This Month in AFMS History: Malcolm Grow and the 1934 Alaskan Flight

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  • AFMS History Office
Before Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Malcolm C. Grow became the first surgeon general of the U.S. Air Force, he was already well-known for his medical activities.  Grow was a recognized leader in creating unique equipment, such as armored vests and electric gloves, to help the flyers during World War II.  He was most influential in the establishment of an independent Air Force Medical Service in 1949.  His efforts to gain autonomy for Air Force medicine were not all made at once, however.  Grow participated in many enterprises during his career, ever widening his circle of influence.

One of Grow's early experiences came as a major in the Army Air Corps earned him the respect and friendship of Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, commanding General of the Army Air Forces during World War II, and the Air Force's only five star general. As a lieutenant colonel, Arnold led the Army Air Corps Alaskan Flight in 1934, with Grow as his flight surgeon. 

The Army Air Corps staged the much-heralded Alaskan Flight with 10 of its most modern bombers: twin-engine, all-metal Martin B-10s with enclosed cabins, a ceiling of 28,000 feet and a speed of more than 200 miles per hour. The mission, led by Arnold, covered 8,290 miles round-trip from Bolling Field in Washington, D.C., to Fairbanks, Alaska. The crews numbered 14 officers and 16 enlisted airmen. The flight had three goals: to prove the feasibility of deploying air forces to Alaska in time of need; to photograph landing sites suited to frontier defense; and to test the possibilities of rapid and large-scale photomapping of terrain.

After the Army's poor performance flying U.S. airmail routes earlier that year, the Alaskan Flight gave American military Airmen much-needed confidence and publicity. The Air Corps had lost 12 pilots and 50 aircraft on the mail runs that spring. Now some of its leading members showed that Air Corps pilots could navigate over long distances. The trip allayed congressional suspicions that the Air Corps could not deliver bombs if it could not transport mailbags.

During the Alaskan Flight, Grow provided vital medical care to members of the mission, including setting a broken bone and treating other minor illnesses and injuries. He kept the flight healthy and functioning, despite physically challenging conditions and brutal weather. Grow also kept a personal diary where he recorded flight times and banquets and festivities held for the crew. Once the Flight made it to Alaska, Grow recorded the beauty of the land and often mentioned its teeming wildlife – moose, deer, bear, and fish. Alaska would remain near and dear to Grow’s heart for the rest of his life.

Grow's diary is the only known diary among the crew, and the only recollection of one of the earliest "famous flights" of the Army Air Corps. His diary gives a personal account of a trip that enhanced the reputation of the Air Corps and created a bond between Arnold and Grow that would prove invaluable to the future establishment of a separate Air Force Medical Service.