History: Emlen Tunnell, an unsung hero

Update: Emlen Tunnell was posthumously awarded the Silver Lifesaving Medal at a ceremony in Alameda, Calif., March 9. A photograph from this ceremony has been added below.

Coast Guard Basketball team

Before serving overseas, Emlen Tunnell played basketball for the then District 12 team on Coast Guard Island in Alameda, Calif. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Written by Dr. David Rosen, Coast Guard Historian

As we head into Super Bowl weekend, it seems only fitting that this month’s history post shares the story of Emlen Tunnell. When most people hear the name Emlen Tunnell, they think of the star athlete and the first black member of the New York football Giants, joining the team in 1948. Nicknamed “Mr. Defense,” the former halfback switched to defense for the Giants, setting records for interceptions and punt returns in 1952 and 1953 – both records that remained unbroken until his death in 1975, with his interception total of 79 still falling only two short of all time interception leader Paul Krause.

Emlen Tunnell

Nicknamed “Mr. Defense,” Emlen Tunnell set records for interceptions and punt returns in 1952 and 1953 – both records that remained unbroken until his death in 1975. Tunnell is seen here on his 1954 Bowman football card.

Tunnell would end his storied career with the Green Bay Packers in 1961 and, in 1967, become the first African American inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As fans across America marveled over Mr. Defense’s on field heroics, his accomplishments were hardly surprising to those who witnessed his valor and heroism as a Coast Guardsman during World War II.

Tunnell served honorably from 1943-46 as a steward’s mate aboard several ships – twice cited for exceptional acts of heroism.

On April 27, 1944, the Coast Guard-manned cargo ship USS Etamin was unloading 6000 tons of explosives and gasoline while at anchor at Aitape Harbor, Papua New Guinea. Without warning, Etamin was attacked by Japanese aircraft and a torpedo blew a hole 27 feet by 27 feet in the ship’s starboard side.

With the shell plating and shaft alley of Etamin ruptured, gasoline sprayed over the after part of the ship, creating a dangerous situation for all aboard. It was Coast Guard Steward’s Mate Emlen Lewis Tunnel who came to the aid of Machinist’s Mate First Class Fred Shaver, who was on fire, pulling him to safety and severely burning his own hands in the process.

USS Etamin

The Coast Guard-manned cargo ship USS Etamin was attacked by Japanese aircraft in 1944. Tunnell was aboard when a torpedo blew a hole 27 feet by 27 feet in the ship’s starboard side. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Tunnell, who was known to speak in football metaphors, later recalled the sinking ship as, “a small, tough fullback, without much speed, pounding forward every minute of the game.”

On March 17, 1946, Tunnell was nominated for the Silver Lifesaving Medal for once again saving the life of a fellow shipmate.

His shipmate, Alfred Givens, fell off the dock of the Coast Guard Cutter Tampa. Without regard to his own safety, Tunnell jumped into the 32-degree seas and rescued Givens. Tunnell saved his drowning shipmate, and despite being in the water for only fifteen minutes, suffered exposure and shock.

In recognition of Tunnell’s heroic actions, the commanding officer of Tampa, Cmdr. Ralph Jenkins, nominated Tunnell for the Silver Lifesaving Medal. A momentous occasion considering African Americans were not customarily awarded medals at that time in our history. He would receive a posthumous Combat Action Ribbon and is currently being considered for a Silver Lifesaving Medal.

Silver Life Saving Medal ceremony

Vivian Tunnell, sister of Emlen Tunnell, and Catherine Robinson, daughter of Vivian Tunnell, accept the Silver Life Saving Medal on behalf of Emlen Tunnell, Wednesday March 9, 2011. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Rachel Polish.

Tags: , , , , , ,


  • Jon

    The Alameda Coast Guard Island gym will be named after him. The gym naming ceremony is currently scheduled for 9MAR11.

  • Kensam2g

    Wow, this great information. Go ahead and give Mr. Tunnel his medal. It is over due and worthy.

  • Russ Davis

    Having served 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, I thought I knew about most of the African Americans heroes that served in the Coast Guard. However, I never heard the story about Emlen Tunell until now. I knew about his achievements as a New York Giant football player, but never as a U. S. Coast Guardsman.
    I would like to thank Dr. David Rosen for this article.

    Semper Paratus
    Russ Davis, PACS,USCG (RET)

  • Rpetri4953

    Fred Shaver was a Machinist Mate not a mechanics mate.No such thing in the Navy or CG also I remember a black Warrant Machinist that had a chest full of ribbons. This was in 1945

  • LTJG S. M. Young

    Rpetri4953,

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I have reached out to Dr. Rosen and Lt. Bill McKinstry and confirmed Fred Shaver’s rate as Machinist’s Mate First Class.

    Very Respectfully,
    LTJG S. M. Young
    Coast Guard Public Affairs

  • Commandant

    Many thanks to Dr. Rosen for bringing this little-known story to our attention. I’m always fascinated by the remarkable acts of bravery that somehow go untold. The various History Months and awareness celebrations give us great venues for reminding us of the great things diversity brings to our Service.

    Admiral Papp

  • Brownsb805

    true hero

  • Brownsb805

    :P

  • Alexis

    A very talented and courageous man. I’m glad I happened across this article.