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Lieutenant Susan Ahn
aka Susan Ahn Cuddy
Aerial Gunnery and Intelligence Officer
"I was the first-ever woman gunnery officer and the first American-born Korean woman in the U.S Navy. Being the “first-ever” anything had its price, a blessing and a curse at the same time. Some men wanted me to fail because I was a woman: they were the ones who believed that women didn’t belong in uniform".
– Susan Ahn (Cuddy), Navy WAVE Officer
Susan Ahn Cuddy (January 16, 1915 – June 24, 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 emigrate 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 U.S. Navy.
Susan Ahn Cuddy was born in 1915 in Los Angeles, California as the eldest daughter of Dosan Ahn Changho and Helen Ahn. 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.
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, she enlisted in the United States Armed Forces and enrolled in the U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She becoming 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, published in 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 a Navy LINK instructor in 1943, teaching aviators how to maneuver in a simulator cockpit and later becoming the first female aerial gunnery officer in the Navy- in other words, she trained fighter pilots how to shoot down enemy aircraft. In Willow Tree Shade, Cha described one incident where a white male pilot protested having to take directions from Susan because she was Asian and female. The latter wouldn’t have any of it. “Down here, you will shoot when I tell you to shoot!” she told the pilot. Susan Ahn Cuddy eventually became a Lieutenant and went on to work for US Navy Intelligence and the Library of Congress.
Then she went to work 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. Susan worked on many top secret projects for the Department of Defense and other agencies during her service with the United States government until 1959.
Even today, Mrs. Cuddy's accomplishments are considered remarkable and are, indeed, unparalleled.
Even in her personal life, Susan proved a trailblazer. In April 1947 Susan married Chief Petty Officer Francis X. Cuddy an American Irishman (deceased in 1994) and defied anti-miscegenation laws in place in 1947 and wed at the only place that would marry them: a Navy chapel in Washington, D.C. Francis also worked for Navy Intelligence and NSA. He was a code-breaker and helped the United States free Korea through his specialty, work since he spoke Japanese fluently. After his Navy career he worked for Kodak and GAF in film processing sales. He helped finance the Ahn family′s Moongate restaurant business. In 1959 Susan Ahn Cuddy came home to Los Angeles and joined the Ahn family.
Susan Ahn Cuddy, long considered a living legend for shattering barriers for women and Asian Americans in the U.S. Navy and later as a code-breaker for the National Security Agency, died at her home in Northridge, Calif., on Wednesday afternoon, June 24, said her son Philip “Flip” Cuddy. She was 100 years old. “She died very peacefully in her own bed,” said Flip Cuddy. “Right up to the very end, she was clear-headed. But her body was just not going to support her mind.” Her life story is also the subject of the short biography Willow Tree Shade by John Cha.
In 2003, the State Assembly of California's District 28 named Cuddy Woman of the Year, and three years later , 2006, she received the American Courage Award from the Asian American Justice Center in Washington, D.C.