Collection of Eugenie Buchan, 10-10-07
Early Navy Aviator
1892 - 1965
Biographical note by
Eugenie Maechling Buchan (granddaughter)
Captain Bruce Leighton, a graduate of the Naval Academy,
('with distinction', 1913), was one of the first Navy Aviators (license no. 40, April 1917 Pensacola). From mid-1917 until the end of World War I, he flew in naval patrols off Killingholme, Scotland. In the 1920s he was employed in Navy departments such as the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) overseeing the development of the air-cooled engine. He also continued to fly serving as Commanding Officer (CO) on naval carriers: he flew in the first squadrons to operate regularly from ship borne catapults and also in extended flights over the North Pole. In 1926 he was Aide for Aeronautics to the Secretary of the Navy and he became Chief of the Plans Division of BuAer in 1927. Leighton resigned from the Navy in 1928 to become a Vice President of Wright Aeronautical Corporation and of Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. 1933-1936.
Airplanes for China during the "China Incident"
From 1937-1939, Leighton was in China as Vice president of Intercontinent Corporation and its subsidiary, the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Co. (CAMCO), a joint venture with the Chinese Government in which Curtiss-Wright and Douglas Aircraft had an interest. William D. Pawley, the leading commercial agent for US aircraft manufacturers, was the President of both Intercontinent and CAMCO. As Pawley was often away on business in Europe and the US, Leighton ran the operations in China.
The core of Intercontinent's activity was the sale, assembly and maintenance of aircraft used by the Chinese Air Force (CAF). Early Bird George Arnold ran the first CAMCO plant at Hangchow from its inception in 1934 until August 1937 when the Japanese bombed it out. Soon thereafter Arnold returned to the United States to take up a post at Curtiss-Wright in Buffalo. ( see note from his son below)
From 1937 to 1939, Leighton oversaw the construction of other CAMCO plants in the interior of China. The Hangchow plant was relocated to Hankow in the autumn of 1937. After the fall of Hankow to the Japanese in late October 1938, a new factory site was acquired in December 1938 in Yunnan province close to the border with Burma and its important port and rail facilities. There were also three other repair units at Chengtu, Hengyang and Kunming. The Loiwing factory complex on the Salween River along the Burmese border began production on 30 Curtiss-Wright Hawk III pursuit planes in July 1939. It carried on with assembly of other CW pursuits and interceptors, Vultees and maintenance operations for the CAF and the Flying Tigers until Japanese bombers destroyed it in April 1942.
Role in founding the Flying Tigers
In May 1939, Bill Pawley, his brother Ed and Leighton had one of their fairly regular meetings with Dr. H H Kung, China's Minister of Finance. At the end they talked about the challenges confronting the Chinese Air Force in the face of Japan's superior air power. What China needs, stated Dr Kung, was a group "such as the Lafayette Escadrille active in the Asiatic theatre." Pawley and Leighton promised to, "do everything to put China's problem before various men of influence in the United States."
On returning to the United States at the end of 1939, Leighton continued as VP of Intercontinent in New York but started to spend time in Washington DC. From January 1940 he was calling on friends and colleagues in the Navy to talk about a volunteer squadron and aircraft program to assist the Chinese Air Force. Pawley was also involved in meetings with government officials about using CAMCO as the organisation 'on the ground' to support the volunteer group. Their lobbying efforts were reinforced during the course of the year by the arrival of T V Soong , Chiang Kai Shek's special emissary in Washington and Col. Claire Chennault, China's special adviser on aviation.
In January 1941 President Roosevelt gave the go-ahead for an American Volunteer Group (AVG) for China. 100 Curtiss-Wright P-40s (Mohawks) originally committed to Great Britain were to be diverted to China. In March 1941 on behalf of CAMCO, Leighton signed a contract with the Chinese government to use this organisation to hire, transport and pay AVG personnel in the US and China. CAMCO/Intercontinent was reimbursed out of a revolving fund established in the US by the Chinese Government, which in turn drew on lend-lease loans from the US government.
Through the rest of 1941, Leighton, Chennault, Richard Aldworth and C.B. 'Skip' Adair were authorised to recruit pilots and mechanics directly from US air bases to serve under Chennault, their "supervisor" in China. The first pilots and mechanics sailed for China in July and others followed: the squadrons were based in Burma and Kunming in China. The AVG became legendary as the Flying Tigers mounting successful missions against the Japanese from November 1941 to July 1942 when the unit was absorbed into the Army Air Force operation in the China, Burma, India Theater.
With America's entry into the War, Leighton was recalled to active duty with the rank of Captain USN and held numerous positions. For the last two years of the war, he was based in Los Angeles as Production Executive for Bureau Aeronautics, Western District, organising and supervising BuAer Field Offices for the control of navy aircraft production in the Western US.
After the war, Bruce Leighton was a member of the Inter-Departmental Ad hoc Committee to study and make recommendations for control of Germany's power and capacity to make war in the future. At that time he received a letter of Commendation with ribbon. He retired in August 1946.
In the 1950s, Bruce bought a farm in the Indian River and lived in Stuart, Florida. He died of a stroke while playing golf with his son Bruce Jr. on Pearl Harbour day, 7 December 1965. He is buried next to his older brother Admiral Frank Thomson Leighton in Arlington National Cemetery.
Bruce Leighton's official Navy biography in CONTACT states, "he probably did more than any other man to develop reliability in Navy aircraft engines." A month before his death he wrote, " My service in naval aviation was a source of lifelong pride."
via email from Robert Arnold, 3-25-07
Am not sure if I can be of much help but will be glad to try. My father, (George B. Arnold), was in charge of Central Aircraft's (CAMCO) plant in Shien Chiao (near Hangchow) from 1934 to 1937 when it was bombed out. We lived in Hangchow and I went to school in Shanghai. My brother Scott was not old enough so he was schooled in Hangchow. My mother, brother and I were in the States on vacation when the factory was bombed on August 14,1937. My father kept a fairly comprehensive log of events because of possible future legal problems, I think, and Bruce Leighton's name appears several times in phone calls. He came to Hangchow from Nanking on September 1 1937 and left on September 17 after several meetings with my father and Bill Walsh. Sorry. but I do not recall any mention of Bruce Leighton during our time in Hangchow.
My parents and brother returned in late 39 or early 40 to Loiwing and were there for the bombing in October 1940. Scott does not remember Bruce Leighton there, but he was fourteen and probably had other interests. They then went on to India and returned to the States in February of 1941 where my father was in charge of Intercontinent's plant in Miami. Believe we have a few photos of the bombing at Loiwing and we do have many photos of the Shien Chiao plant, with Chinese titles. as well as the bonbing there. Am sure you had hoped for more and I'll let you know if anything else develops.