Sgt. John Sanderson and his LRRP intelligence team played cat & mouse with enemy in Vietnam

Sgt. John Sanderson of Heron Creek subdivision in North Port, Fla. was the leader of the first LRRP team attached to the 4th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War. He and his Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol would spend five days at a time in the jungle spying on enemy activities and report their findings by radio to division headquarters.

He and his four men spent much of their time searching for North Vietnam Army soldiers and Vietcong guerrillas in the Central Highlands. They would get into quick, deadly firefights with the enemy before being extracted at the last minute by helicopter.

It was a cat and mouse game and they were the mice.

Sgt. Sanderson at 20 with a bottle of Scotch shortly after returning from a five-day patrol with this team looking for North Vietnam Army or Vietcong activity in the bush. Photo provided

Sgt. Sanderson at 20 with a bottle of Scotch shortly after returning from a five-day patrol with his team looking for North Vietnam Army or Vietcong activity in the bush. Photo provided

After some on the job training at a Recon School run by the 5th Special Forces at la Drang, Sanderson and his four man team were sent out into the bush. They were equipped with a couple of radios to communicate back to base camp. They also had the latest in weaponry — Colt M-4 carbines were their main source of armament. They also carried M-79 grenade launchers and camouflage uniforrs unlike other American troops.

They were dropped behind enemy lines and if they were spotted by the enemy they were helicoptered out, if they were lucky.

The whole time he was in Vietnam, Sanderson never lost a man. Their five-man team was the first and only Recon Team the 4th Infantry Division had in 1966 and ’67 when Sanderson and his men were in ‘Nam.

“One day we were out in the field and we spotted the enemy. It was 23 Feb. 1967 and we were in the la Drang Valley. We were trying to follow the enemy back to their base camp when another group of enemy soldiers came up behind us,” Sanderson recalled. “Our rear guard guy, Danny Harmon, was trying to signal me, but I’m on the radio talking to our base. I knew nothing about the enemy behind us.

Spc. 4 Danny Harman of Kodiak, Alaska was Sanderson’s point man in their five-man recon team the whole time they served in Vietnam. He was killed by the enemy on a patrol a few days before he was scheduled to complete his tour. Photo provided

Spc. 4 Danny Harmon of Kodiak, Alaska was Sanderson’s point man in their five-man recon team the whole time they served in Vietnam. He was killed by the enemy on a patrol a few days before he was scheduled to complete his tour. Photo provided

“Harmon ended up shooting the lead guy in the enemy patrol coming up behind us. This gave us away and we had to go. Harmon passed me on the way out. I had to hold the team together as we started extracting ourselves as quickly as possible,” he said 48 years later.

“We got back far enough and I called in artillery fire behind us to slow down the advancing enemy. Unfortunately, the artillery officer walked his fire right over us. We survived by reaching a gully and keeping our heads down as artillery rounds fell all around us. It was unbelievable none of us were killed by our own shelling.

“We crossed into Cambodia and about that time a FACs (Forward Air Controller) in a fixed-wing aircraft spotted our team and guided us toward a nearby landing zone. Huey helicopters flew in to pick us up at the LZ (Landing Zone). I popped smoke as they circled the LZ. As they started to land they received enemy ground fire and flew off,” Sanderson said.

“At that point we tried to clear the LZ of enemy. Then we radioed the choppers back that as far as we knew the LZ was clear of enemy. They got ready to land a second time when and they were hit by more enemy ground fire. To make matters worse, they were running low on fuel and sounded on the radio like they were ready to fly home without us.

“’The hell with it. I’m going in to get ‘em!’ one of the chopper pilots said on the radio,” Sanderson remembered.

“In comes this helicopter pilot right over the tree tops, flairs out and set it down. We ran out there to the LZ with all of our stuff and jumped in. The chopper pilot was out of there in one hell of a hurry. I was the last guy aboard and I was hanging on as everybody on board was firing back at the enemy on the ground,” he said.

We flew back to a fire base and landed. I was the first one off the helicopter. I ran over to the pilot’s door and opened it. Here was this freckled-face kid who appeared to be no more than 18-years-old flying the thing. I gave him a great big kiss right on the side of his cheek,” Sanderson said with a grin.

“I understand he received the Distinguished Flying Cross for what he did that day when he saved our lives. I never saw him again and I don’t know what his name was,” he concluded.

“We were out on another five-day excursion looking for enemy when we came across a ‘Hot Trail’ the NVA or VC were using,” he explained. “It was rough terrain in the Central Highlands that had lots of fire ants and little drinkable water.

“I pulled my team off the path and Harmon, my point-man and I moved up closer to the path to watch for enemy coming and going. I crossed the path and got on a hill a little ways down. Harmon stayed on the other side of the path. The two of us were there for hours doing nothing but waiting,” he said.

