Oct 7

The Attack on the USNS Card

Wednesday, October 7, 2015 4:00 AM


USNS Card 1968

The USNS Card (T-AKV-40) in Saigon, 1968. Among the cargo being offloaded are housing trailers, several A-6 “Texan” training aircraft, and what appears to be an FJ-3 “Fury” jet fighter, probably bound for the South Vietnamese air force as military aid. USNI Archive.

In the early morning hours of May 2nd, 1964, Captain Borge Langeland of the USNS Card (T-AKV-40) was supervising the loading of old helicopters aboard the converted auxiliary aircraft carrier for their return to the United States from the Port of Saigon. The Card had just unloaded her cargo of helicopters and fighter-bombers from Manila in the Philippines, and was now getting ready to sail again for the United States. It was all routine work.

Capt. Langeland, a Norwegian by birth, was undoubtedly happy with routine. He had seen more than his share action as 2nd mate aboard the Norwegian ship Grenanger during World War II. The Grenanger was sunk in 1943 by the U-120, and he had been rescued by the US Coast Guard after spending a week stranded in a lifeboat. Adopting the United States as his new home, he had joined the Maritime Service shortly after the war’s end.

But now his service saw him involved in the early stages of a new war in Vietnam. Before the military buildup and escalation began in earnest, cargo destined for the country was moved rather routinely out of ports in the continental United States. Most was loaded aboard ships, which would then steam for Saigon Port, the only port with piers of deep enough drafts to accommodate large oceangoing vessels like the Card.

A1-G "Skyraider" aircraft being unloaded from the USNS Core (T-AKS-41) in 1965. The Core was docked at the same berth at which the Card was sunk in 1964. U.S. Navy photo.

A1-G “Skyraider” aircraft being unloaded from the USNS Core (T-AKS-41) in 1965. The Core was docked at the same berth at which the Card was sunk in 1964. U.S. Navy photo.

The Card had been launched in 1942 as a Bogue-class escort carrier (CVE-11). She was named after the Card Sound, part of the Biscayne Bay near Miami, Florida. Her service took her to the Atlantic, where she was sent on several hunter-killer cruises to seek out and destroy German U-Boats. In that respect, the ship and her crew were good. Over three cruises her airmen sank nine U-Boats.

She was decommissioned after war in 1946, and laid in reserve until 1958, when she was reactivated for the Military Sea Transportation Service as an aircraft transport (T-CVU-11, and later T-AKV-40), the predecessor of today’s Military Sealift Command. Ships like the Card were owned by the Navy (hence the USNS designation) but staffed by civilian crews, which is how Merchant Mariners like Capt. Langeland came to be in the Port of Saigon that fateful morning.

The Port of Saigon itself was a civilian port, but under control of the Republic of Vietnam’s governmental port authority. The actual loading and unloading of the cargo itself was done by civilian Vietnamese stevedores. One of these stevedores, Lam Son Nao, had other motives in mind when he learned on April 30th, 1964 that the Card would be arriving.

“I was educated by the revolution, given a mission by my superiors and protected by the city inhabitants. My job when I was a docker was to gather information on all the American areas, on all their boats and all their military storage facilities,” Lao would remember years later.

“When I found out that the USS Card was coming up the river – this was a ship which was carrying all kinds of airplanes to the country in order, to kill the Vietnamese – people I got extremely mad. But I was able to turn my anger into action when I was given the job of trying to blow the ship up in order to give support to the political struggles of the city population.”

Nao was no stranger to commando tactics; he had signed up to be a commando with the Northern Army in 1963 at a young age. On December 9, 1963, he unsuccessfully tried to attack the USNS Core (T-AKV-41) The mine failed to explode, and the Core sailed without difficulty.

For his mission against the Card, Nao devised two mines, one with 80 kilos of TNT, and one with 8 kilos of C-4 explosives. He and another operative carried the mine across the Saigon River at Thủ Thiêm at the other side of the dockyard from where the Card was berthed, but was stopped by local port police. Security had been stepped-up in preparation for the May Day Holiday, but had been relaxed after the day passed without incident.

Bribing the police officers and telling them they intended to steal from a shipment of radios from another docked ship, they were free to continue on their mission.

As a worker in the port, he and his partner attracted little attention when they sipped into its sewer system, as, he remember later, others likely thought they were performing maintenance. They crawled with the mine through the narrow sewer system across the entire dockyard, and Nao swam out to the Card to inspect the situation. Undetected, Nao swam back, retrieved the mines, and set them in two places on the Card’s hull. He set them to go off around 03:00.

At 03:00 — not fifteen minutes after Lao had returned home — the mines detonated. “The explosion hammered through the ship, jarring engine room attendants,” Capt. Langeland recalled. “The ship began to take on water immediately, forcing several crewman to hurriedly evacuate their quarters. The crew immediately closed off the lower compartments.” 2nd Mate Raymond Arbon was blown off his feet, but was otherwise uninjured. Miraculously, no one was killed. Pieces of the ship’s steel railing and planks from the pier were blown across the wharf. The superstructure was bent in by the blast, and a huge hole had been blown in her side below the waterline, and some of her cargo was destroyed. The 14,760-ton carrier dropped stern-first into the 48-foot harbor bottom.

Card 1965

The refit USNS Card in February 1965. She is seen loading cargo into her enlarged cargo elevator.

Salvage operations began almost immediately. In spite of 100 percent humidity and 120° temperatures, crews worked around-the-clock to repair the ship and raise it from the river bottom. She was raised on May 19th and towed by the USS Reclaimer (ARS-42) and the USS Tawakoni (ATF-114) to Subic Bay in the Philippines. She was repaired and refitted in Yokosuka, Japan, and fit with a larger forward elevator hatch to permit her to stow bulky cargo such as housing trailers on her hangar deck. The Card returned to service on December 11th, 1964, and continued to serve as an transport for the Maritime Service until 1970. She was broken up in 1971.

After the attack, security at the Port of Saigon were stepped up immediately, with new countermeasures put in place. The attack has served as model for training in port security ever since. The spectre of the attack on the Card would rear its head again in October, 2000, when seventeen sailors lost their lives when the USS Cole (DDG-67) was attacked by al-Qæda suicide bombers while in port at Aden, Yemen.

For his part, Lam Son Lao continued to execute commando missions until 1967, when he was caught and imprisoned until his release in 1973.

Captain Langeland continued as master of the Card, and retired after many years in the Maritime Service. He passed away in New Orleans in 2010.