that time. The Golden Fleece is a story well told, and a tribute, in the words of Carhart, to “we Argonauts all.”
Book Review written by: Mark V. Montesclaros, Fort Gordon, Georgia