On November 17, 2017, over seventy-six years after the United States declared war and entered into World War II, the United States Coast Guard announced that Emlen Tunnell’s legacy is not going to be forgotten, thanks to the Guard’s decision to name one of their Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutter ships (FRC) after him. The news came in Coast Guard Commandant’s communication announcing the NEW FAST RESPONSE CUTTERS NAMED FOR COAST GUARD HEROES. In 1830, the Revenue Cutter Service, the predecessor to the modern Coast Guard, launched its first standardized multi-ship class of cutters. The Morris-class was named for the first ship in the class, the USS Morris, which drew its name from Robert Morris, an American politician and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Designed with a topsail-schooner rig, the Morris had a length of 78 feet. The Morris-class cutters carried six 9-pound cannons and a crew of 24 officers and men. These thirteen ships fought pirates, interdicted smugglers, enforced federal maritime laws, and operated with American naval forces in time of war.
In the years leading up to the American Civil War, the USS Morris and her sister ships formed the backbone of the revenue cutter fleet. Following this tradition, the Coast Guard is building a class of cutters designed to serve a multi-mission role. The 154-foot Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutters (FRC) perform drug and migrant interdiction; provide a port, waterway, and coastal security; do fishery patrols; perform search and rescue, and provide national defense. In the next few years, the Coast Guard will deliver 32 additional cutters, bringing service numbers up to 58 FRCs intended to replace the fleet of 1980s-era 110-foot Island-class patrol boats. The FRCs feature advanced command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance equipment; over-the-horizon cutter boat deployment to reach vessels of interest; and improved habitability and seakeeping characteristics. Twenty-six FRCs are currently in service, with six stationed in Miami Beach, Florida; six in Key West, Florida; six in San Juan, Puerto Rico; two in Ketchikan, Alaska; two in Cape May, New Jersey; two in Pascagoula, Mississippi; and two in Honolulu, Hawaii. As with their FRC sister cutters, the next flight of 19 FRCs will bear the names of enlisted leaders, trailblazers, and heroes of the Coast Guard and its predecessor services of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, U.S. Lifesaving Service, and U.S. Lighthouse Service. These new cutters will be named for enlisted namesakes who were recipients of the Navy Cross Medal, Silver Star Medal, Bronze Star Medal, Gold Lifesaving Medal, Silver Lifesaving Medal, Navy & Marine Corps Medal and Purple Heart Medal, with one of these 19 FRCs named after Steward Mate Emlen Tunnell.
The Coast Guard Commandant appointed a standing board to make recommendations and review all nominations to the Commandant for final approval. The Commandant’s Naming Board utilized eight committees to work through a list of impressive Coast Guard candidates with various achievements to have a new ship christened with their name. Each committee had a diverse group of professionals on its team. The Naming Board committees located at various Coast Guard bases throughout the country working to narrow down the possible candidates were charged first with sifting through potential candidates that they then discussed, reviewed, vetted, and finally selected. No individual was considered without meeting the following criteria: (a) The actions of the individual must reflect Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty, and must be in keeping with the highest traditions of the Coast Guard; (b) The individual must be considered a distinguished Coast Guard person or someone who had a significant influence on Coast Guard history; and (c) The individual must be deceased with sufficient time elapsed to ensure that the name would withstand the “test of time.”
When the Naming Board committee members read Emlen Tunnell’s file, they learned of his notable achievements when serving in the Coast Guard during World War II. Steward’s Mate First Class Tunnell was on board the USS Etamin when the Empire of Japan attacked it on April 27, 1944, by a torpedo which left a 27′ by 27′ diameter hole in the ship. During the attack, a shipmate, MM1c Fred Shaver, was engulfed in a fire caused by a fuel spill when the engine room that exploded. Tunnell came to the aid of his shipmate and extinguished the flames with his own hands while personally suffering burns. Tunnell’s actions saved Shaver’s life. Then on March 17, 1946, as a crew member of the Coast Guard Cutter Tampa, Tunnell rescued his shipmate StM1c Alfred Givens, who had accidentally fallen from the dock into icy, 32-degree waters. The rescue was observed by the commanding officer of the Tampa, who nominated Tunnell for the Silver Lifesaving Medal, one of the Coast Guard’s highest awards.
“This is especially noteworthy given the racial climate of this era in U.S. history,” said Peter W. Gautier, a spokesman for the Coast Guard. “African-Americans were typically not provided such recognition “The award was given to Tunnell posthumously in 2011.
