In March 1954 the 10,000 soldiers defending the doomed French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, were embedded up to their jocks in some seriously deep shit. Entrenched in a sprawling, somewhat-efficiently-designed fortress at the bottom of a gigantic valley, the French had originally established this forward base as a way of trying to cut off the Vietnamese supply lines that ran through this strategically-critical position on the Laos border. Sounds like a good plan, sure, but while this may have been a decent idea on paper, the French commanders realized pretty damn quickly that the Vietnamese insurgents they were fighting actually weren't as dumb as the French thought they might have been – and, perhaps even more unpleasantly, they also had a lot more artillery than they'd suspected as well. Like, a way lot more. And they'd put all that shit on the fucking mountains surrounding the valley where the fortress was and aimed it straight down onto the fort. So now, with the French camped out at the bottom of a valley that suddenly now was bristling with a shit-fuck-ton of howitzers dumping high explosive shells down on them and blowing the ungodly bejeezus out of anything with a tri-color patch on its uniform, suddenly that whole "totally rad Dien Bien Phu base" thing started to look like it maybe wasn't such a great idea after all. I mean, I'm not a fucking military genius by any stretch of the imagination, but even I know that being surrounded by an enemy that outnumbers you five-to-one, has the high ground, and has you zeroed in on a couple hundred artillery pieces usually isn't exactly a tactically advantageous situation. Korea might be the land of professional Starcraft grand master senseis, but at Dien Bien Phu it was the Vietnamese who had caught the French mid-game with a massive Terran Siege Tank Push, and there wasn't a goddamned thing the French could do about it. It didn't help that to of the defenders' most senior Generals were killed in the opening bombardment of the battle, either, but yeah, even those guys weren't really about to bust out a Dark Swarm or start spamming Protoss Zealots to counter it or anything. The only time that artillery shells weren't blowing shit up all over the place was when the Vietnamese were launching full-on human wave attacks on the French positions – so far the defenders had managed to withstand this tsunami of gun-toting humanity, but there had been plenty of close calls already, and the prospects for survival weren't exactly looking like unicorns and Skittles.
French Air Force Lieutenant Genevieve de Galard-Terraube was probably the last person you'd ever expect to see transported into this raging psychotic hellhole of ass-sucking carnage. The daughter of the Viscountess de Galard Terraube, this 29 year-old French aristocrat hardly looked like the kind of woman who was going to flip her shit and go Princess Vespa on hordes of AK-47 toting maniacs in an effort to single-handedly defend the beleaguered garrison from this massive onslaught. But, nevertheless, there she was, and while she may not have made her mark on history through sheer unadulterated mega-violence, she did prove herself as a pretty serious badass on par with the ballsiest and most fearless war heroes around, serving as a front-line combat medic in one of the bloodiest sieges in French military history.
When Genevieve de Galard heard about all the horrible shit going down in 'Nam (which, at this point in history, was known by the significantly less badass name, "French Indochina" – I refuse to refer to it as this on principle alone, especially when a much-more-hardcore version of the country name is available to me), she knew she had to step up and help the troops out there that were busting their asses to fight off a full-scale, balls-out relentless attack from four full Divisions of Vietnamese Regular Infantry. Fresh out of nursing school, she had enlisted in the Air Force, and, by 1954, the young Lieutenant was already at the beginning of her second tour of duty in 'Nam as a combat nurse – one of the toughest and most under-appreciated jobs in any armed forces.
Lt. de Galard's early contribution to aiding the effort at Dien Bien Phu was as a nurse on medevac flights, a job that takes an incredibly difficult task and somehow makes it even harder. Have you ever tried to play cards or write on an airplane while it's going through turbulence? It's a fucking disaster. Being a medevac nurse is kind of like that, only you're doing it while people are launching artillery at you, and if you fuck up instead of writing an "I" that looks like an "L", you accidentally kill a man. So, despite that little bit of added pressure, twice a day Genevieve would make a three-hour round trip flight to the beaten-up, half-destroyed runway at Dien Bien Phu, screaming down in a hard landing while flak and anti-aircraft guns shredded the sky all around her C-47 cargo plane, and the second the landing ramp touched down she and her fellow nurses had three minutes to get out and speed-load 13 men and 6 stretchers into the cargo bay of the aircraft. That was all the time they had – any longer than three minutes and the Viet Minh would range them with their artillery and turn the entire plane into a smoking crater of suck. The second that the wounded were loaded, the pilot would take off, brave the flak fields once again, and de Galard would spend the return flight trying to provide medical assistance to guys who'd had their arms blown off and shit. Not exactly a glamorous gig, but one that absolutely had to be done.
Of course the French dude's smoking a cigarette while they cart him off on a stretcher.
