The Ahn Family, Children of a Leader

Posted on April 3rd, 2016 by:

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The Ahn Family, Children of a Leader:

In 1902, seeking a better education for himself, Ahn Chang-ho arrived in San Francisco with his wife, Helen (Hye Ryon Lee). Soon after his arrival, Ahn emerged as a leader in the Korean American Community. In 1903, he created the Friendship Society to benefit his fellow Koreans living in America and in 1905; he founded the Mutual Assistance Society, the first Korean political organization in the United States.


Ahn Chang-ho

In 1926, Ahn Chang-ho, returned to Korea. Under the pen name “Dosan” he fought for Korea’s independence from Japanese rule and became one of Korea’s leading moral and philosophical leaders of the early twentieth century.

While Ahn Chang-ho was fighting his moral battles against the Japanese, his five children grew up under the American flag in Southern California. His oldest son, Pil Lip (Phillip) Ahn, born in 1905, decided to become an actor after Douglas Fairbanks offered him a screen test while he was in high school. Helen, Phillip’s mother, forbade him to get involved with Hollywood so instead, he took a job on a rice farm and then worked as an elevator operator. By 1934, Phillip had saved enough money to go to college and attended the University of Southern California. While in college, Phillip was given his father’s blessing to pursue an acting career but only on the condition that he enroll in acting classes and become the best actor he could be. Phillip’s acting debut was in the 1935 in the Lon Chaney film A Scream in the Night, followed by a steady list of film and TV credits including Kung Fu, Bonanza, MASH and Hawaii Five-O.


Ralph, Phillip and Susan Ahn in uniform during WWII

Before WWII, Phillip Ahn mostly played Chinese characters on screen, but after America entered the War, he received roles portraying Japanese villains in Hollywood propaganda movies. Ahn’s portrayals were convincing enough to garner him death threats from the public who believed him to be Japanese. Phillip joined the Army during WWII and served with the Special Services as an entertainer for the troops. He received an early discharge after hurting his ankle and returned to making films. In 1968, he joined the USO and entertained American and Korean Troops who were fighting in Vietnam. Phillip Ahn was the first American of Asian descent to be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


Phillip Ahn as Colonel Kuroki in the 1945 movie Back to Bataan

Phillip’s younger sister, Susan Ahn, grew up under her father’s guidance and worked in many of his organizations. Her father was very open and allowed his daughter to do many things that would be improper in Korea. An athlete, Susan played baseball, basketball, ice hockey and also softball on the Bing Crosby Croonerettes softball team. During WWII, Susan joined the Navy. Although she was rejected for officer training school in San Diego for being “Oriental”, she attended the US Navy Reserve Midshipman School at Smith College in Massachusetts and became the first female aerial gunnery instructor in LINK Trainers. She eventually received a commission as a Lieutenant and worked for Naval Intelligence. During the Cold War, she worked for the National Security Agency and headed a think tank of 300 agents in the Russian section. She retired from government work in 1959.

The Ahn’s were a few of many Americans of Korean descent who took an active part in battling American’s enemies abroad, but who also forged a new identity and respect for their race and nationality at home.

For More on Information Check Out

Hollywood Asian: Philip Ahn and the Politics of Cross-Ethnic Performance

One thought on “The Ahn Family, Children of a Leader

  • T.H. Abbott says:

    Interesting story of Koreans fighting for their country, the US, in WWII. These stories keep us from forgetting that America is made of many different races of people who were loyal to their country!

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