Swan Island radio station


Swan Island is located just off Honduras and 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. Swan Island also had a long history of use by the United States government.

Big Swan Island – Little Swan Island can be seen at the bottom of the picture.

One of the most important uses was the collection of guano. The Guano Islands Act of 1856 allowed the United States 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.

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 an office in Miami, Florida. 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. The Gibraltar Steamship Company was actually a front for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who in May 1960 started Radio Swan to broadcast Spanish-language propaganda into Cuba, which had recently been taken over by Fidel Castro’s revolution. These were created and broadcast by various Cuban dissident groups in Miami.

A QSL card from Radio Swan/Radio Americas showing the station’s location near Cuba.


However, infighting between these groups as well as misleading information lead to Radio Swan announcing in May 1961 that it would no longer carry political broadcasts and switched to reporting news, which was under the direct control of the CIA. This news carried coded messages, presumably aimed for Cuban dissidents who had fled Cuba after Castro took power. In April 1961 the station gave a coded message stating that the Bay of Pigs operation had commenced – an attempt by Cuban dissidents and US special forces to overthrow Castro, and that all Cubans should join in and make the invasion a success.. The message was:

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.

As history showed, the Bay of Pigs operation was a fiasco, with the United States involvement being exposed. Radio Swan changed its name to Radio Americas, and continued broadcasting until mid-1968.

The following webpages were used for the creation of this blog post:

https://www.qsl.net/sidxa/history2.html

https://californiahistoricalradio.com/CHRSPix/BartSwanIslandSlides.pdf

Plymouth, Montserrat – the Pompeii of the Caribbean


Everyone is familiar with Pompeii, the Roman city that was entombed after nearby Mt Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. What is less well-known is that a similar experience happened to a modern-day city just over 20 years ago.

Montserrat is one of the Lesser Antilles Islands, an archipelago in the Caribbean Sea, north of South America. Many of the islands are volcanic, and their location roughly traces the edge of the Caribbean Plate along its boundary with the tectonic plates (North and South American Plates) beneath the Atlantic Ocean. The Caribbean Plate is overriding the North American Plate. As the plates collide, the mantle of the overriding Caribbean Plate melts, generating magma that rises to the surface and feeds many volcanoes in the region.

Map of the Caribbean showing the location of Montserrat.

Aside from a seventeenth-century eruption, Soufrière Hills, a volcano on the southern part of the island, had been mostly quiet during historical times.

All this changed in mid-1995. On the 18th of July 1995, an eruption of ash prompted an evacuation of almost 5,000 residents. The volcano grew a new dome on November 1995. By January 1996, the old dome was rapidly buried and between March and September of the same year, the first pyroclastic flows poured down the Tar river valley. This created a new delta and in April the south of the island was evacuated. The capital city of Plymouth was also abandoned, with government officials and many residents relocating to Brades, on the northwestern tip of the island in 1998, to this day, Brades is the “de facto” capital of the island, although a new capital is being built in the Little Bay area. Legislatively, Brades was never officially made the capital, so Plymouth is still the “de jure” capital, and the only capital city in the world that is officially abandoned.

Map of Montserrat, showing the site of the abandoned capital of Plymouth, the “de facto” capital of Brades and the exclusion zone around the southern part of the island.

By 26 December 1997, when the most extreme explosive event occurred, approximately 90% of the resident population of over 10,000 had had to relocate at least once and over two-thirds had left the island. Virtually all the island’s important infrastructure was destroyed or put out of use. The private sector collapsed and the economy became largely dependent, directly or indirectly, on British aid funding public sector and related activities.

An area around the volcano, containing about two-thirds of the island, is vulnerable to volcanic hazard and is a no-go area. Around 40% of the island is unaffected by volcanic activity but these areas may be prone to ash falls and volcanic gases during any volcanic activity and if the wind is blowing from south to north. These sometimes cause cancellation of flights to and from the island.

Sign showing the beginning of the exclusion zone on the southern part of Montserrat.

In addition there are three areas around the coastline which are designated Maritime Exclusion Zones where no shipping should enter. The largest of these extends for 4km on the eastern side of the island and there are two on the western side of the island. The most southerly of the two extends for 2km off shore and the third for a half kilometre off shore.

