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FRC Emlen Tunnell continues namesake’s legacy of saving lives and advancing cross-cultural exchange


Coast Guard Cutters Emlen Tunnell and Glen Harris are moored pierside in Beirut, Lebanon, Jan. 31, 2022. The two fast response cutters are deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations to help ensure maritime security and stability in the Middle East region. U.S. Army photo by Cpl. DeAndre Dawkins.

When selecting names for its cutters, the Coast Guard has honored notable African-Americans who paved the way for equal opportunities in the service. Before he became the first Black player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Emlen Tunnell served in the Coast Guard and was credited with saving the lives of two shipmates in separate incidents. As the fourth 154-foot Sentinel-class fast response cutter that will support Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, Coast Guard Cutter Emlen Tunnell has already helped save 103 lives in the Atlantic Ocean and is fostering cultural exchange in the Middle East.

Emlen Tunnell was one of three Coast Guard ships that joined a Royal Moroccan Navy frigate that rescued 103 migrants adrift on rafts in the Atlantic Ocean on Jan. 5, 2022. According to photos of the rescue provided by the Navy's 6th Fleet, which operates around Europe and Africa, the inflatable white rafts were so crowded that migrants were straddling the sides. The Coast Guard vessels were conducting joint operations in the region when they were diverted to support the maritime rescue.

Cmdr. Justin Nadolny, commanding officer of Coast Guard Cutter Thetis, one of the cutters that responded to the distress call, said, “The case reinforced the importance of joint operations and reaffirmed the U.S. Coast Guard’s presence in the region to ensure the safety of life at sea. I am exceedingly proud of our professional and highly capable team. The crew of all three ships showed remarkable vigilance and adaptability. This case highlighted the Coast Guard’s ability to operate worldwide to protect and save those in distress on the ocean, along with our ability to work seamlessly with international partners to accomplish a shared mission.”

After aiding in the rescue, cutters Emlen Tunnell and Glen Harris arrived in Beirut, Lebanon, on Jan. 31 for a scheduled port visit that included several military-to-military exchanges with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). While in Beirut, crewmembers shared ideas with LAF counterparts on areas of mutual interest such as maritime security, counterterrorism and border security.

The deployment with the 6th Fleet coincides with the cutters’ transit to their new homeport in Manama, Bahrain. The Coast Guard is replacing the Island-class patrol boats currently operating from Bahrain with new fast response cutters, which feature advanced communications systems and improved surveillance and reconnaissance equipment. Coast Guard cutters are deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations to help ensure maritime security and stability in the Middle East region.

WPC 1145’s namesake is Steward's Mate 1st Class Emlen Tunnell, a native of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, who served in the Coast Guard from 1943 to 1946. His first rescue of a shipmate occurred while he was aboard the USS Etamin in Papua New Guinea in 1944. When a crewman became engulfed in flames following a Japanese torpedo attack, Tunnell beat out the fire and carried the crewman to safety, even though he sustained burns himself.

His second rescue came aboard Coast Guard Cutter Tampa in 1946 when a shipmate fell overboard off Newfoundland. Tunnell risked the 32-degree Fahrenheit water – suffering shock and exposure – to save his shipmate. The Coast Guard awarded the Silver Lifesaving Medal to Tunnell posthumously for his heroism. He died of a heart attack in 1975.

Adm. Karl Schultz, Coast Guard commandant, presided over the cutter’s commissioning in October 2021. "What really defined Emlen was his character, that selflessness. It was who he was as a human being," said Schultz. "When this cutter sailed unexpectedly to avoid tropical storm Elsa, Coast Guardsmen who are going to shape the future chapters of the Emlen Tunnell story stepped to the plate, as Emlen did years ago. Maybe not with as many heroics, but they did what Coasties do. They jumped into the breach."

A 2021 Associated Press article highlights the acknowledgement of Tunnell’s service by Cmdr. Bill McKinstry, who recognized Tunnell’s name on the back of photograph showing a Coast Guard basketball team from the 1940s. The article quoted McKinstry as saying, “Given the context of what a Black steward’s mate was expected or even allowed to do during that time in American history – largely restricted to duties like keeping the dishes on the ship clean – his accomplishments are all the more remarkable.”

“If you look at the pictures of him in uniform, he is the one African-American in a sea of other people,” McKinstry was quoted as saying. “It is so important that we take a look at these trailblazers, just like Mr. Tunnell, and we honor them, because of all things they faced in laying the groundwork for where we are today in making a better future.”

The Coast Guard Academy also opened the $3.5 million Emlen Tunnell Strength and Conditioning Center in recognition of both his Coast Guard service and his athletic prowess in September 2021.

Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African-Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in U.S. history. The Coast Guard takes the opportunity to honor those who have made significant marks on its history and those who are impacting its operations today. Tunnell’s legacy continues and resonates the history of African-American participation in the Coast Guard and its predecessor services that date back to the very founding of the service in 1790.

For more information: Fast Response Cutter Program page