What would make Susan Ahn, a young college graduate, join the military following the Pearl Harbor attack? A daughter’s wish to honor her father.
Susan’s parents, Dosan Ahn Chang Ho and Helen Ahn, were the first Korean married couple to immigrate to the United States in 1902 following Japanese occupation of their native land. Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and attempted to eradicate the Korean language and many of its cultural assets.
Dosan Ahn, a prominent Korean leader, led opposition organizations, called Independence Movements, against the Japanese. After the couple moved to the United States, they opened their home as headquarters for the Young Korean Academy, teaching leadership skills for Korean immigrants.
While Helen Ahn raised their five children, all born in California, Dosan Ahn made several trips back to Korea and China, where he operated his freedom movements. In 1926, he left California for the last time. After being arrested and imprisoned yet again for his anti-Japanese activism, Dosan Ahn died March 10, 1938, while in captivity.
During his rare times back in America, Dosan Ahn stressed to his children to embrace being the best American citizens they could be, but never forget their Korean heritage. Young Susan often worked in her beloved father’s Independence Movement organizations. It was her father who encouraged the free-thinking and independence that allowed the first-generation American to break from tradition.
Just three years after her father’s death, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. By June 1942, the ranks of the military were opened to women through the WAVES program. Susan Ahn jumped at the opportunity to fight the Japanese that had imprisoned her father, under its harsh colonial rule. Two of her brothers also joined the military: Phil in the Army and Ralph in the Navy.
“We were always told how lucky we were to be born in a free country,” Cuddy said of her decision to do her part in fighting the Japanese, just as her father had. On Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese officially surrendered, it also ended their rule and occupation of Korea.
Her desire to serve was not fulfilled easily; in fact Lt. Ahn overcame many racial barriers personally and professionally. When Susan Ahn joined the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) program in 1942, she continued her family’s tradition as trailblazers in their adopted country. The former Lt. Ahn, now 100 years old, spoke May 9 at the National Museum of the Seabees, Port Hueneme, Calif., for a presentation that honored her during Asian-Pacific Islander Month.
“We cannot thank Mrs. Cuddy enough for sharing her and her family’s unique experiences. We are humbled and honored,” said Lara Godbille, Ph.D, museum director. “It is important to honor our national naval heritage with a member of the surrounding community who has become such a distinguished aspect of naval history.”
Mrs. Cuddy was joined by her son, Philip Cuddy, who offered a visual presentation of his mother’s service. A graduate of San Diego State College, the 27-year-old Ahn was rejected the first time she applied for WAVES because of her race, about the same time the United States was placing more than 127,000 U.S. residents with Japanese descent into internment camps.
Undaunted, she reapplied and was accepted. She was sent to the flight-simulating Link Trainer program in Georgia, teaching air combat tactics to future naval pilots, an experience she described as “wonderful.” From there she went to Pensacola, becoming the first woman gunnery officer. After being assigned to Atlantic City Naval Air Station, Ahn trained naval aviators how to fire a .50-caliber machine gun.
“The Navy was good to me…I never had a problem serving and that’s why I love America” said Cuddy.
Following her stint as a gunnery officer, Lt. Ahn began working at the U.S. Naval Intelligence Office. One supervisor, however, suspicious of her race, refused to allow her near classified documents, she recalled in one interview.
At least one member of the team didn’t mind her Asian heritage: Fellow code-breaker Francis X. Cuddy, an Irish American chief petty officer who spoke fluent Japanese. The couple married April 25, 1947 at a Navy Chapel in Washington, D.C., because laws in Virginia, where they lived, and the surrounding states, banned inter-racial marriages. Both husband and wife worked for the National Security Agency during the Cold War, where Susan Cuddy was an intelligence analyst and section chief. Her husband, Chief Cuddy served the Navy for 33 years.
The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1959 to raise their children and win her mother’s acceptance of her marriage. The best way “to get your relatives to accept your mixed-race marriage is to have kids,” Cuddy quips on her website.