USCGC Courier

Ship details: Fred Haney, who was a VOA engineer aboard the ship: “This is one of the nicest pictures of the USCGC Courier (Vagabond Able) after it was painted white in Rhodes, Greece. It was formerly standard ‘haze gray.’ The Courier was an international broadcasting ship for Voice of America multi-language programs, manned by Coast Guard and Foreign Service personnel. The upside down ‘Trylons’ on the foredeck are shortwave antennas. The mediumwave antenna was flown from the flightdeck midships, held up by an aerostat ‘mini-blimp.’ This was replaced later with an inverted delta antenna between the two masts. The funny looking fence astern was an unsuccessful attempt to shield receiving equipment from extreme RF radiation voltage from the big on-board transmitters. Current affairs in the Middle East brought back memories of broadcasting from the Courier in the early sixties.”

In 1945, the USCGC Courier (a 338-foot, 5,500 ton vessel, originally called ‘Doddridge’, later known as the SS Coastal Messenger) was launched as a CI-M-AVL cargo ship for the U.S. Maritime Commission.  In 1951 she was transferred to the US Information Agency (USIA), retrofitted with new equipment, and on 15th February 1952 was commissioned as WAGR-410 in Bethlehem Steel Co. Shipyard in Hoboken, NJ.  Conceived by VOA engineers, the project was approved by President Truman, the Joint Chiefs of staffs, and the Congress. It was developed by leading American scientists, technicians, ship builders, and Coast Guard officers under the direction of George Q. Herrick, VOA’s chief engineer, and Jean Seymour, project engineer. CDR Oscar C. B. Wev, the first Commanding Officer, and a crew of ninety-six men sailed her to Washington, DC where, on 4th March 1952, President Harry S. Truman dedicated the vessel. He praised the ship and its “Cargo of Truth”. The commission ceremonies were attended by members of Congress, top government officials and civic leaders. The vessel was manned by a Coastal Guard crew of 10 officers and 80 men, plus three VOA radio engineers to supervise the operation of the transmitting equipment. There were Diesel engines capable of generating 1.5000,000 watts of electrical power for the radio equipment on board. The hull number on the vessel was W410 and the ship was painted in naval grey. The vessel then completed a six-week shakedown cruise in the Caribbean, Canal Zone and Mexico and was on her way to Korea.  While taking on stores and small arms, her orders were changed and she was sent to the island of Rhodes, Greece.  Thus began her unusual career.

USCGC Courier (WAGR-410), a very unusual CG vessel, worked for the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), “Voice of America”, code name “Vagabond Able”.  This idea came to the VOA in 1950 to have a complete radio relay station aboard a seagoing vessel.  Originally it was planned to have six additional ships but due to the high cost, only the Courier was put into service.  Its duty was to broadcast “The Truth” behind the “Iron Curtain” and to fill the information gap that the communists had imposed upon East Asia.  The ship was not allowed to broadcast on the high seas and was only permitted to operate within the territorial waters of a country when granted permission. The Gray Lady sailed into Rhodes Harbor in August 1952 and there was a submarine threat to sink the Courier mentioned by a Communist newspaper article. The Ship retreated to Turkey and when the threat was deemed false the Courier went back to Rhodes and began broadcasting on September 7th, 1952. The local population viewed the ship and its crew with mixed emotions. The Island was under Italian domain from 1812 to the end of WW2 and now they were back under the Greek Flag and Queen Fredrica. After a period of adjustment the Americans were generally accepted into the Greek community. Many of the single crew members rented apartments and the married personnel rented homes. The Crew got together and started a Courier Club in the City of Rhodes where they could meet and socialize when on off the ship. Softball was a favorite past time and a team was formed to play the teams of the 6th Fleet when they came in for R and R. 

When leaving the Mediterranean in 1964, the USCGC Courier had spent twelve years outside of the U.S. of America, longer than any other vessel in the U.S. military history.  Also, at this time the crew had increased to eleven officers and one hundred and forty enlisted members.

The Courier was then assigned to RTC Yorktown, VA where for the next ten years she was used as a training vessel for Reserve Units.  She was reclassified as a training ship (WTR-410) on 30 April 1966, transferred to the Maritime Administration on 4 October 1972. In 1974, the “strangest ship in the world”, as ENC Joe Bodnar put it, “passed over the bar”.  She was struck on 31 January 1975. She had served her twenty plus years proudly and was retired leaving behind many good and sad memories of those that served aboard her.

Offshore radio station: The Voice of America Seaborne Radio Station, Dedeecanese Islands from 7th September 1952 till 17th May 1964. During this period, the USCGC Courier broadcast Voice of America programs in 16 languages to Communist bloc countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, transmitting these programs 10 hours each day. During these tense years, USCGC Courier, operating as a sea station, was constantly alert to crisis, with the ability to move to a “hot spot” and begin broadcasting in a matter of hours.

They had two Collins 207B short-wave transmitters on board coupled to the folded Discone antennas, up front at starboard a higher frequency MW antenna and at port a lower frequency MW antenna. They also had an RCA MW transmitter with 150 kw. output. The modulator and final 9C21s were cooled with a distilled water system. The Collins transmitters were air cooled and had 35 kw. output. There were also three 500 kw. three-phase generators, two of which could, at full power, run all the equipment.

For the first year or so the main antenna was carried aloft by a barrage balloon. The ballon was 69 x 35 feet in size and held 150.000 cubic feet of helium. It was held by means of a winch-operated line to float 900 feet in the air to support the medium-wave antennas. The ballooon was lost a couple of times, and it ended up in Turkey. Then a VOA engineer, Ivan Boor, designed an inverted delta antenna that fitted between the masts. There was a slight loss in signal output but being free of the balloon problems proved to be well worth the loss. A receiving site was constructed on the highest point of Monti Smith a hill south of the city of Rhodes. A VHF link was set up to send the program material down to the ship. Many innovative antennas were designed and implemented to thwart Russian jamming and natural phenomena such as selective fading.There was a very large impedance matching device under the flight deck.

The Courier was on the air seven days a week, broadcasting in thirteen different languages and being heard several hundred miles away.  The broadcast programs transmitted originated in Washington, DC.  The vessel sailed to Malta for repairs during the summer of 1953. The radio programmes continued until 1964 when a station was built in Rhodes and the Courier was now allowed to come home. All the transmitting equipment and generators were off loaded in Athens and given to the Greek Government.

Location: The Mediterranean off the Island of Rhodes (Greece)

unknown photographer