This article by our historian Kevin M. Hymel tells the unusual story of Malcolm C. Grow, a 28-year-old Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, physician, who traveled to war-torn Czarist Russia in 1915 and served as a corps surgeon until 1917, as Russian armies tried to push back the German invasion. It was first published in THE AMEDD Historian, the newsletter for the Army Medical Department Center of History and Heritage.
General Grow: An American Doctor in the Czar’s Army
In 1942, Major General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, who was putting together the U.S. Army’s Eighth Air Force in England, with the goal of strategically bombing Germany, needed a lead surgeon. But whom to pick? A good candidate would have to be an excellent surgeon and someone who could operate under war-time conditions. Ideally, it would be someone who understood combat injuries and who could handle large numbers of bodies torn by bullets and shrapnel. And almost impossibly, someone who held all those qualifications, knew what it was like to lose friends in combat and continue with the mission, and who understood the fundamentals of air power. Finding one surgeon with one or two of those qualifications would be difficult, but all six? That could prove impossible. Yet there was such a man. A man who had performed surgeries during battle for an entire regiment while enemy artillery exploded around him, had fought in trenches, had lost people close to him from enemy fire, and had flown over enemy lines; and he did all of this before the United States entered World War I.
Malcolm C. Grow, a 28-year-old Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, physician, traveled to war-torn Czarist Russia in 1915 and served as a corps surgeon until 1917, as Russian armies tried to push back the German invasion. Dr. Edward Egbert had encouraged Grow to leave his practice and head to war. Egbert, the chief surgeon of Kiev’s American Red Cross hospital, convinced Grow with tales of combat. Grow joined the staff in Tsarskow-Selo hospital where he treated a conveyor belt of wounded, many of which were infected and filled with vermin. He saved the life of one soldier suffering from lockjaw. The man’s body was arched like a bow, with only his heels and head touching the bed. The Russian treatment, a small dose of anti-tetanic serum under the skin, had failed to save four previous patients. Grow was able to obtain more of the serum from a traveling American chemist and injected large dosages into the soldier’s spine and veins and repeated the treatment four times. He saved his life, earning the respect of the Russian staff.
After a short stint in the hospital, Grow was appointed a captain in the First Siberian Army’s 21st Flying Column. As winter set in and the daylight shrank to six hours, Grow set up in an advanced dressing station in the field. He came under fire a number of times. The first time, on November 25, 1915, was probably the most memorable. When he heard a terrible screeching overhead, he crouched, clenched his teeth, and tightened his muscles as he waited for the impact. “Then came a red angry flash, followed by a terrific explosion, in the forest a hundred yards to my right,” said Grow, “and a humming in the air like the sound a large nail used to make when I had thrown it as a child, and then the sound of falling fragments of earth and metal.”
Soon after that first barrage, Grow went “over the top” and participated in a Russian attack. Armed with only a single hand grenade, he climbed out of a front-line trench in a billowing snowstorm and followed a noncommissioned officer named Ivan through a hole in a barbed wire fence. As they ran over a slight rise, Ivan suddenly fell backwards onto Grow and the two rolled into barbed wire. An orderly rushed over, examined Ivan, and declared, “A bullet through the forehead, Excellency!” Grow jumped down into a German trench and threw his hand grenade into a dugout. After the explosion, he entered and saw a crouched and bleeding German weakly called out, “Kamerad.” His adventure over, Grow raced back to friendly lines. He later wrote that he exposed himself simply because this was “an opportunity here which no other American has had in Russia since the war began.”
While it is rare for a man of healing to engage the enemy in battle, it was even rarer for a frontline doc- tor to meet the Russian Czar. Grow met Nicholas II when he reviewed the 21st Flying Column. When a colonel presented Grow to Nicholas, the Czar said in English, “American doctor! And you have come over here all the way from America to help our wounded?” When Grow told him he was, the Czar concluded, “That is very fine and good for you. We are in need of doctors.”
The Russian Winter put an end to offensive maneuvers for both sides, but Grow got to experience a new dimension of war when a Russian pilot offered to take him up in his plane, a captured German Albatross two-seater biplane. They took off and ascended, as Grow watched objects below shrink, “as if by magic.” They passed over the Russian lines, No Man’s Land, and the zig-zagging German trenches. The enjoyment ended when a yellow-brown puff of smoke burst below the plane, followed by the muffled explosions of anti- aircraft shells. The sight of German soldiers, looking like gray dots scattering off the road, reminded Grow of chickens dispersing from a low-flying hawk. The pilot dropped the plane’s nose and Grow could see the ground in front of him. “I felt as if I was falling. My stomach seemed rising into my chest.” Then they leveled off. The pilot then dropped a bomb on a German-occupied house. “A great white mushroom-shaped cloud rolled up from the center of the village,” reported Grow. They were still above enemy lines when the plane’s engine suddenly quit. The captain shouted to Grow, “We are in for it now! Motor dead! Don’t know whether I can get the plane back to our lines—or not!” Despite enemy fire—which sounded louder now, and a lack of wind to assist them, the captain nursed the plane back to Russian lines, where they landed. Grow had another unique combat experience under his belt.
