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HERITAGE SERIES: Selfridge mud couldn't stop future USMC general

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
Not all of the aviation pioneers who set records, blazed new trails and launched distinguished military careers at Selfridge Field were Airmen in the U.S. Air Force or its various predecessor organizations in the U.S. Army. For one early aviator, a brief stay at Selfridge in the busy Interwar Years between World Wars I and II was a rare lowlight in an otherwise stellar 34 years of service to the nation.

That Major Gen. Lawson H. M. "Sandy" Sanderson served his entire military career as a U.S. Marine makes his inclusion in the historic aviator's logbook at Selfridge all the more unusual, as no Marine Corps flying squadron has ever been assigned to the base now known as Selfridge Air National Guard Base.

Sanderson's most notable moments came at the very start of his career and at the very end. In 1919, as a very junior Marine pilot, Sanderson and his fellow Marines were sent to respond to an uprising in Haiti. While operating there, Sanderson determined that the bombing tactics used at the time - in which an aircraft flew level over a target and the rear observer released the bomb load - was highly inaccurate. Working on his own, Lt. Sanderson began experimenting with various techniques. He mounted a sight on to the windshield of his Curtiss JN-4 Jenny and developed a bomb rack out of a canvas bag that he would be able to release from the pilot's position in the aircraft. Eventually, he settled upon a dive-bombing approach, in which he would drop the nose of his aircraft, enter into a dive of about 45 degrees - quite steep for the aircraft of the time - then release the bomb himself at an altitude of about 250 feet. Sanderson's ideas and tactics quickly caught on with his fellow Marine pilots and the young lieutenant came to be known as the "father of dive-bombing" according to an official USMC history.

In the early 1920s, Lawson was assigned to several aviation tests projects under development by the Dept. of the Navy. Key among them was to test a new high-powered engine added to a small "racer" aircraft. The Navy-Wright NW-1 was developed under such tight security in New York that it was dubbed the "Mystery Racer" by various news reports of the day. The unusual "sesquiplane" - a sort of modified bi-plane with a much smaller lower wing - featured two external radiators and a number of other unusual features. The liquid-cooled V-12 engine was capable of producing 600 horsepower and occupied 1,948 cubic inches. The first public testing of the aircraft would be the 1922 Pulitzer Trophy races at Selfridge.

On Oct. 11, 1922, in a practice run three days before the actual race, Sanderson reached a top speed of 209 miles per hour - unofficially above the world record speed at the time - in a 30-minute flight over Lake St. Clair. Back on Earth at Selfridge, Sanderson declared the aircraft ready to go for the big race.

On Oct. 14, during the race - competing against the likes of legendary aviation general Billy Mitchell - Lawson was in the hunt for the lead through the midway point of the 250km course when his oil temperature gauge began to show a problem. In his shorter test flights, the engine oil cooler was sufficient for the big T-2 engine. Going all out in a longer race, the oil began to overheat. Lawson "fixed" the problem for a while by placing a handkerchief over the gauge - out of sight, out of mind! Naturally, handkerchief solution turned out to be short-lived.

With his engine now overheating and smoke beginning to billow from his aircraft, he headed back toward shore. Approaching Gaulker Point, Sanderson saw a crowd of spectators lining the shore and had no choice but to try to put down in shallow water. As he made contact with the lake, his aircraft flipped over, sending the top of the fuselage - and Sanderson in the cockpit - into the mud. The Marine pilot was essentially buried alive in the silt of the lake bottom. Sanderson managed to keep his wits about him, though, and was able to dig his way out and make his way to shore unharmed. The NW-1, however, was a total loss.

Sanderson competed again at Pulitzer races in 1923, but never captured a trophy. In 1925, he earned a higher prize - his first command, as the first commander of Marine Fighting Squadron 2, one of the first Marine aviation units.

Sanderson held various other commands through the 1920s and 1930s. During World War II, he would record another career highlight as he was assigned as commander of 4 Marine Air Wing. Now a general, Sanderson led the wing in numerous battles throughout the Pacific theater of the war, participating in some of the most intense combat situations of the entire war.

In 1945, as a brigadier general, Sanderson was the senior officer present and accepted the surrender of Wake Island by the Japanese Empire - two days after the main Japanese surrender documents were signed aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Sanderson remained in the Marine Corps for six years after World War II and received his second star after the war ended. He retired in 1951, after a total of 34 years in the Marine Corps - two years as an enlisted Marine and 32 years as a rated aviator. He lived in California in retirement and died in 1979. Today, the top attack aviation squadron in the Marine Corps is presented the annual Major Gen. Lawson H.M. Sanderson Award, named in honor of one tough Marine who once dug himself out of the mud in Lake St. Clair.

Comprised of approximately 1,700 personnel and flying both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the KC-135 Stratotanker, the 127th Wing supports Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operation Command by providing highly-skilled Airmen to missions domestically and overseas. The 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which marks its 97th year of continuous military air operations in 2014.