Geneviève de Galard, French ‘Angel’ of Dien Bien Phu, Dies at 99 - The World News

Geneviève de Galard, French ‘Angel’ of Dien Bien Phu, Dies at 99

For almost two months, in the hell of the besieged French military base at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, Geneviève de Galard, a military nurse, tended to the wounded in a dark, filthy underground infirmary — men with holes in their backs, abdomens shot out, shrapnel wounds everywhere.

When the fight was over, on May 7, 1954, after more than 10,000 soldiers had been taken prisoner by the communist Viet Minh insurgents in one of the greatest military disasters in French history, Ms. de Galard continued to change the bandages of the wounded, refusing to leave their side. By then the legend of the “Angel of Dien Bien Phu,” as the American press later baptized her, had been born.

Ms. de Galard died on May 30 in Paris at 99. Her death was confirmed by the French Defense Ministry. No other details were given.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu ended nearly seven decades of French colonial rule, and for 70 years afterward, Ms. de Galard, a modest aristocrat, asserted, whenever asked — and the questions became less and less frequent as France sought to put that inglorious episode behind it — that she had simply “done my duty.”

But the French had turned to her gratefully. She was “a legend to wipe out the traumatism of the failure, the horror of a sacrifice,” as Le Monde put it in a profile of Ms. de Galard in 2005. In 1954, after a cover story in Paris Match magazine, a hero’s welcome in France and numerous medals and decorations, Americans welcomed her with a standing ovation in Congress, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and a ticker-tape parade down Broadway.

The French ambassador to the United States, Henri Bonnet, was “ecstatic” over this rare bit of good publicity for a France in disarray, as the journalist Ted Morgan wrote in “Valley of Death” (2010), his history of Dien Bien Phu.

That spirit remained even after her death. In a tribute to Ms. de Galard, President Emmanuel Macron wrote: “For two months, the only nurse in that tropical hellhole where 15,000 men fought and died, she defied, day and night, the grotesque precariousness of the sanitary conditions, operating, consoling, accompanying the dying. She did more than just heal bodies, she healed souls.”

Those words though — like a contemporaneous dispatch in The New York Times on May 17, 1954, in which Ms. de Galard was described as “the only woman” at Dien Bien Phu — perpetuate a myth. Ms. de Galard was neither the “only nurse” nor “the only woman” at the base, as some digging by the Le Monde journalist Benoît Hopquin demonstrated last year.

Dien Bien Phu, like other French military bases, housed not one but two “military field brothels” — army-maintained bordellos that in this case sheltered dozens of Vietnamese and North African women. During the siege, with artillery raining down, the women “converted themselves into nurse-assistants,” a military doctor, Jean-Marie Madelaine, wrote in a letter unearthed by Le Monde, “volunteering for dangerous water transport, getting rid of the garbage, the vomit, the excrement, the bandages dripping with blood and pus, giving water to those who no longer could use their arms, giving their hand to the dying. They were admirable.”

Traces of the women have been effaced by history and a French military establishment not eager to remember them; the women don’t appear in a memoir by Ms. Galard.

In a matter-of-fact tone, the memoir, translated into English as “The Angel of Dien Bien Phu,” recounts her being trapped with the others at the base, isolated 280 miles from Hanoi. In his own memoirs, Eisenhower viewed the establishment of the base as a strategic blunder by the French, leaving him “horror-stricken.”

“I just said, ‘My goodness, you don’t pen up troops in a fortress, and all history shows that they are just going to be cut to pieces,’” he wrote.

That is precisely what happened. The Americans had largely financed the French war effort in Indochina, but they did not step in to save Dien Bien Phu.

In the months leading up to that final battle, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s Viet Minh forces had packed the surrounding hills with artillery. By March 30, 1954, with the base surrounded, the airstrip out of commission and the plane that had brought Ms. de Galard there damaged, there was no escape.

Ms. de Galard, who was 29, was put “in charge of emergency care of the most seriously wounded,” she wrote.

“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,” she continued. “In this underground of suffering, every day I attended to the wounded, giving shots, changing bandages and distributing medicine.”

The doctor in charge, Major Paul-Henri Grauwin, wrote in a memoir: “While the shells were falling, I watched her and was astonished by her calm. She went from wounded man to wounded man, thinking nothing of it. She had the gestures that were needed, the sweetness, the precision.”

One of the wounded’s face and hands “were wrapped like a mummy’s,” Ms. de Galard recalled. “Soon the blinded youth, whose morale remained excellent, started spreading a little laughter around him” by trying to play the harmonica.

On April 29, with the Viet Minh closing in, she was summoned to the underground bunker of the commanding officer, Gen. Christian de la Croix de Castries, who pinned on Ms. de Galard the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest civilian decoration, as shells exploded outside.

“She will always be, for the combatants at Dien Bien Phu,” the citation read, “the purest incarnation of the heroic virtues of the French nurse.”

Geneviève Marie Anne Marthe de Galard Terraube was born on April 13, 1925, in the 9th arrondissement of Paris to Henri Marie Oger de Galard Terraube, a reserve army officer and aristocrat from an old family in France’s southwest, and Germaine Suzanne Louise Marie de Roussel de Préville. Her father died when she was 9.

Geneviève attended schools in Paris and, during the first years of World War II, near her family’s ancestral properties around Toulouse.

After studying English at the Sorbonne during and after the war, Ms. de Galard received her nursing diploma in 1950. And, after a retreat at a Benedictine convent, she was admitted to the French armed forces’ corps of flight nurses, charged with tending to the wounded who had been evacuated from battlegrounds by plane.

With the war in French Indochina raging since late 1946, she went there for the first time in 1953, attached to Hanoi’s Lanessan hospital. By the time of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, she had already undertaken numerous rescue missions there and elsewhere.

“I so wanted it to end differently,” she told Le Figaro in 2014.

The Viet Minh freed her on May 21, 1954, and she left Dien Bien Phu on the 24th, unlike thousands of other French prisoners, many of whom died on death marches to prisoner of war camps. Later that year, France gave up North Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh’s communists, enabling the fateful partition of the country that led the U.S. into a war that it had vowed to stay out of.

Ms. de Galard left the army in 1955 and the next year married Capt. Jean de Heaulme de Boutsocq, a paratrooper who had been one of the first to greet her on her liberation.

Ms. de Galard — her full married name was Geneviève de Heaulme de Boutsocq — is survived by her husband, who became a colonel; her sons, François and Christophe; her daughter, Véronique de Heaulme de Boutsocq; and three grandchildren.

Ms. de Galard followed her husband’s military postings, in Madagascar and elsewhere. Back in Paris, she became a municipal councilor for the 17th arrondissement, where she continued to live in the apartment she had inhabited as a child. She held that post for 18 years.

She told interviewers that her life had been profoundly marked by her experience at Dien Bien Phu.

“My mere presence, because I was a woman, seemed to render this hell a little less inhuman,” she wrote. “In Dien Bien Phu, I was in a way a mother, a sister, a friend.”

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