When his corps went on the offensive on March 6, 1916, in the Battle of Postovy, Grow watched the Russians go “over the top” and fall from German machine gun and rifle fire before he hurried back to the dressing station to tend. There he found at least 100 wounded soldiers awaiting surgery. With only two trained assistants, Grow performed surgery after surgery by candlelight, since anything brighter would attract enemy fire. That night, Grow followed a dog retrieval team and stretcher-bearers into No Man’s Land to look for survivors. The dogs were trained to bring back caps, or tear off parts of the wounded’s clothing and return it to their handlers before leading them to their man. They did not bring anything back from the dead. The dogs helped rescue 17 wounded before they started returning to their handlers with nothing in their jaws.
As the Russian prepared for the upcoming Baranovichi Offensive (in today’s Belarus), the Germans shelled the area. Grow had set up his dressing station near a bee keeper’s home, but the barrage forced the men into trenches. Something hit Grow’s orderly, Michael, in the head. When Grow tried to tell him the wound was not fatal, he suddenly felt his own pain. “Something hit me in the back of the neck with such force that my head rocked.” A second blow hit him the left cheek. Both wounds burned. Then a lieutenant ran down the trench waving his hands. It was then that Michael screamed out “The bees! The bees!” The enemy barrage had knocked over the bee keeper’s hives and the angry bees swarmed everyone. Grow ducked into a dark bomb shelter and wiped bees off his clothes.
Grow treated both modern and ancient wounds. One patient complained to him, “So far I have never even seen a German, much less get my bayonet into one!” Artillery and machine guns prevented hand-to- hand fighting. On another occasion he treated captured enemy soldiers, victims of a Cossack attack. The wounds were rare on a modern battlefield: “One man I attended had his entire arm and shoulder carried away by a single blow from a sabre,” he recalled. “Another poor devil had been struck in the top of the head and he was split through to his breast-bone, the skull cut as clean as though the work had been done with a saw.”
As one offensive progressed, a Russian commander ordered Grow to move his dressing station closer to the front. Grow did so and picked an enemy dugout to use as his dressing station. He drew his revolver and entered. “Then there was a sudden stabbing flash of light from the side,” he later wrote, “the sharp crack of a revolver, and I felt a stinging pain in my abdomen.” He blindly fired back. Sweating and weak, he jumped out the dugout’s doorway and sat down on a step to check his wound. Fortunately, a bullet only grazed his abdomen. Grow peered back in with his reloaded revolver. He found a man sitting at a table. He pushed his shoulder and the man slid to the floor. He had shot a German noncommissioned officer in the chest, purely by chance.
Throughout his time at the front, Grow constantly lost men he either knew or had just spoken to from enemy fire. In one case, he viewed the body of an officer he had befriended hung up on barbed wire in No Man’s Land. “There was something terrible for me in the fact that my friend’s body hung out there on that wire,” he recalled, “and would continue to hang there until it became a horrid putrefying object on the land- scape unless something were done.” As Grow looked at the body, a soldier tried to shoot gathering crows off of it.
In the predawn hours of September 9, 1916, Grow experienced a gas attack. While he was able to put on his gas mask, his orderly was not so lucky. “I ran back to him and tried to lift him from the ground and get him back out of the gas,” he later wrote, “but it was too late!” Grow spent the morning pulling men out of trenches and dugouts where gas had gathered. Those still alive hacked and coughed while their mouths filled with a greenish-white froth. The attack killed 2,000 Russians.
On New Year’s Day, 1917, Grow finally left the front. By the time he reached the United States, President Woodrow Wilson had declared war on Germany on April 6. Grow returned to Russia in July, but this time he represented the Red Cross. He returned to a different Russia. Riots, mutinies, and the Czar’s abdication had changed the country. Grow noticed that soldiers no longer saluted, people wondered aimlessly at the ports, and orators at train stations called for soldiers to return home. The whole tenor of the army had changed. “The generals were powerless to maintain discipline,” Grow recalled. “The soldiers’ committees arrested them when they gave orders which did not suit the troops.”
Grow left Russia and, in 1918, published his memoir of his time there, titled Surgeon Grow: An American in the Russian Fighting. The book was swashbuckling adventure, an up-close personal account of twentieth century warfare, and a cautionary tale of communism. Grow then joined the U.S. Army and made it to France for the last month of the war. He saw no action but stayed in the Army as a doctor and earned his aviation medicine certificate at Brooks Field in Texas in 1928.
By the time the United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941, Grow had helped create a medical aviation laboratory. Once the country was committed to the war, General Spaatz picked him as the Eighth Air Force’s head surgeon because of his vast and unique experiences, half a world away. In his new job, Grow developed body armor for flyers, preventive treatments for aerial combat stress, and started the First Central Medical Establishment. The body armor idea came from the Russian front, where Grow saw casualty rates higher-than 50 percent from low velocity projectiles. After the war, Grow eventually became the Air Force’s first Surgeon General.
Malcom Grow, Surgeon Grow: An American in the Russian Fighting (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1918)
Major General Malcom C. Grow & Mrs. Winifred Grow Collection, 1890-1990, RG1957.001, Air Force Medical Service History Office