Susan Ahn Cuddy, the first Asian-American female U.S. Navy officer, was born in Los Angeles in 1915. Her parents Dosan Ahn Changho and Helen Lee had been the first married Korean couple to immigrate to the United States. Dosan Ahn Changho became a prominent leader of the Korean-American community in California. He was also a fierce foe of the brutal Japanese occupation of Korea. He courageously returned to Asia to help with anti-Japanese efforts, and paid a steep price for that activism. Ahn Changho was captured by Japanese authorities in China and incarcerated in a prison in the present-day South Korean city of Daejeon. He died in 1938 due to the combined effects of harsh prison conditions, severe torture, and illness.
After the U.S. entry in World War II less than four years later, Ahn Cuddy eagerly sought to serve in the military struggle against the Axis powers. “I was American, raised to love and honor America,” she recalled in a June 2011 interview with the television station WKOW in Madison, Wisconsin. “There was no choice.” Ahn Cuddy, though, was also motivated to serve because of the Japanese oppression of her ancestral homeland – a cause for which her father had given his life.
In trying to enlist in the U.S. Navy, Ahn Cuddy encountered strong anti-Asian sentiment and was initially rebuffed by the San Diego Navy Board. She persevered, however, and was eventually allowed to enlist in the U.S. Naval Reserve unit best known as Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). The women who comprised this unit were likewise frequently referred to as WAVES, and Ahn Cuddy was the first Asian-American to join their ranks.
Ahn Cuddy wasn’t the only member of her family to serve in the U.S. military during World War II. Her brother Ralph likewise joined the Navy, and her brother Philip enlisted in the Army. (Philip Ahn, incidentally, achieved fame in his own right as an actor in numerous movies and television shows; he became the first Korean-American film actor to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.)
Ahn Cuddy worked her way up through the ranks of the Navy to become a lieutenant. As that military branch’s first Asian-American female officer, she became heavily involved in flight training. Ahn Cuddy’s duties in this regard included teaching pilots how to maneuver planes in a simulator cockpit. She also instructed pilots on how to shoot down enemy aircraft. “The Navy was good to me,” Ahn Cuddy later recalled.
Ahn Cuddy stayed in the Navy until 1946. The following year, she married an Irish-American naval chief petty officer named Francis X. Cuddy. They would remain married until his death in 1994. Ahn Cuddy’s extensive work experience during the post-World War II years included assisting with military intelligence projects for various federal agencies. In addition, she remained deeply engaged in civic activities involving the Korean-American community up until the time of her death at the age of 100 in 2015. On the day before her death, she gave a motivational speech to Korean-American youth at a leadership summer camp.
Ahn Cuddy’s numerous honors included receiving the American Courage Award from the Asian American Justice Center in 2006. About three months before her death, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors designated a “Susan Ahn Cuddy Day” for the county. During a related ceremony honoring Ahn Cuddy, Mark Ridley-Thomas of the Board of Supervisors highlighted her pioneering achievements during World War II. “These were all firsts as an Asian American woman in a man’s world,” he said in Ahn Cuddy’s presence. “Anti-Asian sentiment was brazenly prevalent, but that didn’t deter Susan Ahn Cuddy – she just knew what her mission was.”
For more information on Susan Ahn Cuddy, please check out http://navylive.dodlive.mil/2015/05/20/first-female-asian-officer-speaks-about-her-naval-service/ and the 5 May 2016 Time magazine article “The Officer Who Opened the U.S. Navy for Asian-American Women” at http://time.com/4314308/susan-cuddy-history/.