The First Asian-American Woman in the Navy

December 7, 1941, the day they bombed Pearl Harbor, is a date many of you learned in school. You’ve also heard of the anti-Asian sentiment of the time and the horrible Japanese internment camps. But have you heard of the first Asian-American Woman in the Navy? Meet Lieutenant Susan Ahn Cuddy.

Portrait of The first Asian-American Woman in the Navy, Lt. Susan Ahn Cuddy Courtesy of the Navy

Lieutenant Ahn Cuddy joined the Navy in 1942, shortly after the bombing. She wanted to help free Korea from the harsh Japanese colonial era rule. It was a time when many people didn’t believe women belonged in the service. Ahn Cuddy said that just made women try harder.

Early Life

In 1902, her parents immigrated to the United States, the first Korean married couple to do so. They didn’t forget their home country. Under an unequal treaty before they left, and occupied and declared a Japanese protectorate in 1905, then officially annexed in 1910.

Susan, their third child and eldest daughter, was born in 1915. While growing up, her home was a haven for Korean immigrants, including Soh Jaipil, the first Korean American citizen. Her father told his children: “Do your best to be good American citizens but never forget your Korean heritage.”

Throughout her childhood, her family didn’t just speak out against Japan’s repression of Korea but actively worked to free Korea both in the States and abroad. In 1937, Japanese police captured, tortured, and killed Cuddy’s father in Seoul. Her father’s death inspired her and her siblings to continue working to free Korea.

She graduated from San Diego State University in 1940 and joined the Navy in 1942.

Years of Service

Image of Susan, the first Asian-American woman in the Navy, and her two brothers in their service uniforms.
The Ahn Siblings
By U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph Public Domain

Qualified to go to officers’ school, they wouldn’t accept her because she was Asian. She didn’t care. She enlisted again.

They accepted her into the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) program.

Ahn Cuddy worked her way up to become a Link Trainer in 1943. As a Link Trainer, she taught aviators how to maneuver in a simulator cockpit 

She became the first woman Gunnery Officer in the Navy and taught fighter pilots when and how to shoot the enemy. One pilot objected, saying that he’d shoot when he saw the whites of the enemies’ eyes. She told him she didn’t care what he did up there, but down here, he’d shoot when she told him to shoot. 

Eventually, Ahn Cuddy became a Lieutenant. After she left the service in 1947, she worked for US Naval Intelligence and the Library of Congress. She moved on to work for the National Security Agency (NSA) where she was in charge of a think tank of over 300 agents that worked the Russia section.

Ahn Cuddy also worked with the Department of Defense and other agencies on top secret projects.

She retired from service in 1959.

Marriage

Ahn Cuddy wasn’t just the first Asian-American woman in the Navy. Her love life was also an adventure in trailblazing.

She defied Virginia’s racial segregation laws and married an Irish-American in April 1947. The only place that would marry them was a Navy chapel in Washington, DC.

Her husband, Chief Petty Officer Francis “Frank” Xavier Cuddy (1917-1998) was a code breaker for Navy Intelligence and also worked for the NSA. Fluent in Japanese, he helped the United States free Korea. He worked in film processing sales after the Navy. He helped finance the Ahn family′s Moongate restaurant business.

They had two children, Philip “Flip” and Christine

In 1959, they moved back to Los Angeles. Ahn Cuddy wanted to focus on raising their children and hoped to win her mother’s acceptance of her mixed-race marriage.

Civilian Life

Ahn Cuddy helped her eldest brother Philip Ahn (the pioneering Asian American actor) and sister Soorah run their popular Chinese restaurant, Moongate, in Panorama City. After her brother died in 1978, she managed the restaurant and worked to document the family’s accomplishments.

She retired from the restaurant business in 1990 but stayed active.

She spoke at Navy functions, and Korean American community events, and even campaigned for presidential candidate Barack Obama. A breast cancer survivor, she raised money for the cause.

Legacy and Death

She received honors and many accolades by county and state government bodies and nonprofits. On October 5th, 2006, she received the American Courage Award from the Asian American Justice Center in Washington D.C.

She died at home at the age of 100 on June 24, 2015.

Willow Tree Shade by John Cha is the story of her life. Her daughter read the book after Ahn Cuddy died and said, “What an incredible life…”

A brief interview with her children appears on StoryCorps. They spoke about their mother in loving and respectful terms and recalled that her most heavy duty criticism was to call someone “limited.” And they both agreed how lucky they were to have a mom like that. 

An Incredible Life

The First Asian-American Woman in the Navy, the first woman Gunnery Officer in the Navy, and an intelligence officer, Lieutenant Susan Ahn Cuddy was an amazing woman. If you enjoy reading about strong women, check out Would You Have Been First. If you like your fiction heroes to be strong women, read My Soul to Keep. Whatever you read next—Happy reading!

2 thoughts on “The First Asian-American Woman in the Navy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *