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Entry into the soul of a wanderer

A long-lost diary sheds light on the final days of Joe Sanderson, a man who craved adventure. His last one would cost him his life.

August 23, 2008|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

PERQUIN, EL SALVADOR — 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."

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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.

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