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An Angel in Dien Bien Phu’s Hell

By Geneviève de Galard
11/14/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

On a mission to evacuate wounded, a young flight nurse finds herself trapped, as the Viet Minh close in to capture the last French outpost.

Born into a storied family, Geneviève de Galard was shaped by its patriotic spirit and even as a youth felt a need to prove herself worthy of its heritage. Only 14 at the outset of World War II, she faced the horrors and hardships of Nazi occupation in her most formative years. Completing her education after liberation, she eschewed a life of privilege to pursue a path of giving through nursing. Fueled by patriotism and intrigued by the raging colonial conflict in Indochina, she became a flight nurse for the French airforce and made her first tour to Vietnam in April 1953 as the war against the Viet Minh grew more desperate. Based in Hanoi, in January 1954 she began working one vacuation flights from Dien Bien Phu, the isolated outpost that quickly became the focus of the war as some 11,000 French soldiers came under siege. By March 28, de Galard had flown dozens of evacuation missions to and from the outpost and had no reason to fear the flight that day would be her last—and that over the next 56 days, as the only woman at the base, she would become a worldwide icon of hope and compassion.

On March 28 at 4:15 a.m., I was off again to Dien Bien Phu, where we arrived an hour and a half later. Visibility was very poor. Twice the pilot tried to find the landing field, and twice he took off again on discovering that he was not on the right axis. On the third attempt we landed between two small, dim lights that pointed to the start of the landing strip. But we drove slightly off the track and knocked over a picket of barbed wire. The pilot stopped the aircraft abreast of the ambulances, and the wounded were settled on board. The French artillery guaranteed us some protection.

The mechanic went out to inspect the plane to verify that the barbed wire had not damaged the cabin and returned distressed; the oil reservoir had been pierced and was leaking. As to the oil pressure, it showed zero. There was no way we were going to be leaving.

This was terrible news to our patients, some of whom had come to the field twice, even three times, in hopes of being evacuated. This time they had believed their suffering would end.

We disembarked the men who were only lightly wounded and brought them and the crew members under shelter. The more severely wounded still needed to be unloaded, but the stretcher bearers were still waiting on the field for the ambulances. Luckily the mortar fire was scarce and distant. The ambulances finally arrived and brought all the casualties back to the main infirmary of GM 9 (Mobile Group 9), where the evacuees were gathered.

The aircraft was moved to the edge of the landing strip so that it wouldn’t interfere with other landings. Hanoi would have to send a new part to repair the plane, but the major in charge of flights into Dien Bien Phu forbade any daytime repairs, finding the risks too high. I gathered my equipment, medical kit, oxygen pump and blankets and went to the medical unit, where I found Dr. Paul Grauwin and his team, who questioned me eagerly for news from Hanoi. They never thought we would be back so soon; only the day before they had received a letter from me.

It was still night, and the fog protected the plane and rendered it invisible to the Viet Minh. Alas, it cleared around 10 a.m., and their artillery went into action. At 10:30, on the fourth round, our aircraft was hit. With emotion we watched the flames and the smoke that enveloped it.

The day was calm, no one needed me at the unit, and I took the opportunity to visit a few friends. My eyes were still full of hallucinating visions of the nighttime evacuations I had been undertaking for the last 10 days. I had difficulty getting an idea of the real state of affairs in Dien Bien Phu. I imagined it to be catastrophic. In fact, during those last days of March, one could still walk about the camp freely, though once in a while I heard a mortar explosion, so I scrupulously wore the helmet I was given.

My steps led me toward the 1st Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion, where I found the same atmosphere as before March 13. The brother of a former flight nurse was attached to this group, and cordial relations had been established between the paratroopers and the flight nurses, especially with the very popular Loulou Martin. Under a smile and an unflappable calm, Loulou, wounded on January 12 and again on March 5, hid an exceptional courage. I gave them news of two wounded comrades who had come by our villa in Hanoi a few hours earlier.

