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Heard it on the radio ?


I Heard It on the Radio:
Yuri Gagarin, the Bay of Pigs, and the Berlin Wall

submitted by Stew Gillmor, 2/16/18

Author (left) and several Soviet friends and two dogs on a rare calm day in the fall (May 1961) at Mirnyy, Antarctica.

Decades ago, when I was living with a Soviet Expedition in Antarctica, I heard interesting things over the radio. My Russian language skill was still poor by April 1961 after only 5 months with the expedition. We had terrific wind storms at our base in East Antarctica. This Antarctic coast has the highest winds in the world. Blowing snow causes radio static and signals from the outside world were often virtually unreadable. My work was precisely measuring high-frequency cosmic radio noise from stars, trying to determine the effects of high energy solar bursts upon the earth’s outer atmosphere in the polar zones. I had excellent radio receivers in my instrument racks, much better than the Soviet equipment. In particular I had a beautiful Collins 51J4 receiver on loan to me from Stanford University. In my spare time I would use this receiver to listen to Jazz and News from the Voice of America or to baseball games broadcast over U.S. Armed Forces Radio. But during the worst wind storms, I could hear very little.

On April 12, 1961 we were in one of those storms. I thought I heard over Radio Moscow that the Soviets had somebody, maybe named Yuri something, in a rocket going around the earth. I told my Soviet buddies. They replied that they had heard nothing and that it was just propaganda. Well, a day or so later when the storm had lessened, my buddies said that indeed they had a guy, Yuri Gagarin, who had orbited the earth in a rocket named Vostok-1.

Just several days after this, I heard that the U.S. was aiding an attack on Cuba, in an area called the Bay of Pigs. This attack, on April 17, 1961, continued for several days. I told my Soviet buddies and they said that they had heard it also, but that it was probably just Soviet propaganda, since the U.S. would never use old WWII B-26 bombers. I told them that I had heard it also on the BBC radio and that we indeed did use some WWII bombers.

A piece of the Berlin Wall given to the author as a gift from his friend Peter Gloede; photo by Rogene Gillmor

In the middle of winter (July), my closest friend on the expedition, East German physicist Peter Gloede, told me that he had received a radio message from a college buddy who was then an engineer for the East German Forest Service. The radio message said that his friend was going to move to the city and leave working in wood. A week or so later, Peter received another message from his friend saying that he was now moving into concrete. Peter correctly guessed that his friend was being sent to work on the beginning of the Berlin Wall, which we learned over the radio had begun on August 13th and would continue for a number of years of construction. In 1966, my wife and I visited Peter and his family in East Germany and saw the Berlin Wall from the East Berlin side, but Peter was not allowed to leave Eastern Europe until after the destruction of the Berlin Wall, beginning in summer 1990. For many years we exchanged letters and Christmas cards. Peter and his wife later visited us in Higganum and Peter gave a talk for the Physics Department at Wesleyan. Several years after this his daughter spent a year as an economics student at Wesleyan. When Peter visited us he brought with us a gift of a piece of the Berlin Wall.

These three events were significant in the history of the “Cold War”. The flight of Yuri Gagarin was taken as a major step for the Soviets in the “Space Race”. The Bay of Pigs failed coup preceded the Cuban Missile crisis a year later. The construction of the Berlin Wall increased East-West tension for thirty years. The destruction of the Berlin Wall signaled the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Interesting things came from listening to the radio in the Antarctic!

One Response to Heard it on the radio ?

  1. Edward Munster

    February 16, 2018 at 10:48 pm

    Stew … thank you for sharing these remembrances. Particularly interesting is that it seemed the Soviet scientists with whom you were working were quick to dismiss the reports you were hearing on the radio as Soviet propaganda.