The Angel of Dien Bien Phu.
Known as l’ange de Dien Bien Phu, Geneviève de Galard is France’s greatest living military heroine and a recipient of the country’s highest honor. An air force flight nurse, she volunteered for service in French-controlled Indochina and arrived in Vietnam in April 1953. Nearly one year later, at about 4 a.m. on March 28, 1954, she flew in a Douglas C-47 transport plane to the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, under siege by the Viet Minh, a communist-supported group fighting for independence from France. It was de Galard’s 40th flight to evacuate wounded soldiers at Dien Bien Phu and her 149th medical evacuation in Vietnam.
The C-47 faced heavy flak from Viet Minh artillery but landed safely. While taxiing in the dark on the runway, however, the plane ran into a barbed-wire entanglement and developed an oil leak in one of its engines. The aircraft would have to be repaired before it could carry out the 25 wounded soldiers lying on stretchers in a ditch alongside the runway. At daybreak, the Viet Minh opened fire with American-made 105 mm howitzers the Chinese had captured in Korea and destroyed the medevac plane. There would be no flight out for the wounded or de Galard, the only European woman in a garrison of some 11,000 French and French Union troops.
Under hellish, brutally primitive and unsanitary conditions, the combat nurse worked with Dr. Paul Grauwin, the chief French medical officer. Eventually de Galard was put in charge of a 40-bed, muddy underground bunker where she cared for the most gravely wounded. On April 29, the garrison’s commander, Brig. Gen. Christian de Castries, awarded de Galard the Croix de Guerre, which honors military acts of valor, and made de Galard chevalier (knight) of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest decoration. The following day, she was inducted into the French Foreign Legion as an honorary private first class, a distinction the Legion confers sparingly.
After Dien Bien Phu fell on May 7, the Viet Minh allowed de Galard to continue treating the wounded, but they also a tried to pressure her into signing a letter to Ho Chi Minh congratulating him on his birthday and praising him for the wonderful treatment the French prisoners were receiving. She resisted for 10 days until the Viet Minh threatened to retaliate against the wounded, and then Grauwin ordered her to sign the statement, which the communist leader flaunted in front of a Soviet film journalist.
De Galard was released on May 24, alongside the more severely wounded. She at first refused to go because she wanted to stay with her other patients, but was ordered to leave. By the time de Galard arrived in Hanoi, she had become a media celebrity, with her picture on the cover of Paris Match magazine. She was invited to the United States by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, given a ticker-tape parade down Broadway and recognized by the U.S. House of Representatives. On July 29, President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded her the U.S. Medal of Freedom, the antecedent to the Presidential Medal of Freedom established in 1963.
In 1956, de Galard married Jean de Heaulme, a French Special Forces officer who had parachuted into the area north of Dien Bien Phu in an attempt to rally the Montagnard hill people to launch a counterattack against the Viet Minh. Later, she served for many years on the Paris city council. In 2014, de Galard received the Legion of Honor’s Grand Cross, the highest of five levels of recognition for holders of the medal. The 2010 English translation of her memoir, The Angel of Dien Bien Phu, was published by the Naval Institute Press, in partnership with the Association of the United States Army.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. David T. Zabecki is Vietnam magazine’s editor emeritus.