Bringing Eleanor home

Former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. James Cullen poses in front of a restored World War II-era halftrack in Hillsborough, Ore., in July 2003 that was painted to resemble the vehicle that Cullen served on in Europe in 1944 through 1945. Cullen and the halftrack, named Eleanor, were assigned to Company E, 36th Armored Infantry Regiment, 3rd Armored Division, and all the unit’s vehicles bore nicknames beginning with the letter “E.” Photo by Mr. Steven Borts, 36th Armored Infantry Reenactors.

Former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. James Cullen poses in front of a restored World War II-era halftrack in Hillsborough, Ore., in July 2003 that was painted to resemble the vehicle that Cullen served on in Europe in 1944 through 1945. Cullen and the halftrack, named Eleanor, were assigned to Company E, 36th Armored Infantry Regiment, 3rd Armored Division, and all the unit’s vehicles bore nicknames beginning with the letter “E.” Photo by Mr. Steven Borts, 36th Armored Infantry Reenactors.

Written by Petty Officer 1st Class John D. Miller.

On paper, it’s referred to as a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, one of the 281,000 built since the Humvee’s adoption by the U.S. military in 1985.

To friends and historians, the sand-colored military vehicle is known instead 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.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. James Cullen II, the officer-in-charge of Redeployment Assistance and Inspection Detachment Team Afghanistan, pauses on one of the perimeter roads of Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, on April 2, 2010, with the newly repaired Humvee Eleanor II. The red cross decal in the Humvee’s window indicates that it is a casualty evacuation vehicle if the base came under attack. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Master Chief Petty Officer Mark Moore.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. James Cullen II, the officer-in-charge of Redeployment Assistance and Inspection Detachment Team Afghanistan, pauses on one of the perimeter roads of Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, on April 2, 2010, with the newly repaired Humvee Eleanor II. The red cross decal in the Humvee’s window indicates that it is a casualty evacuation vehicle if the base came under attack. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Master Chief Petty Officer Mark Moore.

Eleanor II’s Coast Guard story began in late 2009 when the Army transferred her to the Coast Guard Redeployment Assistance and Inspection Detachment team at Bagram Airfield, a major U.S. military base in Afghanistan. RAID team members are responsible for inspecting military equipment and hazardous materials coming home from combat zones.

In addition to helicoptering to bases throughout Afghanistan for these inspections, the RAID team members also inspect sites at the many camps that comprise Bagram Airfield itself. Venturing from one camp to another on the sprawling air base in 2010 involved hazards beyond Bagram’s primitive dirt roads.

“At the time, there were mine clearing operations still going on and only a thin wire fence between us and the bad guys,” explains Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. James Cullen II, who 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. 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 go to work on the Humvee. 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 other servicemembers’ heads.

“Everyone did double takes,” remembers 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.”

The U.S. Coast Guard Humvee Eleanor II travels Bagram Airfield’s northern perimeter road near Bakhshi Khel, Afghanistan, on April 18, 2010. In 2010, the airfield’s primitive perimeter roads were chiefly dirt and rocks. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Cmdr. James Cullen II.

The U.S. Coast Guard Humvee Eleanor II travels Bagram Airfield’s northern perimeter road near Bakhshi Khel, Afghanistan, on April 18, 2010. In 2010, the airfield’s primitive perimeter roads were chiefly dirt and rocks. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Cmdr. James Cullen II.

Fortunately Eleanor II never took direct enemy 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 a commander of a halftrack armored vehicle. He was assigned to the division’s 36th Armored Infantry Regiment, E Company, and each of the company’s halftracks was painted with the letter on its side, leading their crews to add nicknames to the vehicles, all beginning with “E.”

Neither Cullen nor his father knows why Eleanor was chosen for the halftrack’s name; all but one of the original crew was killed in Normandy, and the surviving member was killed in action in 1944. Consequently, when the younger Cullen found himself leading servicemembers overseas, the memory of his father’s experience and the sacrifice of the men the latter had served with led the Coast Guardsman to name the Humvee Eleanor II.

“My father spoke so highly of the men he served with, and I really admire that generation,” says Cullen. “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.”

As the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan began to shrink, Eleanor II, an older vehicle, 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, Va., where Cullen saw her again. It was like seeing an old comrade.

“I’ve always been a car enthusiast,” explains Cullen, “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, Conn. Though an anomaly among the artifacts from helicopters and cutters, the Humvee will symbolize the service of Coast Guard personnel deployed to the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and will honor the Army soldiers of World War II.

The Humvee Eleanor II awaits repairs in a U.S. Army repair shop on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, on March 26, 2010, after she was transferred to the U.S Coast Guard Redeployment Assistance and Inspection Detachment Team Afghanistan by the Army. RAID team members and Army mechanics replaced the Humvee’s hood, fenders and headlights before repainting it and adding combat casualty care floodlights and Coast Guard decals. U. S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Cmdr. James Cullen II.

The Humvee Eleanor II awaits repairs in a U.S. Army repair shop on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, on March 26, 2010, after she was transferred to the U.S Coast Guard Redeployment Assistance and Inspection Detachment Team Afghanistan by the Army. RAID team members and Army mechanics replaced the Humvee’s hood, fenders and headlights before repainting it and adding combat casualty care floodlights and Coast Guard decals. U. S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Cmdr. James Cullen II.

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