Augusta Tilghman star quarterback Jesse Tunstill eluded his share of enemy tacklers.
But he wasn't able to flee the Germans in World War II.
Tunstill was locked up in the prisoner of war camp immortalized in The Great Escape, the famous 1963 movie. The western Kentuckian was lucky he wasn’t among the 76 allied airmen who tunneled their way out on the night of March 24-25, 1944.
Their freedom was short-lived. The Germans tracked down and caught all but three of the escapees and executed 50 of them.
“Jesse Tunstill was one of the most interesting Tilghman athletes ever,” said Lisa Mitchell, city school board secretary. “I could write a screenplay about him.”
Tunstill was a football hero and a war hero.
He was thrice an all-state selection. He made the all-Southern team two times.
Tunstill’s big game is still part of Big Blue football lore, according to Mitchell. It happened on Oct. 1, 1938, a Saturday night.
The Evansville Memorial Tigers were in town. The visitors expected to tame the Tornado on Tilghman’s home turf, old Keiler Field.
After all, the Tigers had won 40 straight games. Their star was halfback Billy Hildenbrand, who was “perhaps the most renowned athlete to come out of the Hoosier state up to that time,” wrote Alan Rhodes Sr. and John E.L. Robertson Sr. in More Profiles of the Past, Paducah People, volume 4.
Rhodes and Robertson said the grid grudge match was “the apogee of Tunstill’s [and Tilghman’s] fame.”
The Hoosier teens expected to make the game the Tunstill-Tilghman perigee. Evansville Memorial was an Indiana prep powerhouse. The school boasted a quintet of state titles plus “a mythical national championship obtained when they defeated McKeesport, Pennsylvania in a post-season game,” wrote Bob Swisher in A Century of Excellence, 1904-2003, Paducah High School, Paducah, KY.
The Tiger gridders arrived on a chartered train that also emptied out 600 fired-up Tiger fans and a 60-piece marching band, Swisher added. “The train was met at 11th and Broadway by the Tilghman band and together the two organizations paraded up and down Broadway…the beginning of a truly memorable evening.”
Keiler Field was overflowing with the Tiger and Tornado faithful. Led by Tunstill, a 16-year-old sophomore, the home team drew first blood, tallying a touchdown. Tilghman failed to tack on the extra point, so the score stood 6-0.
“After that, it was a bitterly contested game with neither side able to score until late in the fourth quarter,” Rhodes and Robertson wrote. “The two teams slugged it out, toe-to-toe and nose-to-nose,” wrote Swisher, who was a WPSD-TV sportscaster and the radio voice of Tornado football.
Neither eleven tallied again until the fourth quarter when the Tigers clawed out a touchdown. The extra point try was good. Leading 7-6, Memorial seemed poised to run the win streak to 41.
Time was the Tigers' ally. With the clock winding down, Tunstill managed to guide the Tornado into Tiger territory.
Still, the goal line was a long way away , and there were mere seconds to play. Tunstill had just one chance to snatch victory from the sharp-toothed Tiger jaws of defeat.
He called a pass play, heaving the ball to a streaking Hosea Morgan, who caught it for a touchdown as time expired.
“The unbelievable had happened,” Swisher wrote. “Tilghman had ended the 40-game streak 12-7 and the celebrations began.”
Swisher quoted from a page-one feature story about the game that ran in the Sunday Paducah Sun-Democrat:
“Paducah went suddenly crazy last night. Her frayed nerves cracked when a boy named Tunstill threw an air-filled leather bag called a football to a boy named Morgan, who ran across a lime stripe on a grassy field. A few moments later downtown buildings were echoing the strains of a crescendo not heard since the Armistice. Horns, screeching, blaring, croaking horns, sounding off.”
Drivers honked from 10th Street to the Ohio riverbank, according to the Sun-Democrat. “Scores of automobiles carrying almost as many people snaked their way along the ‘drag’ as jubilant riders pounded their sides. Other students and adults alike walked or ran up and down sidewalks, now and then forming snake dances. The dancing continued downtown until nearly midnight. But, some hopefully predicted that Paducah just might get over it all. After all, they got over the Flood.”
