Joe Sanderson left his Midwestern hometown in his 20s with a backpack, a notepad and a dream of being a writer.
Starting in the mid-1960s, he crossed the Pacific on a freighter, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and kept going, for two decades in all, traipsing across more than 60 countries. Everywhere he went, he kept a diary and wrote to Mom and Dad back home in Urbana, Ill.
Shortly after arriving in this Central American country in 1979, Sanderson pulled off his most audacious feat yet: He joined a guerrilla army.
“Not much cover in the rocks, and the bullets, as they say, came thick and fast,” Sanderson wrote in his diary, describing a helicopter attack against his column of rebel fighters. “Sounded like little kids trying to whistle after eating cracker crumbs. Pfffittt! Pfffittt!”
Not long after he wrote those words in 1982, Sanderson’s wanderings ended, 17 days short of his 40th birthday, in a makeshift field hospital with his diary still in his backpack.
Joe Sanderson is one of two Americans known to have fought and died with the guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the leftist rebels whose war against El Salvador’s U.S.-backed military junta was one of the last conflicts of the Cold War.
Rescued from the battlefield by a rebel historian, Sanderson’s 330-page diary and other writings lay neglected and unread for decades. The guerrilla veteran who saved the diary recently allowed me access to it, the first time an outsider had seen it.
The diary and the hundreds of missives Sanderson wrote home tell an unlikely American adventure story. They chronicle a peripatetic Midwesterner who joked and charmed his way across five continents, and eventually fought against an army backed by his own government.
Sanderson grew up in a comfortable neighborhood of Urbana, home to the University of Illinois, where his father was a professor of entomology, specializing in beetles.
The future film critic Roger Ebert lived on the same block and graduated with Sanderson in the Urbana High class of 1960. Ebert remembers Joe as a friend who collected butterflies and reptiles, and who left home with $100 bills his mother had sewn into his clothes. “From a nice little house surrounded by evergreens at the other end of Washington Street, he left to look for something he needed to find,” Ebert wrote in a 2007 review of the film “Into the Wild.” The movie, he told his readers, reminded him of a childhood friend with a similar story.
“Into the Wild” tells the story of a man’s solitary and ultimately fatal journey into the Alaskan wilderness. Sanderson spent the final months of his life in the pine forests that surround the town of Perquin, in northeastern El Salvador.
He had joined an army made up mostly of peasants, college students and union activists -- along with a smattering of foreigners recruited by the international solidarity movement that supported the rebels’ cause against a military government associated with right-wing death squads.
“It seems strange to call the M-1 I’m using La Virgencita [the Little Virgin],” Sanderson wrote in his diary after a crazed firefight in which he and enemy soldiers shouted insults at each other in Spanish. “Polished stock, definitely a beauty . . . at least as guns go.”
Sanderson’s nom de guerre among his companions was “Lucas.” He often worked alongside Carlos Consalvi, alias “Santiago,” a Venezuelan-born activist who ran the rebels’ clandestine radio station, Radio Venceremos. Consalvi rescued the diary and has it in the collection of the San Salvador museum he founded to preserve the rebels’ history.
“Lucas was a good friend, a person who lifted our spirits with his optimism,” Consalvi said recently. “The American government spent millions of dollars fighting us. But we had one American on our side.”
Writing over the course of several weeks in the inexpensive spiral notebooks used by Salvadoran schoolchildren, Sanderson recounts his adventures in English spiced with a liberal flavoring of Salvadoran idioms and guerrilla slang, quickly moving from the mundane to horrific as he describes the daily details of rebel life: the joys of being able to drink coffee after days without, and the 17 army corpses that lay for hours on the battlefield after a rebel victory.
“And now a new phase begins,” Sanderson wrote on March 22, 1982, as his column of rebels marched toward the mountainous province of Morazan. “And with a little luck and good strategy planning on our part, and bad luck to the cuilios [army soldiers] -- even the last phase.”
He took note of the many ironies and absurdities seen in a poor country at war: the rebels pausing during a retreat to eat mangoes in a grove; the peasants venturing out on their daily market routines and doing their best to ignore the rival forces marching among them.
In his last entry, on April 27, 1982, he described the death and burial by flashlight of a fellow rebel the night before.
There was “no weeping or sadness,” Sanderson wrote, just fighters inspecting the dead man’s wound as if it were the “tropical bud” of a flower and checking the pockets of his bloodied pants to find “stray buttons . . . and a crumpled package of Kool-Aid.”
In his home in the United States, Steve Sanderson keeps a box of mementos of his kid brother: the Star Scout certificate Joe earned when he was 15; his “Water Safety Instructor” badge; the logbook of Joe’s flights across Illinois after he earned a pilot’s license; three boxes and 10 binders that contain a few hundred of Joe’s letters.
There are several photos of teenage Joe in the horn-rimmed glasses of the day. One shows him clowning on a motorcycle in the driveway, holding a bottle of wine in one hand and a set of bongo drums in another: This was Joe’s idea of what it was like to be a wandering bohemian.
“He was the intellectual and idealist in the family, and was more like my father,” said Steve, now 68. “I was the more practical and conservative one and more like our mother.”
Steve graduated from college and became an accountant, like his mother, Virginia Coleman. Joe studied theology at Hanover College in Indiana, but dropped out his senior year. Then he hit the road.
In the years that followed, Joe filled Urbana mailboxes with postcards and envelopes emblazoned with colorful stamps: a gray parrot from Nigeria, a zooming jet from the Republiek van Suid-Afrika, a mosque from Jordan.
Steve says the arrival of a letter from Joe was an occasion usually celebrated with a family dinner. “My mother would call and say, ‘Come on over, we got a letter from Joe.’ ”
After the meal, the family would listen to Coleman read Joe’s letters. His words brought exotic locales into their living room: the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, the dun plains of Iraq, the waters of Lake Victoria in Uganda.