Things were going well for the first week or so of the operation, and of course by "going well" I mean de Galard wasn't on board one of the eight C-47s that were shot down by anti-aircraft fire that week. But that's about where her luck stopped. You see, on 27 March, justas her plane was making a hard landing under the cover of darkness, one of the engines scraped against a barbed wire fence (that's how low they were flying these 26,000-pound aircraft!), tearing open the oil line and draining the engine dry. De Galard and her crew got the wounded men loaded on time, but without oil that plane wasn't going anywhere. Genevieve barely had time to get all the wounded back off the plane before a Viet Minh shell fragged it back to the Cretaceous Period (or whichever geological Era is responsible for airplanes).
Just like that, Genevieve de Galard was now stranded in Dien Bien Phu, surrounded by 50,000 enemy soldiers and a shell-shocked garrison of 13,000 brave-yet-exhausted defenders. See seemed to take it well – moments after barely escaping the airfield with her life she walked straight off the runway, into the base hospital, and asked the doctor in charge how she could help care for the wounded.
de Galard applying a field dressing.
For the next 41 days, Lieutenant Genevieve de Galard stayed with the men at Dien Bien Phu, providing medical care, aid, and help to anyone who needed it, no matter when or where. In the early days of her tenure, she took on any crazy shit they were willing to give her – triaging wounded as they were brought in to the hospital, assisting on surgeries (despite not even really being trained in how to do that!), and even going out onto the goddamned battlefield, providing emergency battlefield first aid, and carrying severely wounded men back to the hospital on stretchers. One day she'd be out on a crater-filled wasteland pulling a guy through the grass while mortars blew the fuck out of everything around her; the next day she would spend her every waking minute assisting on up to 23 major surgical trauma operations in a single day. At night this high-born French aristocrat slept in a cot in the hospital, next to enlisted men who'd had their fucking legs blown up or their faces shot in half, then get up the next morning and do it again. The only French woman on the base, de Galard wasn't even technically supposed to be there – in January 1954 France had ordered that all women be removed from front-line combat service – but not only did she diligently care for the wounded, but once the runway was back up and running she refused to be evacuated because she didn't want to leave her comrades.
It wasn't long before the entire garrison came to respect the woman they knew simply as "Genevieve", and Lt. de Galard was eventually put in charge of running a 40-bed hospital reserved for the most critically-wounded men on the base. As the situation became more and more dire (direrer?) de Galard continued to work through miserable heat and exhaustion while gunfire and mortars blasted around her. Despite her own suffering (food and medical supplies were so scarce that she lost nearly 20 pounds in the 3 months she was stationed there... not a weight loss regimen she would probably recommend to anyone) she never stopped soothing dying men, healing those she could, and making the best of whatever happened. A few weeks before the fall of the fortress, the military held a ceremony in the main fortress square in her honor. The Dien Bien Phu commander personally awarded her the Knight's Cross of the Legion d'Honeur, and the commander of the paratroopers awarded her the Croix de Guerre and made her an honorary member of the French Foreign Legion. She told him that if they ever got out of there alive, she'd buy him a bottle of champagne (they did, and she kept her word).
This picture makes me regret ever bitching about my day job.
Finally, on 8 May 1954, after 41 days of constant battle and little to no sleep, the battered warriors of Dien Bien Phu were overrun by a massive attack of Viet Minh troops rushing in from every side at once. I guess you can say what you want about the French, but they went down like heroes at Dien Bien Phu, fighting to the very last and refusing surrender at all costs. Over half the garrison was killed in the course of the siege, and after the smoke cleared, Lieutenant Genevieve de Galard and what remained of the defenders now found themselves prisoners of the Viet Minh.
Once again, however, you couldn't get this badass chick down. Even with assault rifle-slinging enemy troops wandering the halls of the base, Galard continued attending to the wounded, blatantly refusing to leave her men or to cooperate with any of the stupid bullshit the Viet Minh were trying to get her to do. When the Vietnamese started confiscating what little remained of her medical supplies, Galard build secret stashes to hide shit so she could access it later when she needed it. When they put her in a cell by herself, she wrote letters to the troops to comfort them. When they released her from the cell, she went straight back to the hospital. After nearly 3 weeks of captivity – the majority of which was spent tending to the wounded French defenders – she has forcibly evacuated against her will by the French High Command in a POW transfer. She returned home a heroine of France, dubbed "The Angel of Dien Bien Phu" by the adoring press, and though even though President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Paris threw a parade for her, and all the big magazines told her story, she never considered herself a heroine. She just figured she was doing her job.
Genevieve de Galard ended up marrying a Paratrooper she met in Vietnam and currently lives in France.
"I do not deserve this honor... I have only done what any nurse would do."
Presidential Medal of Freedom
Morgan, Ted. Valley of Death. Random House, 2010.
O'Brien, Mary Elizabeth. Servant Leadership in Nursing. Jones & Bartlett, 2010.
Windrow, Martin. The Last Valley. Da Capo, 2004.