Originally launched in 1945 as the M/V Coastal Messenger, the United States Coast Guard Cutter Courier was a joint operation between the United States State Department and the United States Coast Guard. For twelve years during the 1950's and 1960's, she served as a portion of the Voice of America radio network during the Cold War, at a time when the Soviet Union had attempted to jam portions of the network. Courier contained the most powerful communications radio transmitter ever installed onboard a ship, an RCA 150-kilowatt mediumwave transmitter, as well as two 35-kilowatt shortwave transmitters. She also held the record for longest deployment overseas - from 17 July 1952 to 13 August 1964, she spent no time in United States territorial waters.
Recommissioned 30 April 1966, The USCGC COURIER was the first Reserve Training vessel designed to provide a mobile support base for Port Security personnel performing two weeks of active duty in ports from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great lakes. She was decommissioned in 1972.
The Courier was a Maritime Administration C1-M-AV1 type cargo vessel originally launched as the M/V Coastal Messenger in 1945. Apparently she was to be originally named Doddridge but that was changed prior to her acceptance by the Maritime Administration. She was originally designed as an inter-island shuttle for military and naval cargoes. She was designed to receive cargo from much larger Victory and Liberty ships and then deliver it to U.S. forces on small outlying islands but was actually never used for that purpose due to the end of World War II. In the late-1940s she was operated by both the Standard Fruit Steamship Company and Grace Line, Inc., primarily along the coasts to northern South America. On a trip to South America she ran aground at La Salina on Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela but was freed after 11 days with extensive, though minor, damage. She was then apparently mothballed with the reserve fleet.
The Coastal Messenger was transferred to the control of the Department of State in 1952. She was acquired to become a mobile transmitting facility for the U.S. Information Agency's "Voice of America" program in response to an initiative, code-named "Operation Vagabond," that was approved by President Harry Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and announced by the Department of State in April, 1951. The operation was designed to provide a ship-borne radio relay station to transmit Voice of America programs behind the "Iron Curtain." Such a vessel could move to any areas of trouble quickly, could serve as a temporary relay station as needed, and permit the use of a station where it was impractical to build a shore station. To ease political sensitivities, it was decided that the Coast Guard should operate the vessels, which in the planning stages were to have been a total of six vessels. Excessive costs kept the operation to a single vessel.
The head of the U.S. International Information Administration, Dr. Wilson Compton, noted at her commissioning that Courier was "designed to provide another electronic weapon for combatting [sic] Soviet jamming and to enable the Voice of America to cover areas beyond the reach of present broadcasts." She was stationed in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean off the island of Rhodes, Greece, operating while anchored at undisclosed locations in those waters. While acting as a relay station, she also had a small studio and control center if program announcements or originations were needed. The Courier was "on the air" for 11 1/4 hours per day, seven days a week, and her broadcasts were made in 13 different languages.
Under a Memorandum of Understanding between the Coast Guard and the Department of State, this vessel was transferred from the State Department to the Coast Guard and commissioned as the cutter Courier on 15 February 1952, while she was at the Bethlehem Steel Company's Hoboken, New Jersey Shipyard. The Courier's call sign was Vagabond-A. The memorandum spelled out the command relationships as well as costs for her operation. The State Department covered all costs and the commanding officer held "disciplinary control" over everyone on board, including the USIA employees although the commanding officer was cautioned to exercise that control "with discretion" and to notify the Secretary of State himself if any disciplinary action was taken against any USIA employees. The USIA employees were responsible for all of the receiving and transmitting equipment "except the normal ship's radio facilities." The Coast Guard agreed to supply personnel to assist them in operating the added radio equipment as Courier's primary mission was to get "the message through."
As for the vessel's operation, the memorandum noted that: "That sole responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the vessel, less the electronic equipment but including all diesel electric facilities, rests with the Coast Guard." The memorandum continued:
"(b) That the Commanding Officer will receive orders and instructions concerning his mission and the movement of the vessel from the Commandant of the Coast Guard only.
(c) That such orders will be issued only after mutual agreement between the Department of State and the Commandant of the Coast Guard, and that such orders may be transmitted either by Coast Guard or Department of State communication channels over the signature of the Commandant of the Coast Guard."
The agreement was careful to note who had ultimate responsibility for the cutter in case of an emergency as well:
"That internal security and policing will be the sole responsibility of the Coast Guard officer commanding the vessel. As of the date of this memorandum of understanding, heavy armament would serve no useful purpose and will not be initially provided. Small arms and light machine guns will be provided by the Coast Guard for internal and external security. Demolition of electronic equipment, destruction, and/or abandonment of the vessel will be the responsibility of the Commanding Officer who will act under instructions from the Commandant of the Coast Guard when time is available and will act under his command responsibility and prerogatives when time does not permit consultation with higher authority."
She was the only "mobile" transmitter in the Voice of America's world-wide network that consisted of 78 transmitters located at 10 overseas relay bases. She carried the most powerful transmitting instruments of its kind ever installed on board a ship. Stateside broadcasts were picked up by banks of Collins Radio Company 51J-type receivers. Filling most of one cargo hold, the cutter's transmitting equipment consisted of a single RCA 150 kilowatt medium-wave transmitter and two Collins Radio Company 207B-1-type 35 kilowatt short-wave transmitters. A Collins 231D-20 three kilowatt transmitter was used for ship to shore communications. Another cargo hold contained diesel engines capable of generating 1,500,000 watts of electrical power for the radio equipment. To hold up her main antenna, the cutter used a 150,000 cubic foot (69 x 35 feet) helium balloon that was secured to the flight deck by a winch. The balloon floated at an altitude of 900 feet above Courier. She carried a total of five such balloons, each of which cost $18,000.
She was originally designed to carry 20 employees of the USIA in large staterooms but her first Coast Guard commanding officer, CAPT O. C. V. Wev, cut the number down to three in a cost-cutting move that reportedly saved $1,200,000. After undergoing a six-week shakedown and training cruise where she made ports of call at Washington, DC (28 February-7 March 1952), La Guaira, Venezuela (27-29 March), Cartagena, Columbia (1-4 April), Christobal, Panama (5-6 April), and Veracruz, Mexico (5-10 May 1952). While in Washington, D.C., President Truman inspected and dedicated the newly commissioned cutter and made a world-wide broadcast from her deck. The Courier arrived back at New York on 18 June 1952. She set sail from New York for Rhodes on 17 July 1952. While en route, she made ports of call at Tangiers, Morocco (2-4 August 1952), Naples, Italy (9-14 August) and Piraeus, Greece (18-21 August). She arrived on station on 22 August 1952 and began broadcasting on 7 September 1952.
After a few of the balloons' cables snapped in heavy winds, releasing them to fly over Turkey and land ashore where they damaged some private property, engineers strung an antenna between the forward and main masts. The experiment proved to be successful and the balloons were retired from use.
The Courier was ordered home in July of 1964 and she returned to the U.S. on 13 August 1964 after a record 12 years on station overseas. During that time she was "the only U.S. vessel in commission [at that time] that has been on duty outside the continental limits of the country for twelve consecutive years." She was then turned over to the Coast Guard Reserve Training Center at Yorktown, Virginia, and placed in "out of commission, in Reserve" status where she provided dockside training in merchant marine safety and dangerous cargo handling.
She was recommissioned into the Coast Guard at Yorktown on 30 April 1966. Here her mission was to serve as a mobile operational training platform with qualified personnel attached and to aid by giving guidance during operational Port Security training at various sites during two week active duty for training periods. The Courier's area of operation covered the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes; her homeport was the Reserve Training Center in Yorktown. She carried accommodations for 220 trainees, patrol boats, and communication equipment. Her small boats were used to train reservists in harbor patrols while her cargo handling equipment was employed to train reservists in handling dangerous cargoes.