The Forgotten Angels of Dien Bien Phu
Sex workers became medics during the brutal siege
In November 1953 the French army began building a base in the mountains around Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, hoping that it would lure the Viet Minh guerrilla fighters into an open battle.
Eventually, 16,000 French personnel each manned the six fortified outposts named, as legend has it, after French commander Col. Christian de Castries’s mistresses Beatrice, Gabrielle et cetera.
In a two-month siege that began on March 1954, 50,000 Viet Minh troops under Gen. Võ Nguyên Giáp turned the trap on its head through adroit use of artillery to disrupt the outpost’s aerial supply lines.
One French army nurse, Geneviève de Galard, was stranded in the doomed French fortress when her damaged C-47 medical-evacuation transport was destroyed on the ground by Viet Minh artillery. She remained at the outpost through the rest of the siege, and continued treating French soldiers even after being captured.
Media celebrated her as “the angel of Dien Bien Phu.”
However, de Galard was not the only woman at Dien Bien Phu. Journalist Bernard Fall, who was embedded with the garrison, detailed in his book Hell in a Very Small Place that the French military deployed two BMCs — mobile field brothels — to Dien Bien Phu prior to the siege, one with seven Vietnamese women, the other with 11 Ouled-Nail from Algeria.
As Viet Minh artillery cut off medical evacuation and resupply flights, the sex workers reportedly trained as medics.
“There also was on [outpost] Claudine the Foreign Legion’s field brothel,” Fall wrote.
The five Vietnamese girls and their madame had been caught in the battle like everyone else and had lived through it in underground bunkers as auxiliary nurses, like the Algerian prostitutes who had also been unable to leave and had stayed on [outpost] Dominique …
Often the women were seen in the water of a trench up to their hips, waiting to help the wounded in a strongpoint. In one case, a shell-shocked soldier had developed a fixation that he was a small child and had to be fed by his mother; one of the Vietnamese prostitutes came to this dugout every day to feed him.
The last French outpost finally fell on May 7, 1954. It was such a staggering defeat that peace talks for a French withdrawal from Vietnam soon followed. Fall speculated the victorious Viet Minh likely inducted the Vietnamese sex workers into a harsh political re-education camp.
In any case, the Vietnamese prostitutes were never seen again. Of the 11 Algerian prostitutes, four were killed during the battle. Most of the others eventually went to live with the Rats of the Nam Yum [deserted French colonial troops], and all of them later shared the hardships of the prison trek. One of them, known as ‘Mimi-des-Oulad-Nails,’ married a fellow Algerian prisoner in the hospital camp and had her first child in Communist-ruled Hanoi.
Thérèse de Liancourt, who flew medical evacuation missions into Dien Bien Phu but was not stranded there like Galard was, also reported the presence of BMCs, though her details differ.
Beside in Dien Bien Phu, in one of the entrenched camps, there were four BMC women of a Moroccan goum [Moroccan Berber colonial soldiers], as they always deployed with their women. They were, by the way totally consenting; they loved doing it, because they earned a lot of cash—or at least a little. It amounted to their dowry when they returned home to marry.
These four women healed the injured, and displayed admirable devotion and kindness.
When Genevieve de Galard—supposedly the only woman to stay in Dien Bien Phu—wanted to speak about them, she was forced to keep it to herself. They told her, “You know the bourgeoisie of Paris don’t know that there are BMCs—better not to tell them too much.”
But that was not cool, because she was liberated [after the siege] while the four others, we never found out what happened to them. They must have continued to serve the Vietnamese. I don’t like that kind of things. They weren’t treated fairly.
“There is no credible eyewitness testimony … of the pious legend” that the women were executed, Jean-Marc Binot, author of Warrior’s Rest: BMCs during the War in Indochina described such claims as being perpetuated by the French far right.
At top — captured French soldiers, escorted by Vietnamese troops, walk to a prisoner-of-war camp in Dien Bien Phu. Above — French Chaffee light tanks fire in support of the Dien Bien Phu outposts. Photos via Wikipedia
Increasing media presence in war zones, the vanishing of France’s colonial empire and the burgeoning French feminist movement led to the demise of the BMCs. De Liancourt herself led protests that resulted in their official banning in 1972. Nonetheless, the brothels persisted for long with French Foreign Legion units through opaque entertainment “sub-contractors” — i.e., pimps.
In 1978 the last BMC in metropolitan France closed in Calvi, Corsica, after a local pimp registered a complaint of unfair competition.
The French Foreign Legion continued to be associated with BMCs, including a brothel in Kourou, French Guyana that shut down in 1995 and another reported to be active in Djibouti in 2003.
De Liancourt herself had flown in and out of Dien Bien Phu. Despite her hatred of the BMC system, she said the siege caused her to relate to why it was so popular. “Officers would tell me, ‘You have to understand, it’s almost impossible to go without [the BMCs]. The men need that when they’re always brushing with death.'”
In fact, personally, I had the same experience during Dien Bien Phu. I was caught up in a whirlwind when we began evacuating the wounded. We were flying 14 to 15 hours a day; we slept when we could, or not at all …
One of the dispatchers who was always helping us load up the men—because it would take to long otherwise—was killed by a bullet right in the head beside me, just like that.
It was like that constantly. We didn’t even stop the motors. We were shot up constantly under their spotlights. Even once we landed, they continued shooting at us from every angle. The planes would land riddled with bullets. It was impressive, to be honest!
Then I had the same reaction—almost automatic, and I was not the only one. I’d get off the plane having taken care of the wounded, I’d look to the right and left, I made a sign and left with a guy. They never told me no …
We had brushed with death, illness, injury—there was gangrene, horrible things you couldn’t imagine.
We felt this absolute need for something that was whole, healthy.