Susan Ahn Cuddy was the U.S. Navy’s first Asian American female, its first Asian American female naval officer, and its first ever female gunnery officer. She also went on to become the first Asian American female naval intelligence officer and the first Asian American female code-breaker at the National Security Agency.
Ahn was born in Los Angeles in 1915 to Ahn Changho and Helen Lee, the first Korean married couple to, in 1902, immigrate to the United States. Her parents were prominent activists for Korean immigrants in the United States and, in Korea, for an independent Korea. Her father continues to be considered one of the key moral and philosophical leaders of modern Korea.
Ahn graduated from San Diego State University in 1940 and, by 1942, America was fully engaged in World War II. That year, she joined the U.S. Navy, entering with its first class of WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service – U.S. Navy Women’s Reserve). Initially, she served in the enlisted ranks, helping to train navy aviators on flight simulators. Proving to be hard-working and talented and a college graduate, Ahn was encouraged to apply for officer training school. She was commissioned to the rank of ensign in 1943.
As an officer, because of her experience with training aviators, Ahn was assigned to become the Navy’s first female gunnery officer, training aviation gunners how to shoot down moving targets with a .50-caliber machine gun. She later transitioned to work in naval intelligence code-breaking. By the time she had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant, she had become the Navy’s first Asian American female intelligence officer.
Ahn left the Navy in 1946, but, as a civilian, continued to work as an intelligence analyst with the National Security Agency in Washington, D.C. She was the agency’s first Asian American woman in that role. In 1947, she married a navy intelligence analyst with whom she had worked, Chief Petty Officer Francis Cuddy, who happened to be white. Not only did the couple face opposition from some respective family members, but, due to local anti-interracial marriage laws at the time, were only allowed to marry in a chapel on a naval installation, because federal facilities had no such rules.
At the National Security Agency, Ahn, now Ahn Cuddy, rose to lead an intelligence think tank and became chief of one of the agency’s intelligence sections. In 1959, seeking to mend relations with her family, she left her government job and moved back to Los Angeles. Her husband soon joined her upon his retirement from the Navy. Meanwhile, Ahn Cuddy’s older brother, Philip Ahn, had become a successful film and television actor (perhaps his most notable role later being that of “Master Kan” – the elder temple priest in the popular television series Kung Fu who trained the young “Grasshopper”). Philip, with sister Soorah, had opened Panorama City’s first Chinese restaurant, Moongate, which became quite popular. Ahn Cuddy stepped in to help her siblings with the restaurant.
Like her parents, Ahn Cuddy worked in support of the Korea community in Los Angeles. In 2006, she received the American Courage Award from the civil rights organization, Asian Americans Advancing Justice. In 2015, in honor of Ahn Cuddy’s 100th birthday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously designated March 10 as “Susan Ahn Cuddy Day.” She passed away a few months later, on June 24.