The seagoing radio broadcasting station with ultra-high-powered transmitting equipment prevented the Soviet Union from jamming Voice of America broadcasts.
The small cargo ship Courier had a most interesting career. Although intended to be a naval auxiliary, the ship had a far more important and varied life. The most famous role was that of a seagoing radio broadcasting station with ultra-high-powered transmitting equipment that prevented the Soviet Union from jamming broadcasts of Voice of America (VOA).
The Courier was commissioned in February 1952, at the height of the Cold War. At the time, the Soviets were quite successful at shutting down radio contact from the outside world, literally isolating the countries that were behind the Iron Curtain.
The ship selected for the mission to break down this barrier to information was one of the 239 similar ships, known as the C1-M-AV1. The design evolved in 1943 when the U.S. realized that the war in the Pacific required a small ship to facilitate reoccupation of the many islands needed in the advance to the Japanese mainland. Ten American shipyards, most located on the Great Lakes, were contracted to build these 339-foot-long, shallow draft ships that were able to enter smaller harbors, which were inaccessible to larger transports.
The Courier was one of 10 built at the Froemming Bros. shipyard in Milwaukee. It originally was named the USS Doddridge. When completed in 1945, however, the ship was assigned to the War Shipping Administration of the U.S. Maritime Commission and renamed the Coastal Messenger. Its commercial operator was the Standard Fruit Co. of New Orleans.
The Courier, which was built at the end of World War II, first operated as a cargo ship under the name Coastal Messenger.
In 1951, the ship was acquired by the Coast Guard and fitted out at the Bethlehem Hoboken Shipyard in New Jersey for a new role. It was manned by coast guardsmen, renamed Courier and operated for the State Department.
At a ceremony in February 1952, President Harry S. Truman proclaimed the ship was “dedicated to the cause of peace,” adding that “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 is truth!”
The Coast Guard’s Courier was outfitted with a short “flight deck” on which the crews released a balloon that carried the radio antenna aloft.
By 1950, the Soviets had already built rings of jamming stations around the two Voice of America stations in Europe (at Salonika and Munich) that beamed garbled transmissions directly at the VOA facilities.
On board the Courier, if the captain suspected the broadcasts were being jammed, he would raise his anchor and proceed to a new location, broadcasting as he went. Most of the radio programs transmitted from the ship originated in the VOA’s New York studios and then were rebroadcast from the Courier.
During its conversion at Hoboken, a large platform called the “flight deck,” was erected on the ship’s main deck. This was where a 69-foot-long balloon, which carried the antenna aloft, was prepared. The balloon was of the same type that the British used to protect London during the German air raids and was called a barrage balloon.
When the Courier was ready to broadcast, the crew dragged out the deflated balloon and attached it to a 1,000-foot aluminum cable. Then the antenna was made fast to the cable, and the balloon inflated with helium, which lifted it to a height of about 900 feet above the sea. The ship spent up to 18 months at sea, and its home port was at Rhodes, Greece.
After its service as a floating radio station, the Coast Guard used the Courier as a reserve training cutter until 1973.
By mid-1964, advancements in electronics made the Courier’s mission redundant and the ship returned to Yorktown, Va., where it took on a new role as a “port security school” or reserve training cutter for the Coast Guard. By 1973, the Courier entered the federal government’s James River Reserve Fleet, where it lay until March 1977, when it was sold for scrap at Brownsville, Texas. For 32 years, the Courier served the United States well.
Captain James McNamara, who retired as president of the National Cargo Bureau, currently serves as chairman of the Maritime Industry Museum at Fort Schuyler, N.Y., and remains active in the U.S. maritime industry.