Oct 7

The Attack on the USNS Card

Wednesday, October 7, 2015 4:00 AM


USNS Card 1968

The USNS Card 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 fighter, probably bound for the South Vietnamese air force as military aid. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

In the early morning hours of 2 May 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, the Philippines, and was now preparing to return to the United States. It was all routine work.

Captain Langeland, a Norwegian by birth, was undoubtedly happy with routine. He had seen more than his share action as second mate on board 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 U.S. 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, the only port with piers of deep enough drafts to accommodate large oceangoing vessels such as 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 Skyraiders being unloaded from the USNS Core in 1965. The Core was docked at the same berth at which the Card was sunk in 1964. (U.S. Navy)

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 , 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). Ships such as the Card were owned by the Navy (hence the USNS designation) but staffed by civilian crews, which is how merchant mariners such as Langeland came to be at Saigon that fateful morning.

The Port of Saigon was a civilian port, but under control of the Republic of Vietnam’s governmental port authority. The loading and unloading of the cargo was done by civilian Vietnamese stevedores. One of these stevedores, Lam Son Nao, had other motives in mind when he learned on 30 April 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 had attempted to blow up the USNS Core (T-AKV-41), but the mine failed to explode.

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 transported the mines across the Saigon River at Thủ Thiêm at the other side of the dockyard from where the Card was berthed, but they were stopped by local port police. Bribing the officers and telling them they intended to steal a shipment of radios from another docked ship, they were allowed to proceed.

As workers in the port, Nao 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 mines through the narrow sewer system across the dockyard, and Nao swam out to inspect the Card. 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 0300.

At that hour—not 15 minutes after Lao had returned home—the mines detonated. “The explosion hammered through the ship, jarring engine room attendants,” 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.” Second 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, 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. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Salvage operations began almost immediately. Despite 100 percent humidity and 120 degree temperatures, crews worked around-the-clock. She was raised on 19 May and towed to Subic Bay in the Philippines and then repaired Yokosuka, Japan. Changes included 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 11 December 1964 and continued to serve as a 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. 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 17 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.

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