A Korean American woman broke glass ceilings of her time when she became the first Asian American female officer to serve in the U.S. Navy at the height of World War II.
Susan Ahn Cuddy, who reached the rank of lieutenant, became an unlikely leader to countless White men, thriving in an atmosphere of anti-Asian sentiment and sexism in the military.
Born to the first Korean married couple to immigrate to the U.S., Cuddy, the third of five children, learned the value of independence from a young age.
Her father, Dosan Ahn Chang-ho, was an outspoken activist who fought to liberate Korea from Imperial Japanese occupation until his death in 1938.
As such, Cuddy felt compelled to enlist after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Graduating from San Diego State University in 1940, she joined the U.S. Navy in 1942, where she would serve until 1946.
When she first tried to sign up for a naval officer’s school, Cuddy was rejected because she was Asian, according to biographer John Cha.
Determined to make Japan pay, she then enlisted as a service member, excelled at training and eventually qualified for officer school.
It did not take long before the 5-foot-1-inch candidate became an officer, teaching male trainees air combat tactics.
“It was a white world and if you wanted to do anything you just had to forge ahead,” her son Flip told StoryCorps in August.
Hence, Cuddy the first Asian American woman in WAVES — or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service — became the Navy’s corps of female members.
She was also the Navy’s first woman gunnery officer, eventually becoming a full lieutenant.
Years after her service, she recalled disobedient trainees, including one who stated “I’m not shooting until I see the whites of those Japs’ eyes.’”
Cuddy ignored the slur, her son said. To that, she replied, “I don’t care what you do up there. But when you’re down here with me, you do what I tell you to do.”
Cuddy went on to continue blazing trails after the war. In 1947, she defied her mother’s wishes and married a White man, escaping anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia, where she had been living, and tying the knot on base instead, Time noted.
The Korean American trailblazer and her husband, Chief Petty Officer Francis Cuddy, had two children: Flip and Christine.
“Mom basically was a trained killer,” Flip told StoryCorps last year. “She’s a much different parent than, you know, someone who owned a bakery.”
“She was really unusual,” Christine said. “She’d been through so much, teaching guys how to shoot. It’s like, what do you need to teach a kid? You know? Go out and play.”
Cuddy also worked for the U.S. Navy Intelligence, and later the National Security Agency, where she ran a think tank of 300 linguists and other experts on Soviet Union intelligence.
She also worked on many top-secret projects for the Department of Defense until her retirement in 1959, according to KoreanAmericanHeritage.com, where Flip serves as a host.
After years of unparalleled achievements — and two bouts of breast cancer — Cuddy died at the age of 100 on June 24, 2015.
Feature Images via Susan Ahn Cuddy Facebook Page