‘An interesting life’

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Susan Ahn Cuddy, pictured in 1943, was the first female gunnery officer in the U.S. military.

Susan Ahn Cuddy, who was honored at Malibu’s Veteran’s Day ceremony last year, enlisted in the Navy shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She has since kept up her allegiance to her country, the U.S., while never forgetting her Korean heritage.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Susan Ahn Cuddy may be just a week or so shy of her 94th birthday, but this seemingly frail Korean American hasn’t retired into dotage yet. She’s been busy during the past year on the recent presidential campaign.

“Obama,” she declared recently in an interview with The Malibu Times. “We started working for him before he even announced he was running.”

The life of Cuddy, who was the featured speaker at Malibu’s annual Veteran’s Day Public Ceremony last November, represents many firsts. Born in Los Angeles to perhaps the first Korean married couple to immigrate to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, Cuddy was the first Asian American woman to be accepted into the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service; the first American female military personnel whose duties were truly those of regular aircrew members) during World War II. Achieving the rank of lieutenant in the Navy, she was the first female gunnery officer in the U.S. military and she served with the National Security Agency in Washington D.C. until 1959, working as a code breaker with top secret Pentagon clearance.

Her father, Dosan Ahn Chang Ho, a revered Korean nationalist, encouraged Cuddy’s patriotism. It was her father’s lifelong battle against the 40-year long Japanese occupation of Korea that inspired Cuddy’s allegiance to her own home country and spurred her to enlist in the Navy shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“No one in America knew much about Korea at that time,” Cuddy said. “The Japanese did a great job of hiding us.”

Nonetheless, Cuddy, who was born at a home on West 4th Street near downtown Los Angeles (the house still exists), grew up with her father’s admonition ringing in her ears: “Always be a good American, but never forget your heritage.”

Accordingly, she was quick to sign up when America entered the war, shortly after graduation from San Diego State College (before it was a university) and tested for the Navy’s Officer Candidate School. Cuddy said she experienced no overt discrimination in the military, despite the fact that she was a woman and had distinctly Asian features at a time when social hostility toward the Japanese was palpable. “I might have been small in stature,” Cuddy said. “But I’m kind of hard-nosed. No one gave me grief. They actually took care of me.”

Cuddy trained in Georgia and taught aerial gunnery to Navy fighter pilots. After training several successful pilots, she said they realized she could speak Korean and yanked her out of aviation and transferred her to the National Security Agency to help break codes. After war ended, she stayed with the NSA until she retired.

During her time in Washington, Cuddy worked for the Library of Congress and as an intelligence analyst at the height of the Cold War, working on top-secret projects for the Department of Defense.

Shortly after the war ended, she married a freckle-faced Irish American, Francis X. Cuddy, who was more than a foot taller than she was and who also worked for Navy intelligence. At the time, interracial marriages were not well received in America. “When mom and dad got married, there were laws against miscegenation in Maryland and Virginia,” their son Philip (Flip) Cuddy said. “They were war heroes and they couldn’t get married in the state they lived. They had to go to the Navy chapel in D.C.”

Though the couple lived in a community peopled with NSA employees, their neighbors shunned them. Flip said he and his sister had an African American nanny because no Caucasian women would look after them. Cuddy’s own mother didn’t speak to her for five years after she was married.

The discrimination followed the family to Northridge, where they settled in the late ’50s.

“Someone circulated a petition, demanding that we not be allowed to move into the neighborhood,” Philip, who lived for a few years in Malibu before moving to Northridge to be with his mother, said. “Fortunately, that sentiment didn’t prevail and gradually, we were absorbed into the community.”

Cuddy ended up helping her sister manage the celebrated Moongate Restaurant in Panorama City until it closed in 1990. The Ahns, as a rule, were anything but ordinary.

“My uncle, Philip Ahn, was a Hollywood actor who appeared in over 250 films and has a star on the Hollywood walk of fame,” Philip said (his uncle was born 1905, died in 1978). “Another uncle was an engineer who worked on Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose and [on] rockets with Wernher von Braun. My aunt Soorah ran a gambling house for the mafia in Chicago.”

As her children were growing up, Cuddy would drive Philip to Malibu to surf every day in the summers while becoming active in the Korean American community.

“I still like to appear in public for Korean causes,” Cuddy said. “There’s a lot to teach about Korean American heritage and I like to present myself and my father as examples of what Koreans can do.”

Her activism in public service brought her recognition as Woman of the Year in 2003 by the California State Assembly. In 2006, she received the American Courage Award from the Asian American Justice Center in Washington D.C.

Cuddy credits her parents with her civic integrity. “My father spent his last few years in a Japanese prison in Korea,” she said.

“My mother was honored as Woman of the Century by Korean American groups. In fact, at the interchange at the I-10 and the 10 Freeway, a local post office and a ward at Good Samaritan [Hospital] are named after dad.”

She’s not sure what to attribute to her longevity, though she’s survived breast cancer twice.

“I’m just lucky,” Cuddy said. “I guess the good Lord said ‘That’s the way it is.’ But I’ve led an interesting life.”