Voice of America: Shipboard Relay Stations – 8: This Time in the Mediterranean – The Vagabond A “Courier”

The most famous of all of the ships that carried a relay of programming on behalf of the Voice of America was the good ship “Courier“; but it did not begin its life story in this way. This is what happened.

The ship that became the “Courier” was laid down in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on the edge of the Great Lakes during the year 1945. The original name given in advance was “Doddridge,” though by the time it was launched later that same year, the name was “Coastal Messenger”.

During the late 1940s, the “Coastal messenger” was taken into commercial service along the coasts of South America. At one stage, the ship ran aground off the coast of Venezuela, and soon afterwards, it was mothballed into the reserve fleet.

Then came the year 1950, and plans were introduced for the development of a whole fleet of radio ships to act as full time relay stations for the Voice of America. The “Doddridge- Coastal Messenger” was taken over by the American government, retrofitted with all sorts of new equipment, and renamed the “Courier”. The original intent for the location of this new ship was off the coast of the Korean peninsula.

The “Courier” was commissioned as a radio ship at Hoboken on the edge of New Jersey on February 15, 1952 under the official designation WAGR; with the W indicating Coast Guard, A indicating a working ship, G indicating a large ship, and R indicating radio. The callsign for the ship’s maritime communication radio equipment was NFKW.

In the waterways of Washington, DC on March 4, President Truman came aboard and officially dedicated the ship for its new era of service. The “Courier” then left for a six week shakedown cruise into the Caribbean, with ports of call along the coasts of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Mexico.

For a period of three weeks, the “Courier” was on the air with test broadcasts under the callsign KUX2AJ during its stay in the Panama Canal Zone. The ship was also stationed in the Central American area for a series of political broadcasts to Guatemala.

The “Courier” returned to the United States and was taken to New York where loading began in preparation for service off the coast of Korea. However, at this stage, a new location was designated, and orders were given diverting her to serve in the eastern waters of the Mediterranean. So, on July 17, the “Courier” set sail for the island of Rhodes, with ports of call en route at Tangier in North Africa, Naples in Italy, and Piraeus in Greece.

The “Courier” arrived at the harbor on the north coast of the island of Rhodes on August 22, 1952, though she was quickly moved to the coast of Turkey due to a threatened submarine attack. However, this proved to be a false threat, and the ship soon returned to the nearby island of Rhodes.

Broadcasting as a Voice of America relay station began on September 7, 1952. The ship carried three radio broadcasting transmitters; one RCA mediumwave unit at 150 kW, and two Collins shortwave transmitters at 35 kW. There was also a 3 kW marine transmitter for coastal communications.

Electrical power was generated by 3 diesel generators, each rated at 50 kW, and five huge balloons were available to produce lift for the mediumwave antenna. The program feed from the VOA studios in Washington, DC was shortwaved via the VOA relay station in Tangier, North Africa, with a receiver station on board the “Courier” itself. Subsequently, a receiver station was installed on the island of Rhodes with a microwave relay to the ship.

The usage of the balloons to raise the mediumwave antenna proved to be too cumbersome and largely unsuccessful, so during the following year, the “Courier” was first taken to Malta for repairs, and then to Saloniki in Greece where new antenna systems were fitted.
According to the Australian magazine, Radio & Hobbies, the “Courier” was on the air from Saloniki for two or even three extended periods of time.

The broadcasts from the “Courier,” on both shortwave and mediumwave, though intended primarily for the Middle Eastern areas, were nevertheless heard in widely distant locations. Many international radio monitors in Europe, the Americas, Asia and the South Pacific were successful in hearing these broadcasts in several Middle Eastern languages and they were rewarded with the regular VOA QSL cards from Washington, DC showing a large white star on a blue background. In addition, QSL cards were also issued from the “Courier” itself, and these depicted an artistic rendition of the ship with a large balloon tethered to the deck.
These QSL cards were postmarked at the official Post Office on board the “Courier”.

There were occasions when the “Courier” left the sheltered harbor at Rhodes. For example, a significant religious leader asked the ship to take him on a visit to another island. With

approval from the United States, the short voyage was made, and the “Courier” was still on the air at its new temporary location with its regular programming.

Towards the end of its twelve year stay in the Eastern Mediterranean, the ship was taken to the shipyards near Athens in Greece in preparation for the final return journey across the Atlantic. Even while the “Courier” was suspended in the air above the dry dock, the regular broadcasting schedule was maintained; the electronics were safely grounded with a thick cable attached to the dock.

All of the electronic equipment was ultimately off loaded and donated to the Greek government, and the ship then set sail for the United States, with ports of call at Naples in Italy, Barcelona in Spain, and the Azores Islands off the coast of Africa. The arrival date on the Atlantic Coast of the United States was August 13, 1964.

Two years later, the “Courier” was taken into service again by the Coast Guard, this time as a training ship. In 1972, she was retired, and three years later again, she was unceremoniously scrapped.

The “Courier,” at the end of its illustrious tenure as a unique radio broadcasting ship, was now gone; but it was replaced by a landbased station on the island of Rhodes. However, that’s another story for another time.

From: Wavescan N150 – Jan. 8, 2012

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“Wavescan” is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave).