01 July, 2014
Most Americans may have never heard about a Coast Guard ship called the USS Courier. The Courier also may be unfamiliar to people in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. But between 1952 and 1964, the ship floated near the Greek island of Rhodes. During that period, it broadcast thousands of hours of Voice of America programs to the Soviet Union and its allies.
Since then, people who served on the ship have held anniversary reunions to celebrate their work. Recently, they gathered at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. The Academy has an exhibit honoring the Courier.
"In the battle against Communism, the Courier, a ship without guns, goes into battle armed with the greatest weapon on all: truth!"
Cold War newsreel reports about the partnership between VOA and the Coast Guard sound dated to some people. But the struggle between the Soviet Union and Western countries was very real. Bob Marriott was part of the USS Courier's Coast Guard crew.
"We were real proud of our job. We got through to people that couldn't hear the truth and we kept working to get that message across and it made us feel good to know that they got the truth from somewhere, that in their native countries was censored."
In addition to news, listeners could enjoy VOA's cultural and music programs.
Music great Louis Armstrong made this station identification on VOA's Jazz Hour program with Willis Conover.
"This is the Voice of America, Washington, D.C."
The USS Courier had broadcast equipment that was more powerful than land-based radio stations at the time.
The Soviet Union worked hard to "jam" or interfere with the broadcasts. Bob Marriott says making sure VOA had a clear signal was, in his words, like playing a game of "cat and mouse."
"We were matching our wits against the guy in Russia that was trying to jam us. And we took pride in having a couple extra frequencies available so that when he lined up on our frequency, on that particular receiver, we clicked him off and got another one and kept the program going. We were the tip of the bayonet. It felt real good."
Unlike most military ships, the Courier did not carry heavy weaponry. Navy ships would come to its aid if there was a need.
Maria Lowther was born in Greece. She moved to Rhodes as a refugee and later married a member of the US Coast Guard. She says the Courier, its VOA crews and their money were important to the economy of the island.
"We did not have enough money to have food on the table. And all of a sudden, the ship appears, and the money started flowing. But above all, it was the dignity of the people that was saved. The American spirit was absolutely unbelievable."
The families of Coast Guard and VOA employees lived on Rhodes, and became friends with the islanders.
The father of Denise Clemens served as an engineer on the Courier. She remembers growing up on the island and getting a lot of attention from a young Greek man.
"I had a boy who was crazy about me and that was because of those VOA broadcasts because he wanted a ticket to America. And he decided I was his ticket. And so every time I would walk anywhere, he'd be riding his bicycle around and around singing, ‘You Are My Destiny,' by Paul Anka, at the top of his lungs. He might not know any other English, but he knew those words."
That boy never did marry Denise Clemens.
For their part, the U.S. Coast Guardsmen and their families consider themselves winners many times over. Many of them truly enjoy the Coast Guard Academy exhibit about the Courier. As one former officer said of the show: "It almost makes you cry. We made lifelong friends and comrades, and we helped win the Cold War without firing a shot. Not bad. Not bad at all."
This report was based on a story from VOA reporter Adam Phillips.