Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Toan

Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Toan, a female doctor who rose to the rank of colonel in the North Vietnamese army, was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family. Her father, Ton That Dan, was a member of the royal family and served as a minister in Emperor Bao Dai’s Imperial Cabinet. She was educated in the exclusive Dong Khanh School in Hue City. During the August 1945 revolution when the Viet Minh took over the government, Miss Toan, who was still in her early teens, joined the Viet Minh forces in Hue City as a member of a medical aid/casualty evacuation team. After the French Army regained control of Hue City, she continued to work with the Viet Minh resistance by collecting information on French activities, proselytizing, serving as a courier, etc. After being arrested a number of times by the French, the French police issued an order expelling her from Hue City. In a desperate effort to save her daughter from the French secret police, Toan’s mother sent her to Saigon to attend the exclusive Marie Curie School. In Saigon, however, she established contact with the Viet Minh student movement and participated in student protest activities as part of the student organization led by Pham Xuan An, who later became a Time magazine correspondent and a spy for the communists. Afraid for her daughter’s life if she were to be arrested again by the French, Toan’s mother arranged to have her sent out to a Viet Minh base area to join the Viet Minh resistance. Toan was eventually was sent to the Viet Minh resistance headquarters in the Viet Bac area, near the Chinese border. After being tutored by one of her relatives, who was a famous Vietnamese doctor, Toan enrolled as a medical student at the Viet Minh-run University of Hanoi Medical School in exile. In 1954 she was were sent off to the front lines to help care for the massive casualties the Viet Minh suffered during the Dien Bien Phu campaign. As soon as the battle of Dien Bien Phu ended, Toan married a Viet Minh general, Cao Van Khanh, the deputy commander of the Viet Minh 308th Division, in a ceremony held in the bunker that had been the headquarters of the French commander at Dien Bien Phu. After the 1954 Geneva Agreement was signed, she returned to medical school in Hanoi. After her graduation, she worked throughout the war against the U.S. as a doctor at Military Hospital 108, the best hospital in all of North Vietnam. After fighting in South Vietnam during the war, Toan’s husband Cao Van Khanh died in 1980 at the age of 63, reportedly as from the effects of the U.S. defoliant called “Agent Orange.” One of Dr. Toan’s son’s later died at a relatively young age of a cancer that was attributed to the effects of his father’s exposure to “Agent Orange” during the war. At the time of the interview, Dr. Toan was a member of the executive committee of the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange Association.

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