The Leighton Papers

Buried in the middle of Leighton’s CAMCO, A.V.G. file was an intriguing telegram from Bruce to Bill Pawley dated January 16, 1941. It referred to a conversation with Mort Deyo who was the assistant to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. I knew from my mother that he was an old Navy friend of Bruce.

Deyo gave Bruce the ‘go-ahead’ from Knox for a full air program ‘as discussed’ which included the private employment of personnel and shipments of material from current production. Resignation of instructors, presumably from the US military would be accepted. Deyo wrote that Knox wanted Leighton to ‘personally handle personnel selection’ and wanted to see him as soon as possible to talk about the details.

‘Telegram from Leighton to Pawley, January 16 1941’ Leighton Papers, CAMCO/AVG folder in author’s possession.

I found other sources that provided the context for this cable, especially in the voluminous diaries of US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr, Fortunately these are all available online thanks to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library.

Intercontinent became involved in this transaction because of its special relationship with Curtiss-Wright. Since 1933 it had been the exclusive agent for Curtiss-Wright aircraft exports to China; CAMCO, its joint venture with the Nationalist government assembled and maintained all the planes. Knox wanted Leighton not only to take care of the P-40s once they had arrived in China but also to hire instructors from US bases who could teach the Chinese pilots how to fly their new planes.

On January 6 1941 Morgenthau arranged for Curtiss-Wright to start shipping batches of P-40s to the Far East. His staff were still in discussion with Intercontinent about the size of the commission which it was due for the P-40 sale because of its exclusive arrangement with Curtiss-Wright.  By the end of January, Intercontinent had agreed to receive a fee for its services $250,000 instead of its customary sales commission which would have amounted to $450,000 on this contract.

On January 25, 1941 Intercontinent came to a further agreement with T.V. Soong, the brother in law of Chiang Kai-shek and his personal envoy in Washington: Soong reached an agreement with Leighton and Pawley about recruiting volunteer air personnel who would be treated on the same terms as their CAMCO employees in China.

New evidence was overturning old verdicts. The correspondence in Bruce’s AVG folder, documents in Morgenthau’s diaries and published correspondence between Soong and Chiang fit together to produce a new narrative which was totally at odds with the standard version of events. AVG chroniclers have marked early April 1941 as the start of Intercontinent’s involvement in Chennault’s plans for hiring volunteer pilots for China. But the archival record made clear that by the end of January 1941 Leighton, Knox and Soong had already paved the way  for Intercontinent to hire volunteers to serve as flight instructors. These revisions, however, did not clear up all the mysteries surrounding the air program for China.

More about the Leighton Papers

More about Bruce Leighton