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First female U.S. Merchant Marine Academy cadets recall challenges

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy marked its 75th

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy marked its 75th anniversary with a candlelight vigil Friday honoring the 142 academy cadets who were killed in World War II. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Four women and two men, part of the first class at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point to accept female cadets, recalled their experiences and challenges on the 40th anniversary of their commencement during a panel Friday at the federal service academy.

The forum, featuring members of the 1978 graduating class, was part of the academy's 75th anniversary celebration, which coincides with the university's homecoming weekend.

The panel included four of the first eight women to graduate from the academy. The Merchant Marine Academy, which trains men and women to be midshipmen working on deep sea vessels and in the military, was the first service academy in the nation to admit women.

The women recalled a horde of media converging on the North Shore campus in 1974 to document every moment of their training.

But on campus, the women said they asked for no special treatment and with few exceptions weren't treated differently than their male colleagues by instructors or classmates.

"We asked them to try and do everything that they could so that everybody was together, so that they could see they were being treated equally," said Terry Preston, now a small-business owner in Pensacola Beach, Florida.

Jack Noonan, a retired chief executive of Chembulk Tankers, which operates a fleet of petrochemical tankers, agreed.

"Assimilation was genderless," he said.

The women said integration into the then-all male service academy was not without its challenges. Uniforms were not specifically designed for the female figure. Confusion would occasionally occur during shower time. And long locks were chopped off in the barber's chair.

"I did what everybody else was doing," said Frances Yates of Huntington, recalling her first academy haircut. "Nobody else was crying. You had to be stoic. But it was hard."

The panel was moderated by Jennifer McCabe, curator of a new exhibit at the academy documenting the women's accomplishments called "KP Women, Breaking the Gender Barrier."

Forum participants made no mention of the academy's struggles in recent years to address allegations of sexual misconduct, harassment, bullying and coercion in its ranks.

Documents and midshipmen interviews showed the school had for decades struggled with handling reports of sexual misconduct both on campus and during the Sea Year, a program in which midshipmen work on vessels in internationally waters, Newsday has reported.

Earlier this month, a former academy soccer player filed a $5 million federal lawsuit against seven then-seniors on the team and three former coaches, claiming he was verbally and physically abused, including by a sexual assault. The former player said in the suit that the conduct went unchecked and in some cases was encouraged by coaches.

The academy was not named in the suit but faces similar claims in a separate civil action by the same plaintiff that also seeks $5 million in damages. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Maritime Administration, which oversees the school, has previously declined to comment.

Neither the plaintiffs nor attorneys representing them have responded to requests for comment.

The academy Friday also unveiled a newly-refurbished sculpture of a cadet firing an anti-aircraft gun at German planes during World War II and a plaque honoring the 142 academy cadets who were killed in the conflict.

In 1945, then-Academy Superintendent Rear Adm. Giles Stedman ordered the sculpture, which is built into a wall, covered up with a large painting because he felt that the growing list of dead classmates was adversely affecting morale, officials said. The American Merchant Marine Museum recently led an effort to display and refurbish the relief and plaque.

On Friday, Reps. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) and Peter King (R-Seaford), both members of the school's Board of Visitors advisory board, issued a House resolution recognizing the 75th anniversary.

Suozzi said the midshipmen serve the country in times of war and peace, "continuously demonstrating their deep commitment to the people of the United States and the safety of our nation."

King added: “The greatness of this Academy and its midshipmen is unambiguous. I have seen countless constituents attend and graduate from the Academy to go on to serve their nation as merchant mariners."

On Saturday, three members of the original MMA class of 1943 will lead the regimental parade before the academy's first home football game of the season. On Sunday, nearly the entire regiment of midshipmen will run in the Tunnel to Towers race in Manhattan.

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