In 1969, Joe reached Nigeria, then in the midst of civil war. He got a job administering vaccines to babies in refugee camps. The job was grim, but Sanderson’s letters home described his duties and the war with his usual sardonic humor. “The Red Cross,” he wrote in one, “is desperate for workers to hit the bush and drink gin, contract malaria and get shot at for breakfast.”
He also journeyed to the 38th Parallel separating the Koreas, founded a “hippie hospital” in the Bolivian mountain town of Sorata and posed as a journalist covering the Vietnam War.
When he returned home to the U.S. periodically, he painted flagpoles and church steeples -- the hazardous work allowed him to raise cash for his travels.
His mother tried to get him to settle down and pursue a career.
“When your kid is 19 and he’s a wandering hippie, that’s OK,” Steve said. “But when your kid is 30, or 40, and he’s still a wandering hippie, you realize that’s what he’s going to be.”
Sanderson left for El Salvador as a tourist in 1979. At first, it seemed like any of his other adventures.
“Howdy all,” he wrote from La Libertad, El Salvador, in January 1980. “Out here on the beach an hour outside the capital . . . and in the midst of a suspended revolution what do I find but a damn surfer colony! Some revolution!
” . . . My first night in town got drunk out at the U.S. Embassy Marine Guard house, so I want you to know your taxpayer’s money is being well spent.”
Not long afterward, Sanderson found himself in an impoverished district of San Salvador, partially controlled by the revolutionaries. An armored vehicle had opened fire on a rebel barricade, and a group of rebels was seeking treatment for a wounded comrade.
Sanderson said he could help -- he had been a medic in the U.S. Army Reserves. He treated the wounded man, then told the rebels that he wanted to “participate in the struggle.”
“I never thought he might be a spy,” said former rebel Adolfo Sanchez, then known as “Comandante Fito.” “The kindness with which he treated our comrade’s wounds told me he couldn’t be a spy.”
The rebels liked the earnest Sanderson, but took precautions. They made him stay in a San Salvador hide-out for weeks, and had him run “training” laps at a local soccer stadium.
Eventually, he was assigned to a rebel column that marched eastward to Morazan province.
At 5-foot-11, with blue eyes and sandy hair, he stood out. In an army made up mostly of teenagers and 20-year-olds, he was a wise viejo, or old man.
Veterans of his rebel column still recount stories of his wartime deeds. They remember him as a “metaphysical” philosopher and raconteur who loved the works of Ernest Hemingway.
“He’d wear jeans and a beige shirt, and a red bandanna . . . but never a uniform, because he wasn’t a military-type guy,” said “Eduardo,” a Mexico City surgeon who staffed a rebel hospital and asked that his real name not be printed. The two men talked for hours about religion and flying.
Several of the skills Sanderson had mastered as an Illinois youth turned out to be quite handy to the guerrillas.
“I always wanted Lucas next to me, because he was an excellent shot,” said Jose Ismael Romero, then a 25-year-old rebel leader known as “Comandante Bracamontes.”
Once, Sanderson challenged the comandante to a shooting contest -- and won.
Unbeknownst to his comrades, Sanderson had taken and passed a National Rifle Assn. marksmanship test in Illinois. Jorge Melendez, a.k.a. “Comandante Jonas,” a rebel commander Joe refers to as “the Whale” in his diary, remembers a long discussion with Sanderson over the rebels’ poor shooting skills.
“Look, hombre,” he remembers Sanderson telling him. “The M-16 is a good weapon, a very versatile weapon. The problem is that the comrades don’t know how to use the M-16. You have to teach them how to use it properly.”
‘Moon’s on the wane, flashlight batteries on the wane, but wanted to scribble [a] quick message Arizona-way,” Sanderson wrote on Feb. 14, 1982, in his last letter to his father, who was living in Arizona after a divorce.
“So here I be -- still fat and healthy (on tortillas and beans),” he wrote. “Still grinning my grin -- still ready to swap my Salvadoran butterfly net for an Arizona fishing pole.”
Two months later, while rushing to capture an enemy machine gun in the deceptively quiet aftermath of another battle, he was injured when a grenade or mortar shell exploded nearby.
Eduardo, the volunteer Mexican surgeon, worked to stem the bleeding from a shrapnel wound, even as army troops advanced on the makeshift operating room.
But for a shortage of plasma that plagued the rebel hospital, the doctor says, he would probably have saved Sanderson’s life.
“He had a deep stare and he took my hand,” the doctor recalled earlier this year. “We looked at each other and he told me: ‘Don’t worry, Eduardo. It’s all going to be OK.’ ”
Retreating fighters quickly buried Sanderson by a river that ran through rebel territory. Consalvi saved his diaries and had them smuggled to an FMLN archive in Nicaragua by a courier who risked death to ferry them past army lines.
When news of Sanderson’s death arrived in Urbana, it was incomplete, vague and never entirely convincing.
An initial news agency story named the American killed as “Joe S. Anderson.”
The FMLN never contacted the Sanderson family. The U.S. Embassy could provide little information, other than to confirm that Sanderson was dead.
The Salvador war ended with a peace treaty in 1992. But for more than two decades, the Sandersons -- his father is in his 90s now; his mother died years ago -- never learned the exact circumstances of Joe’s death, or where he was buried, until I told them this year.
Even though a life insurance company paid the Sandersons on a policy Joe had taken out, the possibility that he might still be traveling the world someplace never quite left his brother.
“The first time I was ever convinced that there was no possibility that he could come knocking at my door,” Steve told me, “was when I talked to you.”
Special correspondent Alex Renderos in San Salvador contributed to this report.