Susan Ahn Cuddy: Asian American Trailblazer

Sung Kim, Librarian, Digitization & Special Collections,
Susan Ahn Cuddy in her U.S. Navy uniform
Susan Ahn in her WAVES uniform in Los Angeles, [ca.1943]. Shades of LA Collection

The first Asian American woman lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, the first Asian American woman flight instructor to train the US Naval pilots, and the first woman Gunnery Officer in all US Armed Forces was Susan Ahn Cuddy. She lived a pioneering life of service and dedication to the Asian American community and the United States.

Susan was born on January 16, 1915, in Los Angeles to Dosan Ahn Chang Ho and Helen Ahn, leading political activists who fought against the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century. They were also the first married Korean couple to come to America, arriving in San Francisco in 1902.

Dosan Ahn Chang Ho
Dosan Ahn Chang Ho, [ca.1920]. Shades of LA Collection
The Ahn Family
The Ahn Family, [1917]. Photo provided courtesy of Philip Cuddy

Growing up in Los Angeles and attending Fremont Avenue Elementary, Central Junior High, Belmont High School, LA City College, and San Diego State College, Susan led an active student life by taking on leadership roles and participating in sports such as basketball, field hockey, and baseball. She was the Head of Women’s Baseball at LACC, and also had a chance to play professional women’s baseball for the Bing Crosby’s Croonerettes.

womens field hockey team
Women’s semi-professional field hockey team at LACC, Susan is pictured fourth from left with her cousin Emma Lee, front far left, [1935]. Shades of LA Collection

Susan’s confidence and persistence continued on to her adult life. She felt that her duty was to join the Navy and fight for America and also for Korea. Despite being initially rejected due to anti-Asian sentiments, Susan joined the U.S. Navy in 1942 by enlisting in WAVES (Women Accepted for Emergency Volunteer Service) during World War II. She went on to serve as an instructor in the Link Training unit, became a Gunnery Officer, and was eventually promoted to the rank of full Lieutenant.

Susan, as a gunnery officer, training pilots
Susan, as a gunnery officer, training pilots, and door gunners at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, [1943]. Photo provided courtesy of Philip Cuddy
Susan training with fellow WAVES
Susan training with fellow WAVES, [ca. 1943]. Photo provided courtesy of Philip Cuddy

Her career as a Navy Officer led her to serve in US Naval Intelligence where she was subjected to stricter scrutiny because of her race. After being assigned to work at the Library of Congress to do research for the Navy during this prolonged clearance process, Susan finally returned to Naval Intelligence and worked as a code breaker. Following her career with the Navy, Susan led a think tank as Section Chief of the Soviet Unit, collecting information about Russia at the National Security Agency.

While Susan was thriving professionally, she also met her husband Frank Cuddy, a fellow Navy code-breaker and NSA agent who shared similar interests in sports and dedication to public service. Susan’s marriage to Frank was also a story of overcoming racial barriers. Interracial marriages at that time were against the laws of Virginia and Maryland. They had to go to the Navy Chapel in Washington D. C. to get married since it was allowed there under Federal Law.

Susan received an NSA fellowship to research Vietnam/Indo-China at USC
Susan received an NSA fellowship to research Vietnam/Indo-China at USC, [1956]. Photo provided courtesy of Philip Cuddy
Susan and Frank Cuddy
Susan with her husband Frank Cuddy, [ca. 1947]. Photo provided courtesy of Philip Cuddy

After retiring from her work at the NSA, Susan returned to Los Angeles in 1959 to help manage the Moongate, a restaurant run by her family and famous older brother Phillip Ahn. He was the first Korean American actor to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In her later years, Susan continued to work as an advocate and activist for the betterment of Asian Americans. She received the American Courage Award from the Asian American Justice Center in Washington D.C. in 2006 and was recognized by the California State Assembly, other government bodies, the South Korean government, and community organizations.

women of the year
Susan received the Woman of the Year Award from the State Assembly of California, District 28, [2003]. Photo provided courtesy of Philip Cuddy
Dr. Leslie Moe Kaiser presents Susan with an award
Dr. Leslie Moe Kaiser presents Susan with the Asian American Justice Center American Courage Award at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., [2006]. Photo provided courtesy of Philip Cuddy

Susan’s 100-year long life was a celebration of persistence and confidence. Her pioneering life resonates strongly with the young generation of Asian Americans and with women. Her dedication to public service also speaks loudly to community leaders.

Susan Ahn Cuddy is featured in a PBS documentary, Asian Americans, which explores the impact of Asian Americans on the country’s past, present, and future.