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Susan Ahn Cuddy

By Denise Krepp, Director’s Action Group, Naval History and Heritage Command

In November 2020, CNO and Mrs. Gilday installed a new exhibit in the Tingey House highlighting the accomplishments of female Navy pioneers. The pioneers proudly served their country and this year the Naval History and Heritage Command will be sharing their stories.

In 1942, Lieutenant Susan Ahn Cuddy became the first female Asian-American to serve in the Navy and also its first female gunnery officer. She also served as an instructor in both combat air tactics and the use of the .50 caliber machine gun, worked at U.S. Naval Intelligence as a code breaker, and served as Navy liaison to the Library of Congress. After leaving active duty, Cuddy served as Section Chief at the National Security Agency (NSA).

Cuddy was born in Los Angeles, California in 1915. Her father, Dosan Ahn Chang Ho was a prominent member of the Korean independence movement and he came to the United States in 1902 to study education and fight for Korean independence from the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945).

Like other American children, Cuddy attended elementary school and then graduated from Belmont High School. While in high school, Cuddy was a multi-sport athlete playing baseball, volleyball, and field hockey. Cuddy’s childhood differed from those of her classmates as her father repeatedly returned to Korea during this period and was often jailed by the Japanese government. Dosan Ahn Chang Ho subsequently died in 1938 while under arrest by the Japanese.

Cuddy attended Los Angeles City College and graduated from San Diego University in 1940.  She applied to be a Navy WAVE in 1942, serving first as enlisted member and then as an officer. In 1943, Cuddy was interviewed by The Atlanta Constitution and she shared that she was honoring the memory of her father by wearing the U.S. Navy uniform.

John Cha wrote a biography about Cuddy entitled “Willow Tree Shade: The Susan Ahn Cuddy Story”. The book includes information about Cuddy’s work as a LINK Trainer. Using simulator training equipment, Cuddy helped Navy pilots hone their skills. She then served as a gunnery officer, training others how to shoot strategically and effectively. Her next assignment was U.S. National Intelligence as a code breaker. Cuddy was also a vocal advocate for allowing female Navy personnel to wear pants instead of skirts. 

In 1946, Cuddy joined the National Security Agency. She worked at the agency until 1959, her last job was serving as Chief of the Soviet Branch.

The 1950s was a busy decade for Cuddy. Her work at the NSA was integral to U.S. efforts during the Cold War but she was also a working mom. She’d married Chief Petty Officer Francis X. Cuddy on April 25, 1947. The couple were married at a Naval Communications Center Chapel in Washington, D.C. because inter-racial marriages were illegal at that time in Virginia and Maryland. Cuddy’s husband was a Navy cryptographer who like his wife held a security clearance, an unusual circumstance in mid-century America

I recently spoke with Flip Cuddy about his mom. He shared that her nickname at the NSA was “Mighty Mite.” He also shared that his mom learned persistence from her father. He was a key leader in the Korean Independence movement who repeatedly left his family in the United States so that he could support his countrymen in Korea. He ultimately died while in Japanese custody but he never gave up.

Cuddy’s persistence was critical to overcoming racism while serving in the Navy. Several colleagues didn’t trust her because she was Asian-American. As shared in Cha’s book, one of Ahn’s commanding officers wrote a memo and distributed it, noting that an Oriental woman was seen in the hallways and that everyone should be careful in conducting their business. That didn’t stop Cuddy, she just kept on working.

Cuddy’s son also shared information about his extended family. One of Cuddy’s brothers was Phillip Ahn, a Hollywood actor who starred in movies with Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, and Gary Cooper. Phillip Ahn was also the first Asian American actor to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her second brother name Philson Ahn worked on solid rocket fuel with Werner von Braun and was an executive chemical engineer at Hughes Aircraft. Philson Ahn also worked on Spruce Goose.

Cuddy’s sister-in-law was Teresa L Cuddy, an FBI agent. The Cuddy family has a photo of her with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1965. Cuddy’s aunt was Vice Chairwoman of the Worker’s Party in Pyongyang in 1948.  Her father-in-law built weapons at the Washington Navy Yard.

Flip Cuddy created a website to honor his mother and it’s an in-depth photo history of her military service.  Information about Cuddy can also be found on NHHC’s website and her photo is proudly displayed at Tingey House. Thank you Susan Ahn Cuddy for your service and sacrifice for our country.