They also wanted to know how another comrade was faring. He had been evacuated the day before after receiving severe wounds in an action to liberate the post named Huguette 6. Finding the battalion doctor overwhelmed with casualties, this lieutenant had walked toward the medical unit and, despite the injuries to his face and his chest, had managed, on the way, to help a Legionnaire who was having difficulty climbing aboard the tank that was to evacuate him. When he reached the unit, Dr. Grauwin discovered a large, gaping hole where his mouth had been. The skin of his chin and cheeks hung in shreds on his chest with fragments of teeth and bone. It was terrifying to see. Another surgeon, Dr. Jacques Gindrey, seeing him unable to breathe, performed a life-saving tracheotomy.

But his troubles were not over. When the pilot of the first of three Dakotas that landed that night gunned the engine because the enemy shells were getting closer to the aircraft, the flight nurse on board noticed that a casualty had been left behind in the ambulance and put him on board, to his great relief, since he could not call out and was seeing with anguish that the plane was about to leave without him. Once aboard he drew the flight nurse’s attention by showing her the tag around his neck, and then she recognized in this man, whose face was hidden behind an enormous bandage, a good friend from the Sahara. All the men in the 1st BEP (1st Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion) were happy to learn that the evacuation went well and that their comrade’s life was not in danger.

They handed me letters already written; some promised to have theirs ready later that evening. At the time I trusted that I would leave that night in the next Dakota landing to evacuate the injured.

The officers welcomed me very warmly. Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Langlais, who commanded the 2nd Airborne Group, invited me to lunch. That evening I dined with Lt. Col. Maurice Lemeunier, commander of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion, who succeeded Lt. Col. Jules Gaucher, killed in his shelter March 13. At headquarters Major Guerin introduced me to Colonel Christian de Castries, the commander of Dien Bien Phu.

Before me stood a man of medium size, rather thin and pale, with sharp features and an aquiline profile, “resembling a subject painted by el Greco,” as the author Jules Roy described him in his book The Battle of Dien Bien Phu. In truth Colonel de Castries did not want to command a defensive base, but General Henri Navarre had assured him that it would be on the offensive, and he had the courage to accept the command.

Colonel de Castries welcomed me very amicably and hoped that I could leave that evening with the wounded. I asked him if I could go over to command post Isabelle, where my cousin Louis de Chastenet had been since the desertion of the T’ai battalion from post Anne-Marie. I knew through my family that his mother was very worried. But the road between Isabelle and Central Command, considered too deadly, had been closed. Captain Yves Hervouët, who commanded the tanks at Dien Bien Phu, then charged Sergeant Ney to ask for news during the daily contact with Isabelle. The next day Ney reported: “Captain, Lieutenant Chastenet asked me to tell Geneviève that all is well and asked me to give her a kiss.”

“Well, go ahead!” said the captain.

“Needless to say I didn’t feel that brave,” Ney later sheepishly admitted to me with a smile because he was excusing himself for having “stolen” this kiss, “but taking my courage in my hands, I left the blockhouse to go find Geneviève.” The command to give me a kiss had evidently been added on his own.

That afternoon we went to pray on the grave of Captain Jean Dartigues’crew. A few hours after conveying 19 casualties to Hanoi on March 26, Dartigues had taken off again on a flight to drop paratroopers over Dien Bien Phu. His mission accomplished, his Dakota was hit by antiaircraft fire and crashed, killing seven people. That day the flight commander gave the order to stop all lower-altitude paratrooper drops to avoid further slaughter. This sad episode illustrates the daunting difficulties faced by the military air transports that flew in to the base two to three times a day.A lieutenant gave me the wedding rings and personal objects that had been recovered so that I could return them to the families of my lost comrades.

“A plane will be landing this evening around 9,” Major Guerin suddenly announced. Immediately I rushed over to the infirmary to see the wounded, and I begged Dr. Pierre Le Damany, who was in charge of evacuations, “We must absolutely first board those that we had to unload last night!”

“Unfortunately I can’t promise you that,” he answered. “First priority goes to the urgent cases.” I said goodbye to everyone and was taken to the landing field with the rest of the crew.

An ammunition depot near the parking area for the fighter planes had just been hit and enormous fireworks illuminated the sky. Our jeep flew by the depot at full speed just before a new explosion shot out flashes of light and sparks all around. The complete crew, sitting on the steps of the transit shelter, awaited the plane and, stretching their ears, listened for the sound of an engine. Enemy fire forced us to retreat inside the shelter. The wounded to be taken aboard were still at the infirmary and would arrive by ambulance as soon as the plane began its steep descent.

