Swans, Pigs, And The CIA: An Unlikely Radio Story

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)?

swanisland
Swan Island (From Google Earth (c) 2015 DigitalGlobe, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Google)

In 1960 the United States and Cuba were not very happy with each other. Castro’s revolution had booted United States companies off of the island nation (while keeping their assets) and was friendly with the Soviet Union. Not that Castro didn’t have his reasons (see the Kahn Academy video below if you want some context). The CIA decided to use Radio Swan (which is just south of the western tip of Cuba) to broadcast propaganda into Cuba, although its 50,000 watt AM transmitter and 7,500 watt shortwave transmitter also carried commercials.

In 1961, however, the station announced it would no longer carry political broadcasts and switched to an all news format on multiple frequencies. The news, however, carried coded messages, presumably to Cuban dissidents.

Then on April 17, 1961 the United States attempted to start a revolt against Castro using a CIA-sponsored military group known as Brigade 2506. Radio Swan played a part. Depending on who you believe, Radio Swan either broadcast the coded order to start the uprising or it sent a mystery message to confuse the Cuban government into thinking there was more to worry about from internal dissidents. What isn’t in question is the message was something you wouldn’t normally hear on the radio:

Alert! Alert! Look well at the rainbow. The fish will rise soon. Chico is in the house. Visit him. The sky is blue. The fish will not take much time to rise. The fish is red.

After that, Radio Swan issued explicit instructions for Cubans to join the revolt. None of them did, the invasion was a disaster, and the United States’ involvement became clear.

After the fiasco, The Gibraltar Steamship Company transformed into Vanguard Service Corporation and Radio Swan eventually became Radio Americas. It ceased transmitting in 1968.

So next time you think listening to shortwave radio is boring, just remember you never know what you might hear. A ship in distress, an intrepid operator in Antarctica, or a spy starting a revolution. You never know.

The video below is a good discussion of the Bay of Pigs and the context that surrounded it. The Bay of Pigs directly pushed Castro to be more mistrustful of the United States and cemented his relationship with the Soviets. This would eventually lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which could have easily escalated into a global nuclear war (especially when Charles Maultsby accidentally flew a U-2 spy plane into Soviet airspace; but that’s another story).

26 thoughts on “Swans, Pigs, And The CIA: An Unlikely Radio Story

        1. Although gunpowder has nothing to do with phosphates guano happens also to contain a reasonable amount of nitrates (saltpeter) which IS a key ingredient of gunpowder (and fertilizer).

  1. >is also important because it contains phosphates used in fertilizer and gunpowder. (Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.)

    Nitrates. But really even the nitrogen is bound up differently until bacteria turn it into nitrates.

  2. Ain’t but two things happening on shortwave nowadays: Jack and S#17.
    You need digital modes to catch the fun I think. A simple radio and a notebook just won’t get you much anymore.
    I remember bands of soviet jamming as a kid. Distinctive noise, that.

  3. Don’t poo-poo guano, before Fritz Haber the only way to get nitrates for explosives/gun powder was from guano, as a matter fact a British estimate of guano stores in Germany prior to WWI showed Germany had only enough nitrates to produce ammunition for six months, with Haber WWI would have been over by 1915.

      1. Thanks, Fritz!

        OTOH all those nitrates went into fertiliser that’s probably the reason most of the world’s people are alive today. So he probably saved many more than he killed. Still, might be a better world where you have to limit your wars to as fast as birds can shit.

    1. Before the Haber process there was the arc process and the cyanamide process but what killed guano and urine collection IIRC was being able to dig nitrates out of the ground in Chile.

      Fritz Haber was a key figured in persuading the German high command to use chemical weapons and their development. His wife Clara, a chemist in her own right, was a pacifist and killed herself apparently in protest.

  4. Al Williams
    After the fiasco, The Gibraltar Steamship Company transformed into Vanguard Service Corporation and Radio Swan eventually became Radio Americas. It ceased transmitting in 1968.

    Nope, technically it just moved to South Vietnam and restarted there. GOOD MORNING VIETNAM! http://tinyurl.com/mnpw27d

    What did Reverend Herbert Armstrong do for this operation? I thought he was a Protestant Minister?

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