Obituaries

Richard Leghorn, 98, pioneer of Cold War aerial espionage photography

Richard Leghorn was awarded a Silver Star for WWII reconnaissance flights over Germany.
Richard Leghorn was awarded a Silver Star for WWII reconnaissance flights over Germany.

The B-29 aircraft carrying Lieutenant Colonel Richard Leghorn on July 1, 1946, was riddled with holes specially cut to accommodate dozens of cameras that shot hundreds of photos every second of the world’s fourth atomic bomb blast and its aftermath. Cameras aimed outward from every available surface, including the turrets and bomb bays.

“We’d cut more holes in the sides, except the experts said it might affect the plane’s structural strength,” he told the Globe a couple of days before the flight, and he predicted that “we will take 4 million pictures.”

What Mr. Leghorn saw while photographing the bombs that exploded over the Bikini Atoll that day, and an underwater atomic test on July 25, changed his life. In no small measure, his experience witnessing those blasts altered the course of history, too. “I knew at that moment we couldn’t have another war,” he later told author Philip Taubman.

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In 1957, Mr. Leghorn cofounded Itek Corp., a Lexington-based company that participated in a then-secret spy satellite program called Corona. During the Cold War, he wanted to use reconnaissance photography to help keep peace. In 1995, when the project was declassified and publicly revealed, he told the Globe that spy photos shot of the Soviet Union helped prove that the United States wasn’t lagging behind in the number of missiles and bombers. Mr. Leghorn believed that the efforts he and others put into the program helped ease Cold War worries at top levels in the United States, and their spy-photo program later assisted in providing verification for arms treaties.

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Mr. Leghorn, who years later was a cable TV entrepreneur and helped pioneer a parental control system, was 98 when he died in his Osterville home on Jan. 15.

“No one person can fairly be called the progenitor of the reconnaissance revolution, but Richard S. Leghorn comes as close as anyone to fitting the description,” Taubman wrote in his 2003 book “Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America’s Space Espionage.”

When Mr. Leghorn had his epiphany while photographing atomic bomb blasts, he was no stranger to daring feats of photography. As a major during World War II, he flew low along the Rhine River on reconnaissance missions to photograph retreating German forces.

“The flight was a very quiet one and I got quite a kick out of being a few hundred feet above ‘the holy soil’ with no weapon except a camera,” he said of one mission during a September 1944 interview with the Globe.

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He also had conducted aerial photography missions in 1944 during the Battle of the Falaise Pocket, a decisive engagement during the Battle of Normandy. That September, he told the Globe that his “biggest thrill” wasn’t flying over the Rhine, “but going over the Falaise Pocket at 1,800 feet in a puddle-jumping L-5 and taking pictures with a hand camera of that blazing cauldron of battle.”

Mr. Leghorn was awarded a Silver Star for reconnaissance flights over Germany — dangerous missions from which others “had failed to return,” the Globe reported in 1946.

His later work with the Corona spy satellite program had greater impact, however. A decade before the photos were declassified, then-CIA Director William Casey presented medals to the program’s participants. In 1995, Mr. Leghorn recalled in a Globe interview that Casey told the participants that in terms of national security, their efforts were comparable to developing the atomic bomb.

“It was kept highly classified for 35 years,” Mr. Leghorn said, adding that upon its launch, Itek Corp. was known as “the mystery company. It was very hush-hush.” To keep its real mission under wraps, Itek merged with and acquired other companies. In 1959, the Globe published a glowing story about Itek’s financial success.

Helping to obtain spy photos of the Soviet Union, Mr. Leghorn said, prompted US military and political leaders to adjust their approach to the Cold War arms race. During those years the United States was “building things out of fear about what the Russians were building,” he recalled, “and they were responding to what we were building.”

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In a 1958 Globe interview, he had been even more emphatic: “Science today is the virtual slave of the arms race.”

Richard S. Leghorn was born in Brookline and grew up in Winchester, a son of George Leghorn, who ran an auto dealership, and the former Agnes Sully, a homemaker. Mr. Leghorn’s brother, Kenneth, was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his World War II service, the Globe reported.

A bright student, Mr. Leghorn was 16 when he graduated from Winchester High School in 1935, and was 20 when he received a bachelor’s degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939. Before World War II, he worked for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., in the department of photographic research, and also learned to fly. “I’ve been a risk-taker,” he told Taubman, and added that “once I learned how to fly, I’d take girlfriends up to show off by doing loops and rolls.”

Serving with the Army Air Corps during World War II, he initially helped develop the photo equipment for V-Mail, and then was commanding officer of the 30th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron, according to the group’s online history, which noted that he also had played piano and led “group singing with a rich baritone voice.”

Mr. Leghorn was recalled to active duty during the Korean War. He rose to the rank of colonel and subsequently served as a consultant and technology adviser in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration.

Along with his work for Eastman Kodak and as president of Itek, Mr. Leghorn formerly was president of Dasa Corp., based in Andover. For about two decades beginning in the mid-1960s, he owned cable TV systems in several states. He also was director emeritus of Cable Television Laboratories, a research and development consortium.

From the late-1980s into the ’90s, Mr. Leghorn was a founder of Eidak Corp., Magnascreen Corp., Mirror Systems Inc., and OKTV — the last of which helped develop a system to allow parents to block channels they found unsuitable for their children.

Mr. Leghorn’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In 1989, he married the former Nancy Cross.

A service has been held for Mr. Leghorn, who in addition to his wife, who lives in Osterville, leaves his daughter, Lisa of Grant County, N.M.; a stepdaughter from his second marriage, Camilla Williams of East Dorset, Vt.; his stepchildren with Nancy, Paul Garrity of Chesapeake, Va., Kevin Garrity of Marstons Mills, Dr. Mark Garrity of Mashpee, and Andrea Wood of Centerville; and 11 grandchildren.

Mr. Leghorn “was extraordinary,” his stepdaughter Andrea said. “As much as he had done so much work with his military career and in business, he was just as extraordinary personally. He was such a father figure to my brothers and I.”

She added that “what struck me about Richard is that he was a highly intelligent and compassionate man. To him, nothing was impossible. He saw opportunities everywhere in everything.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.