Launched 29 March 1918 at Staten Island Shipbuilding Company, New York, Cardinal was sponsored by Miss I. Nelson. She was commissioned on 23 August, with Lieutenant(JG) N. Drake in command.
The Lapwing class minesweeper began her service in the 3rd Naval District, sweeping the waters off New York. She also served as a temporary lightship before sailing on 3 August 1919 to join the Pacific Fleet. For the next three years, she sailed out of San Diego and San Pedro, hauling supplies and passengers. Mixed in with these duties, she towed targets, lighters, and disabled ships.
Cardinal participated in the salvage of U.S.S. R-6 (SS-83), which sank on 26 September 1921 at San Pedro as the result of a malfunctioning torpedo tube.
From 8 February to 16 April 1923 she was in the Canal Zone, providing tug services during fleet exercises. Returning to San Pedro to prepare for duty in Alaska, she sailed for Port Angeles, Washington on 23 May, stopping there from 30 May to 1 June.
While bound for Dutch Harbor, Cardinal grounded on a reef off the east coast of Chirikof Island and immediately began taking on water. Some of her crew were landed on the island, where they were later picked up by a Coast and Geodetic Survey ship. The rest were rescued from Cardinal on 7 June by Cuyama, which also lifted off any salvageable material and stores.