Genevieve de Galard at Dien Bien Phu before the seige.
While the basic concept of all my books is women in war situations, each title was born from a unique motivation. The impetus that brought Courageous Women of the Vietnam War into the world was my desire to (1) understand the complexities of that war’s timeline, and (2) to present stories of women who experienced the war from all sides within the book’s chronological framework.
The first section covers the conflict that was the prelude to the Vietnam War--the First Indochina War—and it features a chapter on a Vietnamese revolutionary and a French Evacuation nurse.
Xuan Phuong was born in 1929 and raised in what the French then called Annam, the central portion of French Indochina. Her family was wealthy as her father was the superintendent of a school, but she had uncles who influenced her with their revolutionary ideals.
Genevieve de Galard was born in 1925 and was also influenced by her family: her uncles and late father had been career officers and her lineage could be traced back to Joan of Arc. She lived through the German occupation of France as a teen and joined the military in 1953 as an air evacuation nurse.
These two women would find themselves on opposing sides of the First Indochina War, a conflict with its roots in World War II. The Viet Minh--the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi or League for the Independence of Vietnam--worked side by side with American OSS agents as they both fought the Japanese occupiers of Vietnam.
On September 2, 1945, hours after the Japanese surrender to the Allies in Tokyo Bay, Ho Chi Minh, political leader of the Viet Minh, publicly declared Vietnam’s independence from France, quoting the American Declaration of Independence.
Neither France or the United States would acknowledge Ho’s claim; France because it wanted to retake its colonies in an ironic attempt to regain some national dignity after four-plus years of German occupation, and the US because Ho was a Communist, the ideology of their new enemy. So instead of supporting Vietnam’s independence, they supported their former ally’s quest to retake their colony.
Ho’s determination matched France’s and the First Indochina War began. In November, 1953, the French commander-in-chief in Indochina, General Henri Navarre, ordered a garrison in a northern village called Dien Bien Phu held in order to protect his pro-French Vietnamese allies in the area from the Viet Minh.
The denouement of a conflict often boils down to a single battle and the First Indochina War ended here. General Navarre was as myopic as Viet Minh General Vo Nguyen Giap was astute and Viet Minh troops soon moved close enough to shoot down French planes, Navarre’s only planned means of resupply and evacuation.
The exhilarating smell of victory was in the air and Xuan Phuong, employed nearby, caught a whiff:
"Finance Ministry workers excitedly assembled around a large map that depicted combat areas with red pins and French casualty numbers on labels. ‘The atmosphere was electric’ Phuong wrote. The slogan heard and repeated everywhere was ‘We work one and all for Dien Bien Phu.’
Vehicles heading to Dien Bien Phu passed by the Finance Ministry all hours of the day and night: people on bicycles carried their village’s required allotment of rice to the front lines of battle while trucks rolled by loaded with weapons and ammunition. Journalists, writers, and musicians all raced there as well, and Phuong heard many moving stories of long-separated friends reuniting at the front.” (1)
French hope was dying at Dien Bien Phu but Genevieve de Galard, who had arrived on the last plane and was now stranded, did what she could to counteract the deepening despair. She cared for as many patients as possible in the overwhelmed medical units and empathized with their desperate situation:
“I shared with the combatants moments of high hopes, when a position was retaken by our men, and the awful moments, during the heartbreaking adieux of the unit commanders: ‘The Viets are thirty feet away. Give our love to our families. It is over for us.’ My heart tightened as though I were hearing the last words of the condemned.’” (2)
When the war was over, Phuong had to endure the nightmare of a totalitarian society, silently questioning the barbarities of land reform:
“’What have all these long years in the Resistance been sacrificed for? What happened to our lofty ideals?’ Phuong felt as if she were witnessing the utter destruction of a civilization.” (3)
But Genevieve, a new darling of the international press and “the Angel of Dien Bien Phu”, was given a ticker tape parade in New York City and sent on a three-week tour of the US. To her credit, she didn’t let it go to her head, giving speeches along these general lines:
“I haven’t earned this honor, because I only did my duty…My thoughts, at this moment are with all those who are still over there and who, far more than I, have earned this honor that you offer.” (4)
These women went on to live quietly productive post-war lives; they raised families, had careers, and are still with us today: I had the honor of communicating with both while writing this book.