After serving in battle, Tunnell played sports stateside at a Coast Guard station in San Francisco. As a member of the Coast Guard Pilots, he played football, baseball, and basketball. He also distinguished himself by serving as the team captain of the Coast Guard Pilots football team, which was made up of Coast Guardsmen serving in the San Francisco Bay area. Under Tunnell’s leadership, the team won a West Coast championship in 1944, and Tunnell became a member of the First Team of the All-West Coast Service Stars in that year.
After the Naming Board committee members read the Tunnell file in its entirety, the facts spoke – Emlen Tunnell was a terrific and honorable Coast Guardsman who deserves to be remembered. Not only did Tunnell exhibit heroics and athletic prowess in the Coast Guard, risking his own life to save another on two occasions, in addition to being a Coast Guard sports champion, but he also became a legendary NFL player with the New York Giants and was the first black inducted in the NFL Hall of Fame. These additional distinctions helped persuade committee members to advance his name as a finalist. Another criterion Tunnell had to pass with the Naming Board Committee was for his name to show that it withstood the “test of time” after his death. Forty-three years after he passed away, the Emlen Tunnell name is golden to anyone who knew him or knew about him., although he has been forgotten for the vast majority of Americans. Accordingly, the Coast Guard’s Naming Board Committee should be applauded for choosing to honor such a worthy Coast Guardsman.
Coast Guard missions do not stop at the shoreline. Guardsmen provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief ashore as well as at sea. After Emlen began playing football in the NFL and finally had spare money in his pocket, he would give to homeless people other and people who needed it, but he did not stop there. He also shared his heart with them, by sitting down and listening to friends who were on the down and out. Emlen had the rare ability to sincerely accept people for who they were, without judgment or pity whatsoever. He knew that everybody has a story to tell and he would hang out and listen, smile, laugh, and share stories of his own whenever he had the time. Like a great Coast Guardsmen, he lived a life providing humanitarian assistance and relief to those in need on land and at sea throughout his entire life.
“Help the people who give service,” is something people learn about when they attend a church service of many religious denominations. Emlen practiced “being of service” daily. Besides modeling this practice, he preached this philosophy subtly to his friends: “Always give extra tips to the restaurant workers, taxi drivers, all those types of people who are working hard to make a living helping others,” he would say nonchalantly in his soft voice. Emlen was a man of his word because if he had money in his pocket, he generously shared it, and Emlen would share whatever money he had.
In 1958, an “Emlen Tunnell Day” baseball Roy “Campy” Campanella legend headed the committee Roy as honorary chairman. It was set up to present the gifts and purse that Tunnell’s friends and New York Giant fans had raised. Monte Irvine, former New York Giants baseball star, was co-chairman with Campanella on a committee that included virtually every field of endeavor. Boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson was another committee member. Stage and screen personalities, bandleaders, singers, and leaders of business and Industry participated. The New York Giants celebrated Emlen’s 11-year career with “Emlen Tunnell Day,” and at the game, he was honored, given lots of presents, and presented with a huge plague with all the New York Giants players pictures on it and a fitting tribute to Emlen engraved in the middle.
Emlen appreciated the gesture from the Mara family and the New York Giant players, but he was moved to tears when a homeless friend said hello and approached him with a brown paper bag that had money in it. “Hey Em, us homeless guys took up a collection for you,” the man said. “We wanted to show you our thanks for being such a swell guy.”
Emlen accepted the brown bag with tears running down his face. He told his homeless friend, “You know, this is the greatest gift I ever received. Thank you and tell them I said thanks.” He recalled this scene years later, stating that it was the best gift he ever received because his homeless friends gave to him when they had almost nothing.
Now Emlen Tunnell’s legacy will be remembered throughout the United States, and in the oceans as well wherever the new 21st cutting edge Fast Response Cutter bearing his name is needed the most. Hopefully, Emlen’s name will be remembered as a lifesaving American war hero, an NFL Hall of Fame legend, and most of all, as a loving peacemaker who treasured people and had friendships all over the world. After the U.S. Coast Guard christens the EMLEN TUNNELL, future generations will discuss him, students will study his life and achievements, and more books will be written about him, fostering his legacy even more. The EMLEN TUNNELL Coast Guard ship will keep his memory alive as a Coast Guardsman who lived a life of Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty. Emlen Tunnell was an American Patriot, a distinguished Coast Guardsman and a fearless lifesaver, a trailblazing pioneer who helped break the color barrier in the NFL, and went on to have a legendary NFL career, topped off by being the first African-American to be inducted in the Hall of Fame. Even better, he was considered a “beautiful human being” by most of his friends.
