Lucile Petry (Leone) and Lt. Geneviève de Galard-Terraube. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Lt. Geneviève de Galard, 29, boarded a Douglas C-47 transport plane at 4:15 a.m. on March 28, 1954, and flew to the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. The French Air Force flight nurse had volunteered to help evacuate the wounded from the base, which was under siege from Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese troops. The visibility was abysmal, and the pilot aborted two landings.
On the third try, the landing gear touched down, but the aircraft skidded off the runway, knocking over a picket of barbed wire. A mechanic ran to inspect the plane and discovered the oil reservoir was pierced and leaking. Galard’s flight home was canceled, leaving her as one of just a handful of women stranded with 11,000 French military personnel facing a fearsome military siege.
The siege represented a significant turning point in the war as Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh tried to rid the country of French colonial rule. The Viet Minh used artillery barrages to set a trap, and Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap positioned his 40,000 troops to surround the small mountain outpost on the Vietnamese border near Laos. The elimination of the French airfield was the beginning of the end of the French occupation of Vietnam during the First Indochina War.
With no aircraft taking off or landing, de Galard’s role as a flight nurse shifted to ground medic. To her patients, she was known as Geneviève, but over the course of the pivotal battle that ended in the fall of the base on May 7, 1954, the French heroine earned a nickname: “l’ange de Dien Bien Phu” or “The Angel of Dien Bien Phu.”
She wasn’t the only Angel of Dien Bien Phu during the 57-day saga. There were also seven Vietnamese and 11 Algerian women on the base who worked as sanctioned prostitutes, attached to Bordelles Militaires de Campagne, which were military field brothels. These units, which recruited women from French colonial nations, traveled with French Army units throughout the first half of the 20th century. As the siege began, the women were given a crash course in medical training.
“Often the women were seen in the water of a trench up to their hips, waiting to help the wounded in a strongpoint,” embedded journalist Bernard Fall wrote in his book Hell in a Very Small Place, according to War Is Boring. “In one case, a shell-shocked soldier had developed a fixation that he was a small child and had to be fed by his mother; one of the Vietnamese prostitutes came to this dugout every day to feed him.”
Still, de Galard’s tasks were as tiresome as they were daunting. She worked under Dr. Paul Grauwin, the chief French medical officer. “Every casualty in my charge was confined, crowded in this strange underground hospital,” she wrote in her autobiography The Angel of Dien Bien Phu: The Lone French Woman at the Decisive Battle for Vietnam. “At the center of the unit ran a long, narrow hallway opening on the right to the shelters for the wounded, where three metallic beds were superimposed on three levels. On the left a small corridor led to the operating room opposite the recovery room. At its end was the x-ray room. This hall started at the rampart that opened to the triage room, the kitchen, the sterilizing room, the refectory, and the dorm.”
In unsanitary and primitive conditions, the space relied on parachute fabric strung up between the beds to prevent harmful bacteria or viruses from contaminating the wounds of de Galard’s patients. “Yet despite all this, and the lack of equipment, the surgeons performed miracles every day,” she added.
The Dien Bien Phu garrison surrendered on May 7, 1954. Nearly 11,000 French troops were taken prisoner, many of whom would die in captivity. Thousands perished on long, forced marches to prison camps. The Vietnamese women from the French brothel who had served as nurses were arrested. Two months later, on July 27, 1954, the Viet Minh and French agreed to a cease-fire, with the country divided between North and South Vietnam, the configuration the US would spend nearly two decades fighting to maintain. In the eight-year war, the French suffered 75,000 deaths, more than the number of Americans who would be killed in the Vietnam War.
But even after the base had fallen, de Galard continued to treat her patients under makeshift parachute shelters. She wrote letters to former patients, improving the morale of those who had become prisoners of war. Seventeen days after her capture, she was set free.
“The ordeal of Dien Bien Phu behind her, Lt. Geneviève de Galard-Terraube flew into Hanoi and a heroine’s welcome tonight, wearing a dusty, sweat-stained uniform and a big smile,” read the Democrat and Chronicle on May 25, 1954. “The cherubic-faced, blue-eyed 29-year-old French air force nurse was finally freed by the Vietminh at the battered fortress where she had toiled among the French Union wounded for 74 days — first under the rising fire of the siege guns that led to the rebel victory on May 7, then under Red captivity.”
De Galard received the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest award, and was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1956, de Galard married Jean de Heaulme, a French officer who parachuted into the backcountry beyond Dien Bien Phu to rally the Montagnard people in counterattacks against Viet Minh troops. The couple first met the day of her liberation.
“Looking back I admit that having married a military officer allowed me to share everything with him, my past in the air force and his vocation as a Marine officer and paratrooper,” de Galard wrote in her book. “For him this fidelity to the past, which meant so much to me, was natural.”
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.