The fourth patrol of the USS Seadragon began unremarkably. The submarine left the west Australian port of Freemantle on Aug. 26, 1942, to take up station in the South China Sea. Then on Sept. 8, nineteen-year-old Seaman First Class Darrel Dean Rector collapsed while on duty. What happened next would make medical history.
At the time, medical personnel posted to submarines were corpsmen, not doctors. Seadragon’s corpsman was Pharmacist First Class Wheeler B. Lipes. After examining Rector and observing him in his bunk for a couple of days, Lipes reached a sobering conclusion. He then went to his captain, Lt. Cmdr. William E. “Pete” Ferrall and told him the diagnosis: acute appendicitis. Prescribed procedure called for the patient to be put in bed, his body covered in ice and given a liquid diet until the submarine returned. But Lipes believed that Rector’s appendix would burst and the sailor would die before Seadragon could reach the nearest doctor, thousands of miles away. Ferrall went to Rector and explained the situation. In agony the sailor replied, “Whatever Lipes wants to do is okay with me.” Ferrall and Lipes then went off to discuss things. Lipes explained that while he had never done appendectomies, he had assisted doctors performing them. Ferrall asked Lipes if he could do the surgery, Lipes said he could. Ferrall then ordered Lipes to perform the appendectomy and try to save Rector’s life.
Everything about the surgery would be jury-rigged.
Everything about the surgery would be jury-rigged. The operating room was the wardroom. Lipes’ medical kit didn’t include all the necessary supplies. The anesthetic mask was an inverted tea strainer covered with gauze. Ether would be slowly dripped onto the gauze. Bent tablespoons served as retractors. Lipes’ scalpel was a scalpel blade taped to a hemostat. The instruments were sterilized in torpedo juice – the pure alcohol drained from torpedo motors. Light was provided by a battle lantern. Five officers would assist Lipes. Their surgical garb was pajamas turned inside out and sterilized in boiling water and alcohol. Lipes’ sterilized rubber gloves were too large for his hands, making him look like Mickey Mouse. Ferrall ordered the submarine to dive to a depth of 120 feet and held steady during the operation.
With Ferrell serving as record keeper, at 10:46 on Sept. 11, 1942, Lipes began. He located the appendix by using the McBurney’s point and made his incision. In an oral history of the event for the Naval Historical Center, Lipes said that when he reached the spot where he expected to find the appendix, “It wasn’t there.” He had a moment of horror, thinking, “Is this guy reversed?” Though not common, it’s not unusual for some people to have organs in reversed positions, a condition known as situs inversus. Then, slipping his finger under the cecum, he found the appendix. Lipes had acted just in time. Two-thirds of the five-inch long organ was gangrenous. Lipes amputated the appendix and “cauterized the stump with phenol.” He then neutralized the phenol with alcohol. Though he had sulfa, he said, “There was no penicillin in those days.”
Shortly before Lipes was posted to submarines, a doctor friend whom he had worked with told him, “You never know what’s going to happen in a submarine. One of the things you may face is appendicitis. Never use a purse-string closure.” Lipes remembered that warning. At 1:22 p.m. the operation was complete. Lipes had performed the first appendectomy on a submarine.
The Seadragon continued its mission and thirteen days later a fully recovered Rector was back at his post. When the submarine’s patrol concluded and the Seadragon en route to base, Ferrell radioed a message to headquarters: “One Merchant Ship, One Oil Tanker and One Successful Appendectomy.”
“You never know what’s going to happen in a submarine.”
The submarine squadron’s medical officer was appalled, as was the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, when they received the official report. The outraged U.S. Surgeon General discussed having Lipes court-martialed. Their concern was that untrained medical personnel would be encouraged by Lipes’ success to perform such surgeries. In fact two more appendectomies were performed on Navy submarines during World War II, both in Dec. 1942.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and the Navy allowed Chicago Daily News reporter George Weller to write Lipes’ story. Weller received the Pulitzer Prize for the article. The incident was also incorporated into the motion picture Destination Tokyo, starring Cary Grant.
Though Lipes became a hero to the public, officially he received nothing, not even a letter of thanks. Lipes expressed no regret regarding that. He said, “What was important was that I did my job and saved [Rector’s] life. . . . It was proof that the Navy’s training program was tested and found to be effective.”
“What was important was that I did my job and saved [Rector’s] life. . . . It was proof that the Navy’s training program was tested and found to be effective.”
Lipes would stay in the Navy, eventually retiring in 1962 with the rank of lieutenant commander. Less than three months before he died in April 2005, thanks to intense lobbying, the Navy finally officially recognized his life-saving act and awarded him the Navy Commendation Medal.