Snapshots of History

Lawson Sanderson: Early Aviation Pioneer

The end of the calendar year offers many opportunities to remember and appreciate the American servicemen and -women who protect our country in the armed forces.  There’s Veteran’s Day, followed closely by the anniversary of the founding of the United States Marine Corps, along with Pearl Harbor Day.  Today, when we take these opportunities to think of our military, we think of one of the most technologically advanced bodies in the world.  While this has been true for a long time, there was an era not so far in the past when pioneers were still experimenting with what we’d now consider basic combat maneuvers as well as creating new forms of machinery and weaponry.  One of those pioneers was Lawson H. “Sandy” Sanderson.  PhillyHistory features a photo (below) of Sanderson in the Sesquicentennial Collection.  While we cannot be sure, Sanderson may have participated in Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial celebrations as one of the many pilots who put on aviation demonstrations as part of the festivities.

Purchase Photo

Sanderson rose to the rank of Major General, a two-star post, in the Marine Corps and was a skilled, daring aviator.  He was a trailblazer in perfecting a combat technique that would become crucial to modern warfare:  dive-bombing.  In 1919, the United States was involved in a skirmish in Haiti when some Marines were trapped by the rebels they were fighting.  Then-Lieutenant Sanderson was the commander of the 4th Squadron there.  He realized the US forces in Haiti were in need of assistance from the air.

Dive-bombing was just the thing, invented by British forces during World War I, but plagued with problems of inaccuracy.  Pilots were limited by an inability to clearly see their targets and properly aim their munitions.  Aviators had to release their bombs while flying horizontally, using only their rear observers’ directions and best guesses as to where the explosives would land, which Sanderson realized wouldn’t work in the close confines American troops were dealing with in Haiti.

Clearly, new technology needed to be perfected.  Sanderson was just the man for the job.  He undertook several trial-and-error experiments before figuring out a technique that worked.  He improvised a sight by mounting a carbine barrel, lined up with the plane’s long axis, to the windshield of his aircraft, an unarmed training craft, called a Curtiss JN-4 or “Jenny.”  Through his experiments, Sanderson found that dropping his plane’s nose and flying in at a 45° angle, then considered steep, was the most effective course of action.  He understood that the aircraft needed to dive toward the target in order to reduce the amount of time the bomb fell through the air.  The distance a bomb had to fall was highly influential in the accuracy of the hit.  The shorter the distance of the descent, the more precisely the bomb would hit the intended target.  Once Sanderson figured out the ideal angle, he then strapped a bomb in a canvas bag to the belly of his plane and flew into combat to rescue the stranded American forces.  He dropped the ordnance himself from approximately 250 feet and accurately hit his Haitian target, thus single-handedly liberating the trapped US troops.  However, the nearly vertical ascent necessary for recovery from the dive almost caused his aircraft to disintegrate.  Sanderson managed to avert crisis on this occasion, but it would not be the last time he experienced such dangerous flying conditions.

Sanderson’s improvised dive-bombing technique was so effective that other pilots began utilizing his system.  He was then tapped to teach it to other combat forces.  The innovation in dive-bombing that Sanderson came up with greatly enhanced the ability of the US military to stage raids from the air.  Sanderson’s improvement would be pivotal when the US later intervened in Nicaragua.

Undoubtedly, Sanderson was an aviation pioneer.  He was one of a group of several other crack fliers of his time.  This was an era when Americans were fascinated with airplanes and flying, which gave rise to many exciting aviation demonstrations.  One such event was the Pulitzer races, which took place from 1920-1925.  Sanderson was one of the participants in the Pulitzer races.  During this time, he experienced several more near-misses similar to the one he averted in Haiti.

These races were sponsored by Ralph Pulitzer, journalist and the son of Joseph Pulitzer, who established the Pulitzer Prizes.  The contests were a chance for pilots to show off their maneuvering skills and their planes.  Many of the aircraft were cutting-edge or even experimental.  Aviators could exhibit their daring and demonstrate just how fast their planes could fly.  Often, these fliers pushed the limits of their vessels’ abilities, setting new speed records and, occasionally, crashing their aircraft or making emergency landings after pushing them to their limits.  The pilots flew at such high, unheard-of speeds that many reported losing consciousness on turns because their planes weren’t equipped to combat the extreme gravitational forces they were experiencing.  Naturally, passing out in the cockpit led to a few mishaps.  Sanderson was not immune.  He won the prize for best air speed in a 1922 race, but lost another race he nearly won when he ran out of gas.  The race required each pilot to make several laps of a course and then taxi on the water during certain passes.  Sanderson had to drop out a mile from the finish due to his empty fuel tank.  In the next race, in which Sanderson flew what was known as the “Navy Mystery Plane,” his engine failed and Sanderson was forced to drop out in the penultimate lap.  He executed a somewhat controlled crash in a lake and then had to swim back to shore.  In 1923, Sanderson flew in a race in which he crossed the finish line just as his fuel gauge read empty and landed in a haystack.  His top speed during that event was just over 230 miles per hour.  Participating in the races was only a small piece of Sanderson’s remarkable life.

Sanderson spent his career in the Marine Corps and went on to serve in World War II.  He became a part of history when the Japanese government surrendered Wake Island.  Japan used Wake in part to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Some American forces were stationed there, but the Japanese took the island in late December of 1941.  Later, Japan would use Wake Island as a command post and to launch further offenses on Hawaii.  Throughout the war, the US repeatedly attempted to take back Wake Island.  The Japanese finally relinquished Wake to the US on September 7, 1945.  By that time, Sanderson was a Brigadier General, and the official to whom the Japanese surrendered the island.

Sanderson was born on July 22, 1895 in Shelton, WA.  He died on June 11, 1976 in San Diego, CA.  He was 80.  Sanderson Field, an airport in Shelton, WA, formerly called Mason County Airport, was renamed for him in August of 1966.

“Lawson Sanderson: Early Aviation Pioneer” is part of the “Snapshots of History” series that provides background info on select images from the database.


1. “Airpower and Restraint in Small Wars,” Aerospace Power Journal, Fall 2001

2. “Army Flier Speeds 220 Miles an Hour,” New York Times, October 9, 1922,

3. “Dive bomber,” Wikipedia article,

4. “Lawson H. Sanderson,” on Early Birds of Aviation, Inc., Ralph Cooper,

5. “The Pulitzer Races,” Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Rankin, USMC, Proceedings Magazine, the US Naval Institute, September 1959, Vol. 85/9/679,

6. “Ralph Pulitzer,” Wikipedia article,

7. “Sanderson Field,” Wikipedia article,

8. “To Hell and Back:  Wake during and after World War II,” Dirk H.R. Spenneman, from Marshalls: Digital Micronesia,