An island-wide siren system is installed to warn of volcanic activity. The sirens are tested daily at 12:00 midday. Radio Montserrat (ZJB) also provides regular scientific updates and advice to listeners.

Drone footage showing the abandoned city of Plymouth – the devastation caused by the multiple eruptions can clearly be seen.

The following sites were used for the creation of this blog post:

https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-1995-eruption-of-the-soufriere-hills-volcano-in-montserrat.html

https://www.caribbeanislands.com/montserrat/

Oisne Aisne Military Cemetery – “Plot E”


Plots A-D of the Oise Aisne American Cemetary hold the remains of American soldiers who died fighting in a small portion of Northern France during World War I. However set across the street unmarked and completely surrounded by impassible shrubbery is Plot E, a semi-secret fifth plot that contains the nearly forgotten bodies of a number of American soldiers who were executed for crimes committed during and after World War II.

Over 6,000 soldiers are buried in the first four plots of the Oise Aisne Cemetery, but just 94 bodies are currently buried in the shunned fifth plot. While the small patch of land is technically on the grounds of the greater cemetery, it is not easily distinguished as it sits across the street, hidden behind the tall hedges that surround it. The only way into the secret cemetery is through the superintendent’s office.

 

The soldiers eventually interred in Plot E were tried for rape, murder, and in one case, desertion (although the remains of the deserter, Eddie Slovik, the only American executed for desertion in WWII, were returned to the states in 1987). After being convicted in U.S. courts martial held in Europe, the men were dishonorably discharged and executed via hanging or firing squad. In many cases, the men who were buried in Plot E were initially buried close to the site of their execution. Those bodies were later exhumed and moved to Oise Aisne in 1949 when the plot of shame was established.

 

PLotE
The lone headstone in Plot E.

 

Plot E has been referred to as an anti-memorial. No US flag is permitted to fly over the plot and the graves themselves, small in-ground stones the size of index cards, have no names; they are only differentiated by numbers. Even underground they are set apart with each body buried in Plot E positioned with its back to the main cemetery. The site does not exist on maps of the cemetery, and is not mentioned on the cemetery website.

 

Louis-Till-84-Grave-73
Marker for Private Louis Till, who was hanged in Italy in July 1945 after murdering an Italian woman, raping two others and then assaulting a US navy sailor.

 

Plot E has been described by one cemetery employee as a “house of shame” and “the perfect anti-memorial,” especially as the original intent was that none of the individual remains were ever to be identifiable by name.

“The Fifth Field: The Story of the 96 American Soldiers Sentenced to Death and Executed in Europe and North Africa in World War II” by French L.Maclean (Schiffer Publishing, 2013) was the basis for this blog post.

Büsingen – A little piece of Germany in Switzerland


One of my favourite areas of geography are exclaves and enclaves. An enclave is any portion of a state that is entirely surrounded by the territory of one other state. An exclave is a portion of a state geographically separated from the main part by surrounding alien territory. Many enclaves are also exclaves.

One of the better-known examples of an enclave is Büsingen, which is a German enclave surrounded entirely by Switzerland, as shown on the following postcard:

d_bues

The narrowest gap between Büsingen and the rest of Germany in the south-eastern corner of the exclave. The distance between the border of Büsingen and the border of the rest of Germany is only approximately 700 yards. The total population is approximately 1,500.

Here is a summary of how day-to-day matters work in Büsingen;

1. Currency – most of the townspeople use Swiss Francs

2. Police – the police of the neighbouring canton of Schaffhausen are allowed to apprehend citizens in Büsingen, and transport them to Switzerland. German police officers traveling to Büsingen must use designated routes, and refrain from all official acts while they are in Switzerland.

3. Education – a school up to the 4th grade operates in the exclave. After then parents may choose either a Swiss school or a German school for their children

4. Postal and telecommunications services – Büsingen had both Swiss and German postal codes

5. Car licence plates – despite being part of the German Konstanz (KN) district, Büsingen has its own licenc plate code (BUS)

6. Football – the local team, FC Büsingen, competes in the Swiss League.