God’s other present to a freedom fighterAs a 10-year-old, Susan Ahn was a lively child who loved to play baseball under the Californian sun. Swathed in youthful innocence, she had no idea why her father, Ahn Chang-ho, would burst into tears, singing the Korean national anthem on Sunday picnics. She also had no idea that her father, a tall, handsome gentleman who wore a derby hat, was a leading activist for Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule.
Ms. Ahn, now 89, recalls her father’s low yet soft voice as he read the Korean alphabet to his children and how happy he looked, planting weeping willows in his garden. The young Susan did not quite understand why others told her “He is not your father only. He is the father of Korea.”
Also known as Dosan, Ms. Ahn’s father was a member of Korea’s independence movement who fled to California to dodge Japanese surveillance. Working on an orange farm and as a housekeeper in Figueroa near Los Angeles, he opened his house as shelter for other independence activists.
Whether it was her father’s intention or not, the willows were symbolic of a deep well of grief over the brutality of the occupiers. When she was four years old, Susan’s father was away from home on one of his frequent trips, and Susan discovered what made him appear so sad at times -- photographs of Koreans murdered by Japanese soldiers who had then cut off the victims’ ears and arms.
That was when she finally understood the significance of the huge Korean flag that hung from their porch: It represented her father’s passion for the independence of their country. “I knew that it was a part of my life, too,” Ms. Ahn recalls.
As a child Ms. Ahn was present at the numerous gatherings of the activists held at the family home. She heard her father’s counsel that, “Without country, no home or soul may survive.” She did not know back then that her father gave her the name Susan, which means “beautiful country” written in Chinese characters. Her eldest brother’s name, Phillip, is two Chinese characters, meaning “inevitable independence.”
One day in 1926, Susan’s father left his California home to sail to Shanghai for a meeting of members of the independence movement. He never returned. Mr. Ahn was captured in China and taken to Korea where he died in prison in 1938. Today he is remembered as a true patriot. California also remembers Ms. Ahn’s father with the Dosan Ahn Chang-ho Memorial Highway Interchange.
Speaking at Yonsei University last week during a trip to Seoul to promote her biography, “Willow Tree Shade,” Ms. Ahn recounted how her father’s devotion to independence brought pride but also hardship to the Ahn family. After his death, the burden to uphold his reputation fell on his wife, three sons and two daughters. Susan, as the eldest daughter, attracted attention in California’s Korean community, which noted her rejection of the role as a proper lady. Turning her back on contemporary expectations for women, she displayed the aggressiveness of her father, determined to move forward to achieve goals that others could enjoy. She abided by her father’s words: “Be good Americans, but remember and love your Korean heritage.”
To live up to her father’s legacy, Ms. Ahn, 27 years old and a college graduate, joined the United States Navy to fight the Japanese in World War II. She was the first Asian woman commissioned as an American naval officer. “Back then, Korea was not known in the U.S.,” Ms. Ahn says. “Some Americans took me as Japanese and gave me a strange look,” she says with a smile. Stationed in Iowa and Georgia, Ms. Ahn trained male pilots. August 15, 1945, the date of Japan’s surrender, remains the happiest day of her life.
After the war, Ms. Ahn stayed in the military three more years. She was later recruited by the government as an intelligence expert to decipher Soviet codes. During the Cold War, with Korea on the frontline of the ideological conflict, Ms. Ahn took her work more seriously. Her Asian heritage was seen as indispensible by the intelligence community, but her knowledge of Western literature -- such as the works of Dickens and Tolstoy -- frequently used in creating codes, proved invaluable. In 1947, she married Frank Cuddy, a fellow naval officer. After retiring from the navy, Ms. Ahn and her brothers and sisters ran Moon Gate, a Korean restaurant in California.
A Korean translation of her biography was released earlier this month. John Cha, who wrote the biography, says, “Ahn Chang-ho was a great figure to Koreans in many ways; Susan Ahn’s life tells a lot about who we are.”
While in Korea, Ms. Ahn, graceful and lively, gave lectures to college students and visited her father’s memorial park in Apgujeong-dong in Seoul. She brought smiles and inspiration everywhere she went. Phillip Cuddy, Ms. Ahn’s son who accompanied her on the trip, says jokingly, “My mother is a tomboy.”
Ms. Ahn also shared the humor that has laced her life. “My father used to teach us never tell lies. Then one day he took my little brother to a barber shop for a haircut. My brother wanted to keep his hair long, but father promised that it would be just a trim. After looking in the mirror after the haircut, my brother said, almost crying, ‘You are a liar, dad.’ And we all laughed.”
One thing that made Ms. Ahn sad was that she could not communicate in Korean. In a lecture in English last Friday at Yonsei , she spoke briefly in Korean, saying “I have lived without a country and a father, so I know all the more how important Korea is to me,” which drew thunderous applause from her audience. Cheon Il-ho, 25, a college student, said after the lecture, “I did not even know that Ahn Chang-ho’s family still survived in the U.S. Ms. Ahn’s stories were especially moving, in that she had to deliver her message in English, not Korean.”
Last Saturday at Dosan Memorial Park in Apgujeong-dong, Ms. Ahn viewed her father’s tomb and what had been some of his belongings. She did not forget to mention her mother, saying “I have to give my mother super credit. If my father was God’s gift to Korea, my mother was God’s gift to my father.”
Choi Jong-ho, a director at the Dosan Memorial Foundation says, “It makes us sad that this could be her last visit to her homeland.”
She returned to California on Monday.
by Chun Su-jin