The weather was very bad. Nine o’clock came, nothing. Nine-thirty, still no plane. We took the path back to quarters, this time detouring the depot. I was taken to 1st BEP, and there I spent my first night at Dien Bien Phu, a very calm night, on a stretcher between two male air force nurses. At that time I didn’t have a feeling of being sealed in at Dien Bien Phu because each night one or two Dakotas were designated to go pick up the wounded in the entrenched camp.

After breakfast I walked over to headquarters to join up with Major Maurice Blanchet and the rest of the crew, who had spent the night among the commandos. Later, back at the surgery, I was teased over my failed departure: “It’s obvious you really don’t want to leave us!”

On that day I did not have to intervene as a nurse, but trying to make myself useful, I circulated throughout the central position, helmet on my head, and lowered myself into the trenches to distribute to the wounded the cigarettes, oranges, and concentrated milk sent by the Red Cross and Madame de Castries by parachute to Dien Bien Phu. I was not worried so much with the possibility of my return to Hanoi, but while the situation was getting worse and Viet Minh shells were falling on the landing field, the possibility of a landing was becoming more and more risky.

On the evening of March 29, we exchanged new goodbyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” said Sioni, the driver of the jeep, smiling, believing we would not be leaving. And the next day it was I, smiling also, who went to see him. “Who was right?” said Sioni, mischievously.

Once more I went to GM 9 to visit the wounded, who were impatiently waiting for news, and I tried to cheer them up. “It will be tonight,” I told them as I left. At this point there were 250 injured who need to be evacuated.

The plane’s arrival was announced for 12:30 that night. I was picked up and driven again to the field. It was dark as ink and pouring rain. We got stuck in the mud, sliding about and slipping into the ditch and barbed wire fences. Abandoning the jeep, we proceeded on foot. I found it impossible to believe that a plane could land under such conditions; it would, I thought, be suicide. The driver tried to appear optimistic, but I had no illusions.

The plane appeared, piloted by Major Martinet, who commanded Group Béarn (whose second in command, Major Blanchet, was the pilot of our damaged plane). It was coming in on a nearly vertical path. I wanted to scream, “Don’t let them land, it would be murder!” And indeed, that was somewhat the same thing Major Blanchet said to his boss on the radio. The strip was slippery, a veritable skating rink, and the first third of it was damaged. Major Guerin, from his air traffic control station on the ground at Dien Bien Phu, forbade Martinet to proceed with the landing. The trap was starting to close.

Once more I passed the night at 1st BEP with the medical corpsmen of the air force without the possibility of personal privacy, taking advantage of those rare moments when I found myself alone to take a quick wash. Outside, without protection against the bombardments, were the latrines.

On March 30 the wait for an evacuation that was becoming more and more improbable started to weigh on us all, as did the forced inactivity. I spent my day at the ward and had lunch with the medical team. Our meals were composed of canned goods such as corned beef, but some vegetables and mixed salads were sometimes parachuted in to us in packs. I have no recollection of taking meals at the surgical unit in those periods of intense work. There it was necessary just to grab whatever we could in a hurry—“eat and run.” Later, during moments of calm, I was invited to eat with the paratroopers or legionnaires. Those meals were moments of real relaxation and great uplifting, when I could leave the surgical unit with its oppressive atmosphere, charged with offensive odors, and my pressing duties for a short time of frank comradery and an exchange of news, which I always brought back to my wounded. But events were soon to rush forward precipitously.

At 4 in the afternoon, shells from mortars and 105mm howitzers started to fall. By 5 the artillery fire had reached an unbelievable violence. Never had Dien Bien Phu endured such concentrated bombardments. I felt as if it was the end of the world. The impacts shook our bunker. Pieces of earth fell from the roof and, we wondered how long it would hold up. Nobody said a word. All around there were wounded men bearing their sufferings with courage, and I knew that at dawn, when the battle decreased, the stretcher bearers would bring the new wounded. How could I sleep in such circumstances?

