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The Cold War Weirdness of Radio Swan

Before the Internet came along to distract me, I often sat up late at night with my Sony ICF-7600W shortwave radio, trying to pick up weird broadcasts from around the world.icfsw7600

I listened to various world services, whacko religious preachers consumed with the impending Apocalypse, propaganda broadcasts (the English language stuff that came out of the old USSR was precious), numbers stations and whatever other electromagnetic strangeness I could find.

The Cold War was a great time for clandestine, shadowy radio stations. Hackaday takes a look at Radio Swan which broadcast from an island off Honduras.

Shortwave radio is boring, right? Maybe not. You never know what intrigue and excitement you might intercept. We recently covered secret number stations, and while no one knows for sure exactly what their purpose is, it is almost surely involving cloaks and daggers. However, there’s been some more obvious espionage radio, like Radio Swan.

The swan didn’t refer to the animal, but rather an island just off of Honduras that, until 1972, was disputed between Honduras and the United States. The island got its name–reportedly–because it was used as a base for a pirate named Swan in the 17th century. This island also had a long history of use by the United States government. The Department of Agriculture used it to quarantine imported beef and a variety of government departments had weather stations there.

You might wonder why the United States claimed a tiny island so far away from its shores. It turns out, it was all about guano. The Guano Islands Act of 1856 allowed the president to designate otherwise unclaimed territory as part of the United States for the purpose of collecting guano which, in addition to being bird excrement, is also important because it contains phosphates used in fertilizer and gunpowder. (Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.)

However, the most famous occupant of Swan Island was Radio Swan which broadcast on the AM radio band and shortwave. The station was owned by the Gibraltar Steamship Company with offices on Fifth Avenue in New York. Oddly, though, the company didn’t actually have any steamships. What it did have was some radio transmitters that had been used by Radio Free Europe and brought to the island by the United States Navy. Did I mention that the Gibraltar Steamship Company was actually a front for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)?

Read on! And once you’re done, here’s a remembrance from Bruce:

By the time I was about 50, I met a fellow through work that had also visited Swan Island. He was a radio operator during his career in the navy so we talked about radio things. I mentioned the Radio Swan article to him and he told me more.

George said during that timeframe, his job was on a boat that delivered airplane fuel to a number of Caribbean islands and heard stories about Swan Island. The odd thing he said was the boat was not marked as US Navy and the crew did not wear uniforms. He didn’t explain why that was.

During the Bay of Pigs invasion, he was close enough to see the shore. Just after the invasion, his boat went to Swan Island to protect it from any kind of Cuban retaliation. George said something that conflicts with fact here. He said the boat was the USS Observer MSO467. The MSO467 is actually the USS Reaper. The USS Observer shows up as MSO461. Either boat is a mine sweeper that could get close to shore if needed and he said there were only about 50 men aboard. His boat was there for only about a week.

George seemed to know that the Radio Swan transmitter came to the island from Radio Free Europe.

I don’t know if you read Tom Kneitel’s article, but he mentioned that CIA wore an expensive watch and he made sure he was wearing one on his trip to R. Swan. Locals asked him if he was CIA. He connected the watch to their interest.

There seems to be an ongoing tie between the type of watch you wear and working in intelligence. George wears an expensive watch and has told me other stories that indicated he was more than just a radio operator.

Cool, huh? Read even more here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38296 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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