It is also fitting that Emlen’s legacy will be remembered in a mobile vehicle since throughout his life he was usually on the move. He moved swiftly and with precision on the football field, but \off the playing fields, he was always in motion. While he was an NFL scout and assistant coach, it has been estimated that Emlen traveled over 80,000 miles in a single year, going from game to game, college to college, over and over again all across the United States. To accomplish this, was adaptive and resourceful because, incredibly, he suffered from a fear of driving since he was young, and he never obtained a driver’s license his entire life. He would coordinate his travel plans by leafing through his little book that had the hundreds of names of all his friends, and once he made his calls, he was “always ready” to make something happen.
Emlen was “always ready for action whenever and from wherever it comes.” The Coast Guard motto Semper Paratus means, “always ready.”
Emlen’s niece, Catherine, is extremely honored to have a ship named after her beloved uncle, Em. On the night, she was born at home, Emlen had to carry his pregnant sister Goodie up a staircase to her bed because she started contracting and her water sac broke. He ran across the street to notify the midwife and a couple of helpful neighbors. It was just another lifesaving venture for Emlen Tunnell because he was “always ready” to help out: Semper Paratus.
An idea born out of frustration that their great local hero Emlen Tunnell was a forgotten legend was the impetus that inspired the idea of commissioning a life-size bronze statue. Sports Legends director Jim Vankowski, Phil Damiani vice-president, and board member Rich Pagano have been a driving force in helping the Emlen Project raise a goal of $75,000 to cover the cost of creating the 7’ statue of the Coast Guard and NFL star. They helped commission an accomplished sculptor, Jennifer Frudakis-Petry, who has experience sculpting greater than life-size bronze statues, and these three men actively contacted those who knew Emlen to see if they could help donate to the project. Fortunately, they received an overwhelming response from almost everyone who was contacted. Emlen’s boyhood community has been another driving force with their support.
Tammy Cohen, director of recreation and community programming for Radnor Township, said the statue project would be “good for the community.” Emlen Tunnell was “a resident who was an icon. He’s not a household name; however, Tunnell’s a symbol of our freedom,” Cohen said. Perhaps, Tunnell is less well-known than he deserves because he died young at 50, she said. “Our goal is to bring recognition to him. He deserves the national recognition of being a household name, just like Jackie Robinson or Bill Russell. He should be more revered than he is. It’s an exciting project for the Sports Museum, and Radnor is happy to be a part of it.”
When MM1c Fred Shaver was informed that a Coast Guard FRC was going to be named in Emlen Tunnell’s honor, who rescued him on the USS Etamin, he exclaimed, “Oh, that is wonderful. That is wonderful. You know that is great news.” Then Shaver paused for a couple of seconds, choking up, and added, “I am so thankful to the U.S. Coast Guard.”
The Fast Response Cutter to be named for Emlen Tunnell is anticipated to be delivered by the shipbuilder to the Coast Guard in the second half of 2021 and commissioned into service before the end of 2021, said Peter W. Gautier, a spokesman for the Coast Guard. Between delivery and commissioning, the crew will conduct training and prepare the cutter for operations. It will be the 45th of 58 cutters to be acquired by the Coast Guard, a fitting tribute to Emlen Tunnell’s jersey number 45 that he wore when he played with the New York Giants. The Coast Guard provides our nation with the ability to perform its missions with versatile, highly adaptive, multi-mission strategies. Fittingly, Emlen Tunnell, as a New York Giant, was of great value for the team because of his versatile, highly adaptive, multi-mission strategic style of play on the football field. While being a star player for the University of Iowa football team, he was known as “Emlen the Gremlin,” because he often surprised fans with his game-changing interceptions This ability also delighted New York Giant fans. The Gremlin was recognized as an offense on defense and was an Emathletic acrobatic entertainer. Fans would stand up and watch whenever he was about to receive a kickoff or punt return because he often created anxious and thrilling anticipation of wonder on the football run back. He delighted crowds with his ability to evade defenders racing and gunning to run him down as he maneuvered around players in an artistic, strategic dance that unfolded magically, and the entire stadium would erupt with screams of joy.
Because of the Coast Guard naming a ship after Emlen Tunnell in 2021, future generations will learn about his life. The Emlen Tunnell ship news is a gift that brought tears to the eyes of Emlen’s family and friends who are as thankful to the United States Coast Guard as Emlen was when he received the precious gesture-filled gift from his homeless friends. Helping people know about Emlen Tunnell will help keep his memory and legacy alive, and his family, friends, and the people of his Garrett Hill neighborhood in Radnor Township are deeply appreciative to the United States Coast Guard. Just as the United States Coast Guard has saved so many, it now rescues the memory of the remarkable and beautiful loving human being known as Emlen Tunnell.
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