To satisfy natural needs, men used tins. I couldn’t do the same, and after several hours I had to go outside, under the shells, asking God to protect me. The shelling lasted all night, the din was terrifying. It was fortunate I was in the medical unit because it was now impossible to circulate in the camp, and soon two extra arms would be useful. The other members of my crew thought the same and went off to support the team of air force medics by carrying the injured.

By dawn on March 31 the unit was already full. The stretchers were placed on the ground, wherever there was room, between the beds of the wounded already there. The corridor of the unit, a long tunnel, narrow, muddy and barely lit, was immediately blocked with stretchers that one had to step over to get past. Outside on the rampart at the entry to the unit, men waited on their stretchers until room could be found to place them under shelter. Some of them received new wounds, and others were killed at the door to the unit. It was utter hell. The sound of the artillery was deafening, the wounds of the injured had dirt mixed in with their blood.

As the wounded were brought in, the military prisoners (PIMs) cleaned them up as much as they could. Doctor Grauwin had put me in charge of emergency care of the most seriously wounded. I worked under the light of an electric lamp in the corridor, one knee on the ground, the other on the edge of the stretcher. I had never been in such a situation, so dramatic, but confronted with wounded men, you only think to relieve their pain, and I was glad to succeed in doing the intravenous injections of phenergan dolosal, which helped quiet the wounded and allowed them to sleep.

How can I describe the uninterrupted flow of injured, the heartbreak at our inability to shelter all of them and to operate on them fast enough?

On the basis of his long experience, Dr. Grauwin conducted the triage, deciding who should be operated on first. This posed terrible choices, because an abdominal operation took as much time as five or six amputations, and he had to make his decision according to the most urgent cases. Gindrey was operating without a break, with or without Grauwin’s assistance. With each explosion, the earth shook and debris fell from the ceiling of the operating room. Fortunately it was tented with parachutes, but the rain liquefied the soil and droplets sometimes fell on the operating table. Across the hall the recovery room, which held 15 beds, was packed with the addition of 15 stretchers on the ground. The lightly wounded were quickly attended to, then returned to their units under a rain of mortar shells because we had no room for them.

That night, in less than an hour, the Viet Minh took three of our positions, Dominique 1 and 2 and Éliane 1. Only Dominique 3 defended the road that led to our unit and the headquarters of Colonel de Castries. That night an event took place that would be retold many times. Lieutenant Paul Brunbrouck, commanding the 4th Battery of 2/4 Régiment d’Artillerie Coloniale (RAC), saw waves of Viet Minh running toward him. He had received orders to pull back but had refused, and waiting until the last moment, he lowered his artillery for direct fire right in front of his position, mowing down the enemy columns. Without Brunbrouck, Dien Bien Phu may well have fallen that night, but at that moment I didn’t understand how close the camp came to being overrun.

Early in the morning of March 31, a stretcher brought us Lieutenant Robert Chevalier from the Bigeard battalion. He had been shot in the head the previous afternoon during a counterattack. The bullet had severed his spinal cord and paralyzed him. When he arrived at our unit, in desperate condition, Dr. Grauwin’s diagnosis was that we could do no more than to alleviate his pain. It was the most dramatic moment I can recall from those days.

The anguish of Robert Chevalier increased moment by moment. His paralysis progressed, first to his legs, then to his abdomen, his chest and his arms. His breathing was more and more feeble. “Geneviève, promise me I won’t die?” I turned my head without answering and felt desperately helpless. He was fighting death and I was in charge of giving him water in a small spoon, but he could barely swallow. I tried to numb his pain with shots of morphine and soften his anguish by staying by him whenever I could. The chaplain came to his bedside and deposited on his tongue a minute piece of the Host.

This was my first real contact with death since my father’s death in 1934. I needed to tame its specter in the seemingly interminable face-off that was coming, whose outcome I already knew. Many of the wounded I had seen arrive at the unit were dying. With Robert Chevalier, it was a long journey toward the end; we waited together, and I could do nothing except ease his pain and be there with him. I kept thinking of his family, who must have received the impersonal and cryptic telegram sent to each family after the airlifts had stopped: “Impossible to write. All is going well.” I was by his side when Lieutenant Chevalier stopped breathing. It was a moment I shall never forget.

