John D. Miller, PAC, United States Coast Guard Reserve
On paper, it’s referred to as a High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle, or “Humvee,” one of the 281,000 built since its adoption by the U.S. military in 1985.
To friends and historians, this particular sand-colored military vehicle is known as Eleanor II, and she’s one of a kind. She not only symbolizes the Coast Guard’s quiet contributions to the war in Afghanistan, but this particular Humvee also represents the layered connections between history, family and military service.
Eleanor II’s Coast Guard story began in late 2009 when the Army transferred her to the Coast Guard Redeployment Assistance and Inspection Detachment (RAID) Team at Bagram Airfield, a major U.S. military base in Afghanistan. Now decommissioned, members of the RAID Team were then responsible for inspecting military equipment and hazardous materials coming home from combat zones.
In addition to helicoptering to bases throughout Afghanistan for these cargo inspections, RAID Team members also inspected cargo handling sites at the many camps that comprise Bagram Airfield. In 2010, venturing from one camp to another on the sprawling air base involved hazards beyond Bagram’s primitive dirt roads. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. James Cullen II served as the Officer-in-Charge of RAID Afghanistan in 2010 and returned to Bagram as a RAID training officer for Coast Guard Training Team East in 2011. Cullen recalled, “At the time, there were mine clearing operations still going on and only a thin wire fence between us and the bad guys.” Travelling to and from the camps, “you could potentially be exposed to exploding mines or small arms fire and could not transit those areas unless you were in an armored vehicle.”
Before Eleanor II could be put to work ferrying RAID team members and their gear to inspection sites, the team had to overhaul the Humvee. For example, she was missing an intact hood and fender, which team members repaired with the help of Army mechanics. The final touch was a set of black Coast Guard decals that adorned the vehicle’s doors. The emblems turned heads among other military service members. “Everyone did double takes,” recalled Cullen. “They’d ask, ‘What’s the Coast Guard doing here? Where’s the water?’ . . . Sometimes we would point to the cases of drinking water in the back and tell them that we were guarding the water supply.”
Fortunately, Eleanor II never took direct hostile fire while serving with the RAID team. However, the Humvee’s name, penciled on the dash by Cullen himself, evoked the combat experience of Army soldiers 60 years ago and represented connections linking Cullen and the RAID team to history.
Cullen’s father was a veteran of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Armored Division in World War II—transported, coincidentally, to Europe on a Coast Guard vessel—where he served as commander of an armored halftrack. James Cullen, Sr., was assigned to the Division’s 36thArmored Infantry Regiment, E Company, and each of the company’s halftracks were painted with the letter “E” on their sides. This led the halftrack crews to add nicknames to their armored vehicles, all beginning with the letter “E.” Neither Cullen nor his father knows why “Eleanor” was chosen for the halftrack’s name because all but one of the original crew died at Normandy before Cullen Sr. arrived, and the lone surviving crew member was killed in action in 1944.
When the younger Cullen found himself leading service members overseas, the memory of his father’s experience and the sacrifice of the brave men who served in the original Eleanor led the Coast Guardsman to name the Humvee Eleanor II. Cullen recalled, “My father spoke so highly of the men he served with, and I really admire that generation, so I wrote Eleanor II in tribute to the men who had ridden with my Dad and to keep their memory alive. It also reminded me what he had done—reminded me to take good care of my people.”
In 2010, as the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan began to shrink, the aging Eleanor II was placed on a list of property to be destroyed. The Coast Guard Historian’s Office, who had requested a door from the Humvee in 2010, asked again and found that the entire vehicle was available. She was shipped to Base Portsmouth, Virginia, where Cullen saw her again. It was like seeing an old comrade. Cullen explained:
I’ve always been a car enthusiast, but it’s more than just a vehicle. When you spend a year away from home in an unpredictable setting like Afghanistan, anything you spend that much time with takes on a special significance. And that was part of our connection to the vehicle—she was always there and was the one thing we could rely on … She kept us dry, never failed to start and never failed to get us where we needed to be. We felt safe inside.
Cullen is thrilled Eleanor II is destined for a museum, possibly the forthcoming National Coast Guard Museum in New London, Connecticut. Though an anomaly among the artifacts ranging from helicopters to watercraft, the Humvee will symbolize the service of Coast Guard personnel deployed to the Middle East and Southwest Asia, while honoring the sacrifices of Army soldiers in World War II.