(1952 Radio Corporation of America magazine advertisement.)
Long before the glorified “Pirate Radio” station in the middle of the North Sea in the 1960s, there was a vagabond ship afloat: the United States Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Courier that roamed far and wide relaying broadcasts of the U.S. Government’s Voice of America (VOA). Well, far and wide might be stretching it a little as the ship was mostly anchored in the harbor of the Greek Island Rhodes, By broadcasting within the territorial waters of a country that gave her permission to do so, she could not be branded a “pirate” radio broadcasting ship.
To overcome Soviet jamming of Voice of America radio broadcasts, the U.S. government developed a "Ring Plan", part of which envisaged 5 ships around the world with powerful transmitters. The first and only ship to be put in operation was the Courier.
The Courier’s call sign was “Vagabond-Able” and she was commissioned on February 15, 1952, in Hoboken, New Jersey. She normally carried a Coast Guard crew of 10 officers and 80 men, plus some engineers from the United States Information Agency responsible for the Voice of America. The Courier also carried the most powerful transmitter ever installed on a ship: a medium wavelength band (AM band) RCA built transmitter with a strength of 150,000 watts -- 3 times that of the most powerful AM station in the United States. Additionally, she had a 35,000 watt short-wave transmitter. Huge helium filled balloons measuring 69 x 35 feet rose to a height of 900 feet to hold up the main antenna.
President Harry S. Truman not only visited the Courier on March 4, 1952, when the ship docked in Washington, D.C., with the ultimate destination of Korea. Truman also used the occasion to broadcast a major policy speech beamed at Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Truman’s speech is a wonderful example of the Cold War rhetoric in the early 1950s:
I am speaking to you today from a ship...This vessel will not be armed with guns, or with any instruments of destruction. But it will be a valiant fighter in the cause of freedom. It will carry a precious cargo – and that cargo is truth.
It will be carrying a message of hope and friendship to all those who are oppressed by tyranny; it will be carrying a message of truth and light to those who are confused by the storm of falsehood that the Communists have loosed on the world.
It will be able to move from place to place, beaming our campaign of truth to people behind the Iron Curtain whom we have thus far been unable to reach.
Its significance lies in the fact that it will carry on the fight for freedom In the field where the ultimate victory has to be won – that is in the minds of men.
Wherever you may be listening to this broadcast, remember this: The people of the United States extend the hand of friendship to you across the seas. The future may look dark, but let us have faith, together, that all peoples will one day walk in the sunlight of peace and justice.
Although originally intended to be stationed off Korea, the Courier then sailed to Europe, making ports of call at Tangiers, Morocco, Naples, Italy, and Piraeus, Greece, before arriving in her home port of Rhodes. But the first visit was short-lived when a newspaper article mentioned that there was a threat that a torpedo fired by a Communist submarine would sink her. The Courier sailed to Turkey while the threat was investigated and declared to be false. She sailed back to Rhodes to begin relay broadcasting on September 7, 1952. But because the Courier’s signal interfered with some radio stations in Sweden that power had to be reduced during the maximum listening time to about 40,000 watts.
During heavy winds, one balloon flew off and landed in Turkey, where there was some apparent damage to a house. A new antenna system was installed between the ship’s main and front masts and balloons were not used again.
One amusing story about the Courier tells of the night when a small fishing boat anchored within 100 yards of the ship, ignoring international signals of flags and lights telling ships and boats not to come within 1000 yards. The Courier tried to reach the crew by beaming a signal light at the fishing boat. Apparently the crew was asleep. A decision was made to ignore the fishing boat and begin relaying Voice of America programs. St. Elmo’s Fire is a natural phenomenon like lightening but a little different. For centuries, sailors, including Columbus and Magellan, reported seeing flashes of light or flames glowing on the ship’s masts during thunderstorms. As the Courier began powering up its transmitters, St Elmo’s Fires appeared around the main antenna. Suddenly, a large bolt arched from the main antenna to the fishing boat’s mast, where it went down into the boat, apparently into the boat’s radio. The fishing boat suddenly left the area and was never seen again.
The original concept of Operation Vagabond was to have six similar vessels stationed around the world. But the costs were thought excessive and the Courier was the only ship put into service.
The Courier continued VOA relay broadcasting until 1964, when the transmitting equipment was transferred to a land-based permanent transmitting site. The Courier returned to the United State for decommissioning on August 25, 1964. In 1966, Then she was re-commissioned as a U.S. Coast Guard, and later as a U.S. Maritime Service, training vessel until 1974, when she was finally decommissioned.