The Coast Guard Cutter Courier -
A "Battleship Without Guns"
By John Schneider, W9FGH
(Click on photos to enlarge)
The USCGS Courier is moored at the Bethlehem Steel Company’s shipyard in Hoboken, NJ, a few hours after being commissioned on February 15, 1952. (author’s collection)
One of the 69 x 35 ft. helium balloons has been inflated and is preparing to raise the 900 ft. long cable that serves as the Courier’s medium wave antenna. The two inverted pyramids to the left are the ship’s shortwave antennas. (author’s collection)
A unique shipboard radio broadcasting facility was operated by the Voice of America in the Mediterranean Sea from 1952 to 1964. This seagoing Cold War shipboard broadcaster preceded the famous pirate radio ships of the 1960s and 70s, and was the home to the most powerful transmitter ever operated aboard a ship.
Voice of America, the United States government’s shortwave broadcast service,
began operations during World War II to transmit war news and information to
the battlefront regions of the world.
But by 1947, the post-war peace had turned into the “Cold War”, and the
VOA was given a new mission -- to broadcast American and pro-Western news and
information to the Communist-controlled regions of the world. The objective was to counter the "more
harmful instances of Soviet propaganda directed against American leaders and
policies" by the Russian internal media.
The primary targets were the Soviet Union and the Eastern European block
of countries located behind the “Iron Curtain”.
A number of powerful VOA shortwave transmitting facilities were already broadcasting from the United States, but in 1949 the Soviet Union began jamming those American signals. Their powerful jamming transmitters on the VOA frequencies created walls of noise and interference that blocked reception of the American signals, which were considerably weaker because of their long transmission distances. To break through the jamming, the VOA needed to operate transmitters that were closer to its target regions. Beginning in the early 1950s, overseas transmitter plants were built or leased in Tangiers, Philippines, Okinawa, Kavala, Greece and Liberia.
At the same time, the VOA proposed to build a fleet of shipboard radio transmitters that could quickly and easily move to wherever they were needed to serve as temporary relay stations. In response to the proposal, the Department of State created the program “Operation Vagabond” in April, 1951. At first six vessels were contemplated, but in the end budget constraints imposed by Congress limited the project to just one ship. To avoid political controversy, this ship would be unarmed and operate under the command of the US Coast Guard. It would not broadcast from open waters on the high seas, but only from inside the territorial waters of a friendly country that granted permission.
The project was inspired by a World War II experiment, when the VOA was operated by the Office of War Information. A 5 kW medium wave transmitter was installed aboard the battleship USS Texas, and on November 8, 1942, it broadcast news of the impending invasion of North Africa to the people of French Morocco. The experiment had been considered a success, even though when the big guns of the battleship were opened up to bombard the coastline, the vibrations caused major damage to the transmitter.
THE COURIER IS BORN
At her commissioning, Dr. Wilson Compton, head of the U.S. International Information Administration, noted that Courier was "designed to provide another electronic weapon to combat Soviet jamming transmitters and to enable the Voice of America to cover areas beyond the reach of present broadcasts." Immediately afterwards, the Courier visited Washington, DC, where President Truman inspected the ship and made a worldwide broadcast from her deck. That was followed by a shakedown cruise to the Panama Canal, where test broadcasts were performed on 6110 and 9690 kHz (35 kW), and 1510 kHz medium wave (150 kW) using the call sign KU2XAJ.
On August 22, 1952, the Courier arrived at its permanent station -- an undisclosed location off the Greek island of Rhodes, eleven miles southwest of Turkey in the Aegean Sea. Two locations were established for broadcasting – at the pier of the main harbor, and at anchor a mile out from the Saint Nicholas Lighthouse. The first broadcasts to behind the Iron Curtain began on September 7, 1952. The Courier was on the air for 11¼ hours each day, seven days a week, relaying programs in 13 languages.
The Courier was equipped with two 35 kW Collins 207B1shortwave transmitters and a 150 kW RCA BT-105 medium wave AM transmitter, operating on 1259 kHz. The latter was the most powerful rig ever installed onboard a ship. The modulator and final amplifier tubes were cooled by distilled water, which was pumped into a heat exchanger fed by sea water. Another 3 kW transmitter, a Collins 231D-20, was used for ship-to-shore communications. The transmitters sat on an eight-inch-thick concrete platform that floated on slabs of cork, which minimize engine vibrations when the ship was under way. The transmitters’ massive transformers were contained in a separate hold in the center of the ship. Another hold held three 500 kW diesel generators to generate the power for the transmitters, with only two of these plants being necessary to run the entire operation.
VOA programs were received via shortwave from the U.S. on a bank of Collins 51-J receivers, and recorded onto disc for later broadcast. These recording lathe turntables were mounted on specially-designed gyroscope-stabilized cradles that stayed level as the ship rolled with the seas. The shipboard facilities also included a small broadcast studio and control room, which allowed for the possibility of local broadcasts if needed.
On the forward deck, four inverted pyramid antennas were used for the shortwave transmissions. They were fed by a large impedance matching network below deck. During the first few years, the medium wave antenna was a steel cable that was winched up to 900 feet altitude during the broadcasts, carried aloft by one of five 69 x 35 ft. helium balloons, which were launched from a platform amidships. There were 600 bottles of helium stored aboard the ship, and it took many coastguardsmen to inflate the balloons and send them aloft. However, on several occasions the balloons' cables snapped during heavy windstorms, and the balloons drifted free over Turkey where they damaged private property. After that experience, VOA engineer Ivan Boor designed an inverted delta antenna that was suspended from the two ships masts. It was less efficient than the long cable but solved the problem of the balloons.
Another complication that the Courier suffered was on the receiving end of the operation. Picking up the programs on the ship proved to be less than ideal because of massive interference from the ship’s own transmitters, and because of interference from Russian jamming transmitters. A faraday shield was built at the stern of the ship, and the receive antennas were located behind the shield in an attempt to minimize the strong signals from the transmit antennas on the bow, but this was only partially effective. Eventually, a separate site with elaborate receive antennas was constructed on a hill overlooking the harbor, where the programs were picked up and sent back to the ship over a VHF link. .
END OF THE MISSION:
In the long run, having a movable seagoing transmitter was not as useful as was originally envisioned, and the Courier’s signal range was being hampered by the limitations of its shipboard antennas. As the Soviets increased their jamming power, higher transmitting power and more efficient antennas were needed. Finally, in 1964, the VOA inaugurated a land-based transmitting station on the Island of Rhodes. It was equipped with a 500 kW medium wave transmitter and two 50 kW shortwave units.
The last broadcasts from the Courier were made on May 17, 1964. With its usefulness at an end, the transmitting equipment and generators were offloaded and given to the Greek Government, and she set sail for home. Today, the Courier still holds the record for the longest overseas deployment: from July 17, 1952 to August 13, 1964, she spent no time in United States territorial waters.
On August 25, the Courier was turned over to the Coast Guard Reserve Training Center at Yorktown, Virginia, where she served as a reserve training vessel from 1966 to 1970. In June, 1970, she suffered damage to her bow when she collided with the USS Pocono. The Courier was finally decommissioned in 1972 and scrapped in 1975, ending a colorful career as one of the world’s most unique broadcast facilities.
more information, and some interior views of the Courier, see this newsreel clip:
NOTE: This article appeared in the Spectrum Monitor Magazine, December, 2016.