How Vietnamese Commandos Sank A U.S. 'Aircraft Carrier'

Robert Beckhusen

Key Point: The North Vietnamese government even commemorated the event by portraying the operation on a 1964 postage stamp.

It was shortly after midnight when two Viet Cong commandos emerged from a sewer tunnel that emptied into Saigon Port, each man carrying nearly 90 pounds of high explosives and the components needed to make two time bombs.

Their target was the largest American ship in port, USNS Card. An escort carrier that saw distinguished service as a submarine-hunter in the North Atlantic during World War II, during the early morning hours of May 2, 1964, Card was part of U.S. Military Sealift Command.

The ship supported an escalating military commitment of the South Vietnamese government that occurred well before the Tonkin Gulf Incident. Since 1961, Card had transported both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to the beleaguered nation as well as the U.S. pilots and support crews need to operate them.

The commandos swam toward Card, where they spent about an hour in the water attaching the charges just above the waterline near the bilge and the engine compartment on the ship’s starboard side. They set the timers and quickly swam away.

The charges exploded. Five civilian crewmen on board Card died, the explosion tore a huge hole in the engine-room compartment and a proud ship that had survived German U-boat attacks was on her way to the bottom — the last aircraft carrier in U.S. military history to date sunk by enemy action.

The sinking of the Card was stunning victory for the Viet Cong, yet little remembered today. It illustrated how vulnerable naval vessels can be even when faced with a low-tech enemy … and how difficult maintaining port security can be in a war with no real front.

But it also demonstrated how resilient American naval forces are. In 17 days, salvage crews raised Card out of nearly 50 feet of water, and six months later the ship returned to service for another six years.

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