John Sanderson is ready to take on the enemy in a bunker in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1967. Photo provided

John Sanderson is ready to take on the enemy in a bunker in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1967. Photo provided

“All of a sudden I spotted a group of enemy guys coming down the trail. The lead guy was carrying an old French machine-gun. They went by me and went down the trial toward Harmon. The enemy had his machine-gun point right at Harmon and seemed to be looking right at his as he walked closer and closer to him.

“He was so close to Harmon he opened up on the NVA soldier and blew him away with his Car-16. Then all hell broke loose. I fired on the other NVA troops and there were 10 dead enemy soldiers along the trail. Then I threw a grenade down the trail to stop more enemy from coming toward us,” Sanderson said.

“At that moment I saw this Vietnamese woman carrying a back pack walking toward me down the trail. I drew down on her with my Car-16, but I didn’t shoot her I let her go,” he said. During debriefing I got bitched out for not killing her.”

Almost five decades later he rolled his eyes and said one word: “Vietnam.”

“We found a big satchel of enemy documents and money one of the dead soldiers was carrying. We found out later these troops were enemy tax collectors and they were making their rounds when we ran into them.”

By July 1967 Sanderson’s tour in Vietnam was over. He was proud of being the sergeant in charge of the 4th Infantry Division’s first LRRP Team in the Vietnam War. He and a flight full of happy warriors flew back to the States aboard a Braniff jet.

“Our first stop was Guam. We laid over there a couple of hours. A buddy I met on the flight home and I went to the NCO Club on Guam and came back to the plane with two shopping bags full of liquor. We sat in the back of the plane pouring shots for the rest of the guys on our flight. We flew from Guam to Honolulu and from there to Oakland. When we reached California we had money sticking out of all of our pockets from pouring drinks for the troops on the plane,” Sanderson said.

Sanderson with his commendations. He received two Bronze Stars with V for Valor, an Army Commendation Medal and a Combat Infantryman’s Badge fighting with the 4th Infantry Division as a long range reconnaissance scout in Vietnam. Sun photo by Don Moore

Sanderson with his commendations. He received two Bronze Stars with V for Valor, an Army Commendation Medal and a Combat Infantryman’s Badge fighting with the 4th Infantry Division as a long range reconnaissance scout in Vietnam. Sun photo by Don Moore

He returned to his home in the Detroit area and went back to engineering school. After two years he graduated and went to work in sales for a machine tool maker that who sold his wares to Uncle Sam. He eventually became the regional head of the firm’s tool making operation in San Diego, Calif. area. In his area was the local Navy yard and the governments Aero Space Industry where he filled the government’s tool contracts for the last 14 years on the job.

Sanderson retired and he and his wife Nancy moved to North Port in 2006. He has a son, Jason, from an earlier marriage, who graduated from the Air Force Academy. He is a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and flies B-1” Lancer” Bombers.

AWARD OF THE BRONZE STAR MEDAL FOR HEROISM

SANDERSON, JOHN A., SERGEANT United States Army
Company A, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division
Award: Bronze Star Medal with ”V” Device
Date Action: 23 Feb. 1967 to 25 Feb. 1967
Theater: Republic of Vietnam
Reason: For heroism in connection with military operations against a hostile force. Sgt. Sanderson distinguished himself by heroic actions during the period 23rd Feb. to 25th Feb. 1967 in the Republic of Vietnam.

Sgt. Sanderson and three other men comprised a team which was part of a Long Range Reconnaissance Platoon, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division. Sgt. Sanders, acting as patrol leader, led his team into an enemy occupied area on an information-gathering mission. The team located an enemy encampment on 24 Feb. and stealthily established an observation post along a trail leading from the camp.

A group of 23 enemy soldiers, obviously a mortar squad, were soon observed traveling in the direction of the 1st Battalion 22nd Infantry Fire Base. Sgt. Sanders, aware of the threat this enemy mortar team posed to the fire base, quickly determined the most likely location from which a mortar attack might be made and reported his findings to the 1st Battalion.

The fire base bombarded the suspected enemy position that night and, early the following morning. Sgt. Sanderson’s team observed the mortar patrol returning, carrying dead and wounded. At daybreak, the team was discovered by the enemy.

Under Sgt. Sanderson’s commendable leadership, the team summoned artillery support to cover their withdrawal and their way to a helicopter landing zone and were evacuated. Sgt. Sanderson’s courage, sound judgement and wise leadership is in keeping with the highest standards of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.

Authority: By direction of the President under the provisions of Executive Order 11046, 24 Aug. 1962.

Sanderson’s File

John Sanderson at 71. Sun photo by Don MooreName: John Alexander Sanderson
D.O.B: 14 Feb 1945
Hometown: Collingswood, Canada
Currently: North Port, Fla.
Entered Service: 10 Aug 1965
Discharged: 13 June 1967
Rank: Tech Sergeant
Unit: Company A, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division
Commendations: Two Bronze Star medals with “V” devices for Valor, Army Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, One Overseas Service Bar, One Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
Battles/Campaigns: la Drang Valley, Central Highlands, Vietnam

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Jan. 10, 2016 and is republished with permission.

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