Swisher wrote that the story's headline proclaimed the sweet victory with “big bold letters…TILGHMAN 12 – MEMORIAL 7.” Down the page, a smaller headline grimly warned, “Hitler’s German army invades Sudetenland” – the western part of Czechoslovakia – “a signal of the worldwide catastrophe that would soon follow, World War II.”
The global conflict began in 1939, the year Tunstill won another big game against another Tiger team, that one from Hopkinsville.
When the contest started on Hoptown’s home field, the Tiger players and rooters expected “the fleet Jesse Tunstill” to be up to his old tricks. “All season Tunstill had been dropping back as if to pass, then running wide when the opposing ends rushed him,” Hopkinsville New Era sports editor Joe Dorris wrote in the paper in 1949.
Local pigskin prognosticators were sure Tunstill “would run the lead-footed Tigers to death,” the editor added. “But the Tigers threw a rare defense at Tilghman.”
The Hopkinsville eleven “spread their defense all over the field and the ends refused to crowd Tunstill. They just let him stand around with the ball and wait. Eventually he would have to run down the middle, where there was more congestion and the Tigers had a chance to catch him.”
The formation worked, but only for the first half, which ended in a scoreless tie. “Tilghman eventually won 33-7 after the Tigers got tired,” Dorris confessed.
After Tunstill graduated in 1941, he joined the football team at the University of Kentucky. “He is plenty calm and knows how to handle himself on a football field…Also off the field,” the 1942 Big Blue media guide said.
“…Jesse is one of the greatest potential backs ever to enroll at the University of Kentucky…He’s big and fast…Tilting the scales at 190 and stands six feet even…He is a passer, a runner, and a kicker.”
Ultimately, Tunstill ended up a second lieutenant, a bombardier and a combat flier in the Army Air Force.
The Paducahan was assigned to the 716th Bomb Squadron, 449th Bomb Group (Heavy), based at Grottaglie, Italy. The group’s big, four-engine B-24 “Liberator” long-range bombers blasted enemy targets in Germany, Austria, Hungary and Italy.
On June 9, 1944, Tunstill took off in a B-24 nicknamed “Ghost O’ The Omar” for a Kansas City, Mo., cocktail lounge that was a favorite watering hole for many of the plane’s crew and their significant others before they went overseas.
The “Ghost” was in a group of bombers whose target was Munich, Germany. But enemy anti-aircraft fire shot Tunstill's plane down. The 11-man crew bailed out safely. Ten, including Tunstill, were captured.
The Germans took Tunstill to Stalag Luft III, near Sagan, Germany, now Żagań, Poland. He arrived just in time to play in a bruising football battle between bomber crews and fighter pilots. The Bombers bested the Fighters, with Tunstill scoring all the points for the victors, according to Rhodes and Robertson.
Tunstill stayed a German captive until shortly before the war ended in 1945. He returned to UK in time for the football season, but was down to 182 pounds, perhaps because of his ordeal as a POW.
In any event, the 1946 UK media guide advised, “This is [Tunstill’s]…last year at U.K. and Jesse seems to be in better shape than ever before. His play this year seems to show more spirit than any previous time in college.”
Tunstill graduated in 1947 – he earned football letters in 1942, 1945 and 1946 — and returned to Paducah where he worked and lived for the rest of his life. He died in the city on March 25, 1993 – the 49th anniversary of “the Great Escape.” Tunstill, 70, was buried in the National Cemetery at Mound City, Ill.
Tunstill was married to Ruby Hamilton Tunstill. The couple had a son, Greg A. Tunstill, and two daughters, Mary Embleton and Jessica Schneider, Rhodes and Robertson wrote.
Tunstill played football under two storied coaches: Ralph McRight and Paul W. “Bear” Bryant.
McRight was one of the most successful football mentors in Tilghman History. McRight Field, the Tornado’s greensward inside Memorial Stadium, is named for him.
Bryant coached Tunstill at UK in 1946, the first year the Bear commanded the UK team. But Bryant’s greatest football fame came after he returned to his alma mater, the University of Alabama. He coached the Crimson Tide from 1958-1982 and won a half dozen national championships.