At night the wounded could no longer be brought in on stretchers because of the shelling, which left more time for those already at the unit. But the deafening sound of artillery fire never ceased. During those three days and nights at the end of March, the sense of our helpless inability to save all our wounded, or even to bring them all under shelter from the shelling, became intolerable.At times I just wanted to sleep, to sleep and not wake up to that awful reality. But sleep was out of the question; there was much too much to do.

When the shelling finally calmed down, the Viet Minh were close to the landing field. Planes could no longer land. The trap was now completely closed. For the injured that news was dramatic. For me it was different. I knew that I would be able to continue caring for my patients, that I would not have to abandon them. In fact, several times I feared that when the combat stopped (we had had several days of respite after the three-day attack in mid-March), no one would ask for my opinion and I would have to leave on the first plane that could land since my role was that of flight nurse, not ground medic. I well knew that High Command no longer wanted women in Dien Bien Phu. On March 14 it had even sent back Colonel de Castries’ secretary. But in the meantime I was happily stuck at the camp and had only one thing left to do: care for and stay with the wounded.

A certain calm having returned in early April, life found a new rhythm. Since evacuations were now impossible, the unit was transformed into a true small, subterranean hospital. Doctor Grauwin entrusted me with the care and oversight of 40 men, the most vulnerable who came out from the recovery room. This sudden “promotion” took me by surprise. It was not so much my qualifications as the urgency of the moment that motivated it. In medical units each nurse had a role to play, but none gave longterm care since, usually, the wounded were evacuated to Hanoi.

Now the real adventure would start for me. It would test, morally as well as physically, in the most radical manner, whatever strengths I possessed at the dawn of my 29th year. But it also would give meaning to the rest of my life.

Under the most intense conditions, de Galard cared for and comforted hundreds of wounded soldiers during the next two months. Such was her heroics that on April 29, still under siege, the commander of Dien Bien Phu made her a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and awarded her the Croix de Guerre, whose citation concluded: “She will always be, for the combatants at Dien Bien Phu, the purest incarnation of the heroic virtues of the French nurse.” The next day she was made an honorary “Légionnaire de 1ére classe.” From May 1 to May 6, the Viet Minh tightened their noose with incessant attacks on the last remaining posts, leaving hundreds of French soldiers with ghastly wounds. On May 7, the French force capitulated and, along with the troops, de Galard was taken prisoner. For the next three weeks, in an above-ground tent hospital, de Galard continued to treat the wounded, as negotiations for their evacuations dragged on.

When, on May 21, the Viet Minh announced that de Galard would be liberated, she refused to leave her patients, and her captors acquiesced. Finally, as international reports were claiming she was being held against her will, the Viet Minh forced her to leave on May 24. “I was free,” she would write, “Free but sad that I had to leave behind my comrades and my patients.” On the way to Hanoi, she learned for the first time that her experience as the only French woman at Dien Bien Phu and a prisoner of the Viet Minh had gained worldwide attention.

Arriving at Hanoi, she found herself again under siege—this time by a horde of journalists—a scene repeated upon her return to Paris. In June, a U.S. Congressional resolution paid tribute to the flight nurse and invited her come to the United States; her invitation was accompanied by a letter from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. On July 26, the woman dubbed by the press as “The Angel of Dien Bien Phu” was cheered by 250,000 New Yorkers in a tickertape parade down Broadway. Days later, at the White House, President Dwight Eisenhower awarded de Galard the Medal of Freedom.

Geneviève de Galard completed her service as a flight nurse and in 1956 wed French Marine officer Jean de Heaulme. As she joined her husband on far-flung assignments and raised a family, she remained an ardent advocate for wounded veterans. Back in Paris, where she still resides, she was elected to the city council in 1983, serving for 18 years. Her memoir was first published in France in 2003.

 

Excerpted from The Angel of Dien Bien Phu, copyright 2010 Geneviève de Galard, published by Naval Institute Press. Geneviève de Galard’s The Angel of Dien Bien Phu is now available at www.HistoryNetShop.com.

Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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