History

How A Female Asian Lieutenant Blazed A Trail Against Prejudice

Susan Ahn Cuddy forged the way for others to follow

As the first female gunnery officer of any ethnicity in the US Navy, Lieutenant Susan Ahn Cuddy not only had to overcome hurdles as a woman but also had to contend with prejudice at a time when hateful sentiment towards Asian Americans was at an all-time high.

Yet, this Korean American officer not only paved the way for women to succeed in the armed forces but also blazed a trail for others of Asian ethnicity – at a time when attitudes in America tended to view all people of Asian descent with suspicion and mistrust, particularly during the years of the Second World War.

America at the time could feel like a discriminatory environment for anyone whom society at large rightly or wrongly considered to fall into a similar ethnic group – especially if they were viewed as being part of similar ethnicity to Japanese Americans, many of whom were being dragged off to internment camps as war raged between the US and Japan in the full throws of the war following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. 

When it comes to fighting racial inequality, questioning gender biases and fighting for what matters to you most, Lt Cuddy is considered by many as a woman worth learning about in history classes for paving the way for women to feel as though they too could do more than what was expected of them because of their race or gender.

Lt Cuddy's words are quoted, as if to remind all of the legacy she left, on a sign outside the Susan Ahn Cuddy briefing room at the United States Forces Korea and United Nations Command Headquarters in Camp Humphreys, in which she says:

"A lot of people thought that women didn't belong in the service. That made us try harder." 

The pioneering Korean woman, who died in 2015, broke down barriers such as racial inequality and gender discrimination during the Second World War and helped pave the way for many more Asian women to join the armed forces, through her own determination and a desire to fight for her homeland of America and fatherland of Korea. 

Her legacy transcends national borders as she is considered a role model for all those who face such barriers the world over.

But why did a woman from Los Angeles decide to forge a career in the US Navy and how did she fight racial prejudice?

Lt Susan Ahn Cuddy’s Early Life 

The death of Lt Cuddy's father Ahn Chang-ho while in Japanese captivity in 1938 and the subsequent bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 are two moments that inspired her to follow in her father's footsteps and join the military, to continue his fight against Japan.

Lt Cuddy's parents Ahn Chang-ho and Helen Ahn had moved to California in the United States 36 years earlier in 1902, making them some of the first Korean immigrants. They were part of the Korean Independence Movement, a campaign calling for the independence of Korea from Japan.  

Five years before Lt Cuddy was born in 1915, Japan annexed Korea forming a colony. During an occupation that lasted until 1945, Japan forced the Korean people to work for them. 

One of the most famous leaders of the Korean Independence Movement was Lt Cuddy’s father, who was also known as Dosan. 

He encouraged the young Susan Ahn and her four siblings to be good American citizens but to never forget their Korean heritage. 

In an America that tended to harbour negative views of Asian people at the time, she found many people were often wary of her as they judged her on her Korean features.

She cited this as a reason why she was turned away from joining a branch of the United States Naval Reserve (Women's Reserve) known as WAVES (Women Accepted For Volunteer Emergency Service).

However, a determined Lt Cuddy refused to accept that decision and reapplied. In December 1942, she was eventually accepted to join the US Navy as an enlisted WAVE.

Lt Cuddy became one of the first women to go through a five-week training course at a newly established centralized recruit training centre in Cedar Falls, Iowa, for enlisted WAVES.

Next, she went to Atlanta, Georgia, to understand how early flight simulators worked, graduating as a Petty Officer third class and navy instructor in March 1943.

By the Autumn of 1943, Lt Cuddy had impressed her superiors so much by her ability to train aircrews that an officer recommended she be put forward for officer training. 

Less than a year after being accepted into the US Navy, Lt Cuddy was commissioned as an officer in the WAVES. 

The US Navy then used Lt Cuddy as a test case for women to become gunnery officers because of her prior experience as an air gunnery instructor. 

After being trained on several different types of weapons, Lt Cuddy graduated from the course in November 1943 and became the first female gunnery officer in the US Navy. This feat impressed so many that a story about 'Ensign Ahn’s' achievements was featured in a newspaper. Speaking to The Los Angeles Times two months before her death in 2015 at the age of 100, Lt Cuddy said:

“It was one way to serve your family's country and your own.”

By January 1944, Lt Cuddy was training naval aircrews but, being the first female gunnery officer in the US Navy, found she had to make sure the men knew who was in charge.

At one point, a three-strike commander said he was not going to shoot "until I see the whites of those Japs eyes". In response to this, Lt Cuddy very clearly reminded him that during training he was to do what she told him.

Her career was given another boost as a result of her language skills, as she was fluent in Korean. She was sent to Naval Intelligence in Washington DC and then became the liaison between Naval Intelligence and the Library of Congress until 1946 when she left the US Navy. 

Lt Cuddy’s first civilian role was at The National Security Agency in Washington as a code breaker and intelligence analyst where she stayed for more than a decade. 

And What About Lt Cuddy’s Private Life? 

Despite facing disapproval from her family and the Korean community around her, Susan Ahn married white Irish American Chief Petty Officer Frank Cuddy in April 1947. 

However, the marriage resulted in a rift with her mother, who would not speak to her for five years following the wedding.

Anti-miscegenation laws in the US at the time, known as 'Jim Crow laws' after a white actor in a minstrel routine, criminalized interracial marriage in Virginia and Maryland, whihc meant the couple could only marry at the Navy Chapel in Washington DC. 

Once speaking of the pressure she faced to end her relationship with her husband, Lt Cuddy told The Los Angeles Times in 2015 she had a hard decision to make, saying: 

“They didn’t accept him and it became kind of a problem to me, but I had to go on one side or the other and I took his side.” 

When her children, Christine and Philip were still young, Lt Cuddy settled her family in Los Angeles and left her impressive intelligence career to help her older brother, Asian American actor Philip Ahn and sister Soorah to run the family’s Panorama City-based Chinese restaurant, Moongate.

Lt Cuddy also instructed RAF pilots in air combat tactics and gunnery during WWII. Lt Cuddy's son is still in contact with RAF pilot John Mayhew pictured on the left with his mother at Miami Naval Air Station

From then until her death in 2015, Lt Cuddy dedicated her time to inspire and support the Los Angeles’ Korean American community by mentoring young people and teaching them about Korea’s history.

Initially turned away by WAVES, Lt Cuddy eventually came to understand the massive impact it had on not only her life but that of the thousands of women who have pursued military careers since.

Her determination to suceed against the odds made Lt Cuddy an inspiration to many women, of all races, who wanted to achieve more than society expected of them in the 1940s and 50s. They saw in Lt Cuddy that they too could be powerful and be seen as equal to the white men in power around them.