Susan Ahn Cuddy (Korean: 안수산, Hanja:安繡山; 16 January 1915 to 24 June 2015) was the first female gunnery officer in the United States Navy.
She was the eldest daughter of Korean independence activist Ahn Chang-ho and Helen Ahn, the first married Korean couple to immigrate to the United States in 1902. She joined the Navy in 1942 and served until 1946, reaching the rank of lieutenant. She was the first Asian-American woman to join the US Navy.
Early Life and Education
Susan Ahn was born in 1915 in Los Angeles, California, as the eldest daughter of Dosan Ahn Changho and Helen Lee. In 1902, her parents were the first Korean married couple to immigrate to the United States. The couple tirelessly worked to liberate their mother country from Japanese colonization; Ahn Chang Ho would eventually give his life to that movement in 1938, after succumbing to injuries from his constant imprisonment and torture by the Japanese.
As the family established themselves, the Ahn house became a haven for many Korean immigrants. The Young Korean Academy (Hung Sa Dan) made its headquarters at the Ahns’ residence as a resource center for many Korean immigrants. Many exiled Korean patriots, including Soh Jaipil, the first Korean American citizen, visited the Ahns while they lived at 106 North Figueroa during the Japanese occupation of Korea. The third child of five, and eldest daughter, Susan always said that her parents’ sacrifice and dedication to the Korean independence cause played a defining role in her own identity and values.
During her youth, Ahn Cuddy worked for many of Dosan’s independence organisations in Los Angeles. She attended Beaudry Elementary, Central Junior High and Belmont High School. She participated in sports such as baseball and field hockey. When she was at Los Angeles City College she was in charge of women’s baseball, as well as playing second base. She played for the Bing Crosby Croonerettes softball team. She had to stop playing to keep her amateur status to play college baseball.
Ahn Cuddy graduated from San Diego State University in 1940 and joined the United States Navy in 1942, where she would serve until 1946.
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbour, Ahn Cuddy enlisted in the United States Armed Forces and enrolled in the US Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She became the first Asian American woman in the Navy. This was at a time when anti-Asian sentiment in the country was high and women were still battling over sexism in the military. She told biographer John Cha, who wrote Willow Tree Shade: The Susan Ahn Cuddy Story (2002), “A lot of people thought that women didn’t belong in the service. That made us try harder.”
She felt joining the Navy was a way to help free Korea from the harsh Japanese colonial era rule and was eager to join the Navy to fight the Japanese. She worked her way up in the Navy, becoming an instructor on Link Trainer flight simulators in 1943, teaching aviators how to manoeuvre in a simulator cockpit. Later she became the first female aerial gunnery officer in the Navy – in other words, she trained fighter pilots how to shoot down enemy aircraft. She knew how to work some guns men were having difficulty with. In Willow Tree Shade, Cha describes one incident where a white male pilot protested having to take directions from Ahn Cuddy because she was Asian and female. “Down here, you will shoot when I tell you to shoot!” she told the pilot.
Ahn Cuddy eventually became a Lieutenant and went on to work for US Navy Intelligence and the Library of Congress. She worked for The National Security Agency in Washington, DC. During the Cold War, she was in charge of a think tank of over 300 agents working in the Russia section. She received a fellowship from the National Security Agency to study at the University of Southern California in 1956. Ahn Cuddy worked on many top secret projects for the Department of Defence and other agencies during her service with the United States government until 1959.
Even today, Ahn Cuddy’s accomplishments are considered remarkable and unparalleled.
Even in her personal life, Ahn Cuddy proved a trailblazer. In April 1947 she married Chief Petty Officer Francis X. “Frank” Cuddy, an Irish-American. They defied anti-miscegenation laws and wed at the only place that would marry them: a Navy chapel in Washington, D.C. Francis also worked for Navy Intelligence and the NSA. He was a code-breaker and helped the United States free Korea. He helped finance the Ahn family’s Moongate restaurant business. In 1959 the couple moved to Los Angeles to raise their children and also in hopes of winning her mother’s acceptance of her mixed-race marriage.
The couple had two children, Philip “Flip” and Christine. Ahn Cuddy left the intelligence community in 1959, so she could spend more time with her children. Returning to California, she helped her eldest brother Philip Ahn (the pioneering Asian American actor) and sister Soorah run their popular Chinese restaurant, Moongate, in Panorama City. After Philip died in 1978, Ahn Cuddy largely filled the role of family representative, worked to archive her legendary family’s records, and managed the restaurant until 1990.
In 2003, the State Assembly of California of District 28 named Cuddy the Woman of the Year in honour of her commitment to public service. On 05 October 2006 she received the American Courage Award from the Asian American Justice Centre in Washington D.C.
In her elder years, she remained active, speaking at Navy functions and Korean American community events, even campaigning for presidential candidate Barack Obama. A breast cancer survivor, she helped raise money for the cause. She was honoured with numerous accolades by government bodies and non-profits. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors designated a “Susan Ahn Cuddy Day”. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who introduced the declaration, was an especially devoted fan: “These were all firsts as an Asian American woman in a man’s world… Anti-Asian sentiment was brazenly prevalent, but that didn’t deter Susan Ahn Cuddy – she just knew what her mission was.
Death and Legacy
Susan Ahn Cuddy died at her home in Northridge, California, on 24 June 2015. She was 100 years old.
Her life story is the subject of the short biography Willow Tree Shade by John Cha.
- Dosan Ahn Chang Ho, 1878 – 1938 (father).
- Helen Lee (Yi Hye Ryon), 1884 – 1969 (mother).
- Philip Ahn, 1905 – 1978 (brother).
- Philson Ahn, 1912 – 2001 (brother).
- Soorah Ahn Buffum, 1917 – 2016 (sister).
- Ralph Ahn, born 1926 – 2022 (brother).
- Francis Xavier Cuddy, 1917 – 1998 (husband).
- Christine Ahn Cuddy, born 1950 (daughter).
- Philip Ahn Cuddy, born 1955 (son).
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