David Leighton: Building a Modern Navy

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The modern U.S. Navy has a bit of its own living history here on Hilton Head Island in retired Cmdr. David Leighton.

During a decorated Naval and civil service career, Leighton worked for 26 years with Adm. Hyman Rickover, described by The Washington Post in a 1979 article as the “czar of nuclear propulsion” and the “father of the nuclear Navy.” Rickover’s numerous achievements include the creation of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first working nuclear-powered submarine. Serving on active duty for 64 years, longer than anyone in Naval history, Rickover and his team were chiefly responsible for building the U.S. submarine fleet and nuclear-powered ships for 30 years starting in the early 1950s.

“I was just delighted to have the opportunity to work with him,” says Leighton, who now lives on Hilton Head. “ I admired his work and learned a great deal from him. And I tried to do good work myself, and I was very happy to have had that opportunity.”

Leighton graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1945, following in the footsteps of his father, Adm. Frank Leighton “My interest in the Navy was from my father. I admired him tremendously, and wanted to be like him,” he says. He later received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT in 1948, and was the first student ever to earn an MIT master’s degree in nuclear engineering as a Naval officer in 1953.

From 1952 to 1980, Leighton served with Rickover in the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, where he helped to design and construct nuclear-powered naval warships.

“We accomplished one heck of a lot. I wanted the opportunity to work on nuclear power and did so,” says Leighton, who retired in 1992. “I’m very proud of the work we did.”

The Leighton science legacy continues in the next generation, as his oldest son, Tom, is a professor of applied mathematics at MIT and the CEO of Akamai Technologies. His youngest son, David Jr., is the head of the science department at the University of Notre Dame.