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Radio Swan: Seabees Part of Cold War History

By Kenneth Van Belkum, Commander, CEC (retired), OIC of Det. Tango

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Editor’s note: In 1959 the Cuban revolution ended and Fidel Castro came to power. The Cold War with the Soviet Union was heating up, and in April of 1961 the Bay of Pigs incursion in Cuba took place. This story is a first-hand account of what took place on a nearby small Caribbean island during the time leading up to that event.

In late March 1960, Construction Battalion Atlantic (CBLANT) received an urgent message tasking them to construct a radio station on Swan Island in the Caribbean (now Isla Cisne, Honduras). This required construction of two 220 ft. radio transmission towers and a landing strip, as well as living and administrative facilities. There was very little site information provided about this project – no aerial photos, and only an old Atlas map. Also, there was concern this may turn out to be a military operation.

At that time, Detachment (Det.) Tango of NMCB Six with 130 Seabees was at Naval Construction Battalion Center (NCBC) Davisville, R.I. on home deployment and preparing to deploy to Bermuda. CBLANT ordered Det. Tango to do this project first before going to Bermuda. Using the Navy’s Advance Base Functional Component System (ABFCS), Det. Tango was able to design, make material take offs (with all furniture, and furnishing including kitchen equipment, table ware, bedding etc.) and order all materials within eight hours. Most of the materials were Quonset Hut kits, part of the Navy’s ABFCS system, and were stored in the warehouses on Davisville. Long lines of trucks were at the gate within 10 hours delivering material that Det. Tango ordered that was not part of the ABFCS. Two LSTs arrived within four days. Each was loaded with construction materials and equipment, and set sail with the detachment aboard.

The first LST arrived at Swan Island about a week later. As OIC, I made a Jeep reconnaissance on the one narrow path through the heavy jungle to determine the size of the island and select a site to construct the Quonset Huts. (An aerial photo of the island would have been extremely helpful at this time.) During the two days and nights it took to unload the first LST, I selected locations to clear for construction of the transmission towers and the location for the landing strip. Priority was given to the radio transmission towers. When the towers were nearly erected, the CIA representative requested my Seabees to pull a black trailer from the second LST to the site. The very next day, May 17, 1960, Radio Swan was on the air. Many locations in the Caribbean begin receiving strong radio signals immediately thereafter, so the CIA declared Radio Swan Island a complete success.

The Quonset Hut camp and the air strip still needed to be completed, however. The Seabees completed the project a few weeks later, back loaded construction equipment on the LST, and then headed for Bermuda.

The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke, on July 7, 1960, sent a letter of commendation that described this project as “great importance to United States” and the “timely completion reflects great credit upon the United States Navy.”

A year later when the Bay of Pigs invasion news hit the papers, the reason for Radio Swan became evident. Seabee Det Tango executed in short notice a pivotal Bay of Pigs project that became part of the Cold War and part of history.

Virtual Earth Apps show evidence of this project using N17.405, W 83.939.


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