The Angel of Dien Bien Phu by Genevieve de Galard

In the years following World War II, a young French woman, Genevieve de Galard, decided to make a big change in her life. “The English studies I had pursued were for my personal interest, and I realized that continuing in that direction could not fill my life,” de Galard  writes in her autobiography, The Angel of Dien Bien Phu: The Lone French Woman at the Decisive Battle for Vietnam (Naval Institute, 208 pp., $23.95), translated from the French by Isabelle Surcouf Toms.

“I dreamed of new perspectives, fewer self-centered adventures. Quite simply, I wanted to be useful, and I could not fathom a life without giving to others or pursuing some ideal.”

So, de Galard went back to school and earned degrees in “medical-social work” and nursing in 1950. She then signed on with the Convoyeuses de l’Air, the flight nurses of the French Air Force’s transportation division. “The flying nurses, she writes, “had been traveling for several years on the planes to Africa and Indochina, transporting military families, evacuating the wounded and the sick.”

Genevieve de Galard become the only woman among the 11,000 or so French military personnel at Dien Bien Phu during the famous 1954 Vietminh siege that ended French occupation of Indochina. That was not her plan, though. The young woman flight nurse was about to leave Dien Bien Phu, when her plane (a French Air Force C-47)  was hit by enemy artillery, and she was stranded there.

In this memoir, which was published in France in 2003, de Galard includes details of what it was like tending to the wounded and dying in the Dien Bien field hospital—as well as her time being held prisoner for seventeen days by the Vietminh after the battle.

She was honored for her efforts during the siege with the French Knight’s Cross and the Croix de Guerre. President Eisenhower invited her to the United States, where de Galard received a ticker tape parade in New York City, a standing ovation from the entire U.S. House of Representatives, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the President himself, and the nickname (from American newspaper reporters) that is the title of her book.

—Marc Leepson