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Two tanks from 1st Platoon, A Company, 60th Armored Cavalry move in to help soldiers shield a wounded comrade during fighting along a riverbank in the An Lao Valley in 1967.

Two tanks from 1st Platoon, A Company, 60th Armored Cavalry move in to help soldiers shield a wounded comrade during fighting along a riverbank in the An Lao Valley in 1967. (John Utt/Stars and Stripes)

Two tanks from 1st Platoon, A Company, 60th Armored Cavalry move in to help soldiers shield a wounded comrade during fighting along a riverbank in the An Lao Valley in 1967.

Two tanks from 1st Platoon, A Company, 60th Armored Cavalry move in to help soldiers shield a wounded comrade during fighting along a riverbank in the An Lao Valley in 1967. (John Utt/Stars and Stripes)

Troops move up with a tank ahead of them during fighting in the An Lao Valley in 1967.

Troops move up with a tank ahead of them during fighting in the An Lao Valley in 1967. (John Utt/Stars and Stripes)

A 1st Cavalry unit spots Viet Cong in the An Lao Valley, just before fighting begins, in April, 1967.

A 1st Cavalry unit spots Viet Cong in the An Lao Valley, just before fighting begins, in April, 1967. ()

BONG SON, Vietnam—The An Lao Valley sits like a giant spoon lying less than three miles west of the coastal highlands rice bowl known as the Bong Son Plain.

For more than 10 years the An Lao has been a north Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong sanctuary, a base from which the Communists dipped into the rice-rich area for taxes, rice, salt, fish and forced laborers.

The 3rd NVA Div. had its headquarters and rear area somewhere in the 10 miles of jungled mountains which line the valley. Both valley walls boast natural caves and rock formations along its entire length from which a platoon could hold off a battalion for days.

The North Vietnamese tucked their fixed installations, their clothing factories, weapons repair shops, hospitals, printing shops and even an R and R center into what they considered "an impenetrable stronghold."

Nearly 7,000 people farmed the valley floor, a mile and a half across at its widest point, on both sides of the twisting An Lao River, providing an additional source of labor, food and homes for the battalion of NVA regulars regularly stationed there.

Two other battalions roamed the Bong Son Plains.

The Communists closed the schools in 1958. South Vietnamese government control shrank to only the district headquarters, which was finally overrun in 1962.

The valley and its people had been controlled by the enemy since then.

But, no more.

The 1st Air Cav. Div. has moved 5,000 people and their livestock out. The other 2,000 presumably fled.

In a short while, the An Lao will be defoliated and declared a free-fire zone.

Six weeks ago, the 1st Bn., 7th Cav. went into the valley to stay. During that time they've been moving up and down the valley, moving out civilians and fighting the harassing forces left behind when the enemy main force fled.

For D Co., led by Capt. Frank Finn, enemy contact has been fairly constant.

A platoon was pinned down recently by heavy automatic weapons fire in a small hamlet at the foot of the western valley wall.

SSgt. Ken Miller of the 1st Platoon, 4th Bn., 60th Arty. volunteered his "duster," two .40 mm cannon mounted on a tracked vehicle, to go help.

Moving down the riverbank 1,000 meters to the beleaguered platoon, the duster spotted a squad under fire on the other side of the river.

The squad had moved into the open at the edge of the river prior to crossing and reinforcing the platoon in the hamlet.

Miller plunged the duster into the 300-foot wide, 6-foot deep river to pull the nine men out of trouble.

Two tanks of the 1st Platoon, A Co.. 60th Armored Cav. arrived, one backing in front of a wounded man to shield him. and blasted away at the .jungle.

The communist fire died.

The bank on the far side of the river was too high for either the tanks or the cluster to climb, so the eight remaining infantrymen waded across.

Three were swept away by the water, but managed to scramble ashore 300 feet downstream, minus their equipment.

There were 300 yards of open rice paddy between the squad and the hamlet. Only five had weapons and all were low on ammunition.

Lt. Ray Shackelford, an artillery forward observer, directed artillery fire so precise and close that two Americans received minor shrapnel wounds, but the enemy fire stopped.

"I wouldn't rather fight anywhere else," said Finn later ^thaU evening.

"This valley has a strange fascination for us. I can't quite explain it. Maybe, it's because the An Lao is so beautiful and so deadly. But it's my valley."

Since the 1st Cav. battalion has been in the An Lao, 130 of its defenders have died.

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