Marines pioneer close air support in Central America
By JOHN M. DOYLE, Special Correspondent
Marine Corps aviation was only 16 years old when a scrappy bunch of fliers patrolling the rugged mountains and dense forests of
Nicaragua pioneered dive bombing as a way of providing close air support to troops on the ground.
In the first four decades of the 20th century, the
United States found itself in a series of police actions,
counterinsurgency operations and peacekeeping mis-
sions in the Caribbean Basin and Central America. And
the Marine Corps was the go-to force in maintaining
order during the tumultuous period known as the
Following World War I, the Marines deployed aircraft
in support and observation roles in Haiti and the
Dominican Republic. But it was in Nicaragua in the late
1920s that Marine Corps aviators began to perfect the
concept of dive bombing as a means
of supporting ground troops.
Before the Marines left Nicaragua in 1933, they chalked up a
number of aviation firsts, including the first relief of a besieged
town by aircraft. One aviator, Lt.
Christian F. Schilt, would receive
the Medal of Honor in 1928 for
repeatedly landing his Vought O2U
Corsair under intense enemy fire
on a short airstrip carved from a
primitive village street to deliver
medical supplies to a besieged unit
and evacuate the wounded.
lieve the tactic was first used by air forces on both sides
in World War I, “but the Marines certainly took to it,”
said Wray R. Johnson, a retired Air Force colonel who
teaches military history at the Marine Corps School of
Advanced Warfighting in Quantico, Va.
Within a few years, he added, the Marines “really kind
of perfected it to the point where the Navy and other
countries started paying pretty close attention to it.”
According to Marine Corps Aviation: The Early Years
1912-1940, published by the Corps’ History and
Museum Division in 1977, Lt. Lawson H.M. Sanderson
is believed to be the first Marine aviator to experiment
with the dive-bombing concept in 1919 while sta-
tioned in Haiti. Sanderson started with a jury-rigged
mechanism using mailbags, gradually adapting con-
ventional Army bomb racks.
No one really knows who invented
the concept of having individual
airplanes swoop close to the ground
to drop explosives directly on a target, instead of mass bombing —
often less accurately — from higher
altitudes. Aviation historians be-
U.S. MARINE CORPS
Marine aviators stand with homemade bombs in Haiti in 1920.