Bruce Gardner Leighton (1892 -1965)

When I was growing up, my brother and I were  in awe of our maternal grandfather, ‘Daddy Bruce’ who had a farm in the Indian River near Stuart Florida.

Bruce Leighton at the Intercontinent aircraft factory, Miami Florida 1941.

Bruce went to the Naval Academy and gained his wings at Pennsacola in 1915 as Naval Aviator no.40. He served in World War I, flying observation flights out of Killingholme in England. In the 1920s he was aide to the first Assisstant Secretary of the Navy for Aviation, Ed Warner. At that time he also urged the Navy to support the development of the air cooled engine for observation planes.

In 1928 my grandmother Ethel persuaded Bruce to leave the Navy and go into business. He joined Wright Aeronautical , the aircraft engine firm founded by the Wright brothers. After Curtiss-Wright was formed in 1929, Bruce sold military aircraft mainly in the Balkans, Turkey and Russia. In 1936 he left the relative security of Curtiss-Wright to become vice-president of Intercontinent Aviation, a firm which had the exclusive right to sell C-W aircraft to China. The president of Intercontinent at that time was William Douglas Pawley.

In May 1937 Bruce, Ethel and my mother Janet moved to Shanghai. A few months later, the Sino-Japanese war broke out and forced them to relocate to Hong Kong. Nonetheless Bruce stayed on in China to look after the aircraft factory, the Central Aircraft Manufacturing company (CAMCO) which Intercontinent owned jointly with the Nationalist government headed by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

In December 1939, Bruce brought his family back to the United States where he continued to work for Intercontinent: he looked after the aircraft factory in Miami and handled government relations, including efforts to lobby the US Navy for air aid to China

Correspondence in his CAMCO, A.V.G folder revealed that in January – May 1940 he discussed with senior US Navy officers the urgent need to help China upgrade its air defence against the Japanese; he believed that if the US government provided loans to the Chinese government, Intercontinent could act as a private contractor to manage air operations against the enemy from CAMCO at Loiwing in Yunnan province near the Burma border.

A year later in mid- January 1941, Mort Deyo, aide to the SECNAV Frank Knox asked Leighton to hire pilots, organise training and maintain planes at Loiwing. Other documents in the CAMCO A.V.G. folder alluded to the diversion of a hundred Curtiss-Wright P-40 fighter planes from the British to the Chinese:  the details of this thorny transaction were to be found in British archives and the diaries of US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr.