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.
In this era of rapid change, we all too often ignore history and define ourselves in terms of where we are headed and not where we have come from. But history matters, and Lt. Bill McKinstry is doing his part to make sure that the U.S. Coast Guard remembers its heritage.
McKinstry’s journey into history began by chance when the son of a Coast Guard veteran stopped by the quarterdeck of Sector Delaware Bay in late 2007 with his father’s scrapbook. His father had recently passed and the son wanted to share the photos.
McKinstry met with the son and talked about the service as they reminisced over old memories. Amongst the photo collection, there were some of a Coast Guard basketball team. It was upon scanning the photos that McKinstry noticed the players’ names listed on the back of a photo. As he glanced over the names, one name, Emlen Tunnell, looked familiar.
“Familiar” was an understatement, as this was the Emlen Tunnel – the Pro Football Hall of Famer and record breaker. Guided by this recognizable name, McKinstry set out to research what Tunnell did during his service with the Coast Guard. Over the next four years, McKinstry purchased books, poured through historic documents and collected every bit of information he could find about this Coast Guardsman turned football player.
What he found was not just trivia, but evidence of a man, who in his short time in service, was a true Coast Guard hero.
It was already known that Tunnell saved a life during combat while aboard the USS Etamin, but during McKinstry’s research it was discovered that he was also recommended for a Silver Lifesaving Medal for another heroic act where he saved a shipmate from drowning in the freezing waters of Newfoundland, something not even mentioned in Tunnell’s own memoir.
“I think the thing that surprised me the most was how humble he was about it,” said McKinstry. “You aren’t going to find anything about his heroism on the Internet. In his autobiography he actually mentions it more in passing than really focusing on it.”
Through his time in the Coast Guard, McKinstry has learned that one of the keys to being a good leader is recognizing your people. Tunnell would be no exception.
“When I see someone deserving who needs recognition I go out of my way to see it happen,” said McKinstry. “In this case, when talking of the prejudices of the time and when the original award recommendation was submitted [about three weeks before he was discharged], I felt that he needed to be recognized.”
McKinstry, working with Coast Guard historians and the Medals and Awards Program, has resubmitted Tunnell’s recommendation for the Silver Lifesaving Medal and hopes to one day present it to a member of Tunnell’s family.
The history of the Coast Guard and its people plays a role in shaping its values and beliefs, but in our fast paced lives it is not uncommon to underestimate the power of this history. McKinstry and his efforts reminds us that to define the Coast Guard by what we have in store for the service, pales in comparison against the service’s rich past.
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