By Katie Lange
Although America has a history of racial discord, this country has always been known for its diversity and individualism that are at the heart of breaking barriers. In recognition of those inspired barrier-breakers, it is fitting to highlight a female Asian American military trailblazer who conquered the odds stacked against her to overcome discrimination and inequity.
Navy Lt. Susan Ahn Cuddy’s story from World War II could easily be taught in history classes. She was the first female Asian American naval officer and eventually became the service’s first female gunnery officer — feats that were possible thanks to her childhood and Korean background.
A Father’s Influence
The eldest of five, Cuddy was born Jan. 16, 1915, in Los Angeles, to Dosan Ahn Chang Ho and Helen Ahn, the first married Korean couple to immigrate to the U.S. in 1902. At the time, their home country was facing increasingly forced Japanese influence, so many pro-independence Koreans fled to America as the situation worsened. Korea became a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and was annexed by the country in 1910 as Japan tried to eradicate the Korean language and its cultural assets.
Cuddy’s father, Dosan, was a revered leader of Korean independence and made his family’s home a resource center for other immigrants. He took several trips back to his homeland throughout Cuddy’s youth to operate various freedom movements. Unfortunately, the last time his family saw him was in 1926. While in Korea, he was arrested and imprisoned for anti-Japanese activism. He died in March 1938 while still incarcerated.
Despite this loss, Cuddy and her siblings learned a tremendous amount from their father. She said in an LA Times interview, in 2015, that she thinks her dad helped guide her in life by not forcing her to be a traditional “lady.” Instead, he encouraged his children to be free-thinking and independent. Cuddy took that philosophy and ran with it. She played women’s baseball in high school and at LA City College. She then transferred to San Diego State College (now University) in 1940 and graduated with a degree in sociology.
Around that time, World War II was ramping up around the globe, as were anti-Asian sentiments due to Japan’s imperial expansion. Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, that distrust increased dramatically in America but it didn’t deter Cuddy from wanting to do her duty for her country. She said her dad had always taught them to be good Americans while not forgetting their Korean heritage. She wanted to honor her father and fight the Japanese who had imprisoned him. So, in early 1942, despite criticism that it wasn’t suitable for an Asian woman, she enlisted in the Navy.
A Hard Charger
The anti-Asian sentiment followed her into service. Cuddy was initially rejected when she applied to join the Women’s Reserve of the U.S. Naval Reserve – better known as the WAVES, which stood for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. At the time, the U.S. was putting more than 127,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps. Cuddy learned later in life that her initial rejection by the Navy was because of her race.
But it didn’t deter her. She reapplied, and in December 1942, she was accepted as an enlisted member. She was part of the first group of WAVES to go through a five-week training course at a centralized recruit training center that had just opened in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
From there, Cuddy was sent to a training program in Georgia to learn how to work early flight simulators that she then instructed future pilots on. Next, she was temporarily reassigned to be an aerial gunnery instructor to help aircrews practice aiming at moving targets.
An officer who appreciated her work recommended she go to officer training, so in late summer 1943, Cuddy attended a 90-day officer training course at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. That fall, she was commissioned as a WAVES officer.
Since Cuddy had experience as an aerial gunnery instructor, the Navy used her as a test case. In November 1943, she was sent to gunnery school in Pensacola, Florida, to train on a variety of weapons. Upon graduation, she became the first female Navy gunnery officer. In January 1944, now-officer Cuddy was sent to Atlantic City Naval Air Station to train naval aviators on how to fire a .50-caliber machine gun.
By the time she became a lieutenant, Cuddy had begun working with elite codebreakers at the Naval Intelligence Office, thanks to her ability to speak Korean. But people there were still suspicious of her because of her race. Cuddy said during an interview that one of her supervisors initially wouldn’t let her near classified documents. Eventually, however, she proved her worth and the office chose her to be its liaison with the Library of Congress.
On Sept. 2, 1945, Japan officially surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II and breaking Korea free from Japan’s rule and occupation. Cuddy’s father’s dreams of Korean independence were finally realized. He eventually became a national hero in South Korea.
Cuddy left the Navy in 1946. In her waning days with Navy intelligence, she met Chief Petty Officer Francis Cuddy, an Irish American codebreaker who also worked on matters pertaining to Korea’s independence. The two fell in love and married in April 1947. The pair lived in Virginia, but its laws at the time didn’t allow for interracial marriages, so they held the wedding in Washington, D.C. Neither family approved of the union at first. Susan Cuddy told the LA Times that her mother didn’t talk to her for five years.
As a civilian, Cuddy worked as an intelligence analyst and section chief at the National Security Agency (NSA) and ran a think tank during the Cold War. She worked on top secret projects for the Defense Department and supervised more than 300 scholars and experts in Russian affairs.
By 1959, Cuddy moved back to LA so her relatives would learn to accept her husband, and so they could start their own family. The couple had two children: a daughter, Christine, and a son named Phillip.
Cuddy helped at the family’s restaurant, and she continued to support the city’s growing Korean American community, working to preserve the history of her pioneering parents and other Korean immigrants. Over the years, she also promoted civic engagement among her people and, after watching her parents struggle to gain acceptance when she was young, worked to build bridges between racially diverse communities.
A Life Well Lived
In honor of her commitment to public service, Cuddy was named Woman of the Year in 2003 by California State Assembly District 28. In 2006, she received the American Courage Award from the Asian American Justice Center in D.C.
Cuddy died in her sleep at her home in Northridge, California, on June 24, 2015. She was 100 years old.
But even in her last few weeks, she kept her calendar full. One of her last speaking engagements was at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme, California.
Cuddy’s pioneering spirit and can-do attitude helped open doors for women and Asian Americans in the military. For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we salute her and all of her hard work!
-This story was originally published on Defense.gov in 2021. It has been edited for USO.org in 2022.
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