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Oral History - Appendectomy Performed on Fourth War Patrol of USS Seadragon, 1942

Recollections of Pharmacist's Mate Wheeler B. Lipes.

Related Resources:

[Source: Adapted from "One Merchant Ship, One Oil Tanker, and One Successful Appendectomy." U.S. Navy Medicine 78, no.1 (Jan.-Feb. 1987): 20-23.]

When did you join the Navy?

Mr. Lipes:
In 1936. I was in a long time before the war broke out. I had been on the battleship [USS] Texas [BB-35] before I went to the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia. From there to Canacao near Manila. In October of `41 I went into submarines.

How did that happen?

One day I just decided I wanted submarines. The personnel officer thought that I had a hole in my head. There weren't any subs available then but I went looking for one and eventually got aboard the [USS] Sealion.[SS-195] The Sealion and the [USS] Seadragon [SS-194] were sister ships. The Sealion was almost finished with its overhaul and the two subs were tied alongside one another at the Cavite Navy Yard. When the bombers came at noon on the 10th of December [1941] they just leisurely wiped out the yard. One bomb went right down the after engine room hatch. The shrapnel from that one killed some people on the Seadragon's conning tower and punched holes in her pressure hull. I was in the water for awhile and was picked up on the perimeter of the navy yard late that night with the yard burning and exploding. The Seadragon's pharmacist's mate was slightly wounded in the arm by shrapnel and he transferred himself off the sub, which left a vacancy. I was the logical choice to replace him. My escape from the Philippines was made possible by that event.

How many patrols did you participate in?

About five as I recall. Formosa, Camranh Bay. We were in the blockade of New Britain, New Ireland, Java, Java Sea, and in on all the initial efforts to hold back the Japanese and keep our finger in the dike until reinforcements arrived. As part of a squadron of submarines that was feeding Bataan, we would leave our torpedoes, except those in the tubes, in Cebu, take on 40-60 tons of food, and run it into Corregidor. As Bataan was being overrun we were taking people off Corregidor.

What actually happened on Seadragon in September 1942?

I had been up on the watch and when I came down to the after battery section of the submarine -- the crew's compartment -- I found Darrell Rector. It was his 19th birthday. He said to me, "Hey Doc, I don't feel very good." I told him to get into his bunk and rest a bit and kept him under observation. His temperature was rising. He had the classic symptoms of appendicitis. The abdominal muscles were getting that washboard rigidity. He then began to flex his right leg up on his abdomen to get some relief. He worsened and I went to the CO [Commanding Officer] to report his condition. The skipper went back and talked to Rector explaining that there were no doctors around. Rector then said, "Whatever Lipes wants to do is OK with me." The CO and I had a long talk and he asked me what I was going to do. "Nothing," I replied. He lectured me about the fact that we were there to do the best we could. "I fire torpedoes every day and some of them miss," he reminded me. I told him that I could not fire this torpedo and miss. He asked me if I could do the surgery and I said yes. He then ordered me to do it.

When I got to the appendix, it wasn't there. I thought. "Oh my God! Is this guy reversed?" There are people like that with organs opposite where they should be. I slipped my finger down under the cecum -- the blind gut -- and felt it there. Suddenly I understood why it hadn't popped up where I could see it. I turned the cecum over. The appendix, which was 5 inches long, was adhered, buried at the distal tip, and looked gangrenous two-thirds of the way. What luck, I thought. My first one couldn't be easy. I detached the appendix, tied it off in two places, and then removed it after which I cauterized the stump with phenol. I then neutralized the phenol with torpedo alcohol. There was no penicillin in those days. When you think of what we have in the armamentarium today to prevent infection, I marvel.

You did have sulfa, didn't you?

We had some tablets that I ground into a powder and then put in the oven to kill any spores. This was all I had. I had given this kid a 3-inch incision, yet he healed well and was back on duty in a few days. In fact, the ship's cook said, "Doc, you must have sewed him up with rubber bands, the way he eats."

Obviously, this was not the first time you had seen such an operation.

Oh, no. I assisted many times in the OR [Operating Room]. In fact, the day I was to leave the Naval Hospital at Canacao, a doctor I had worked with, Carey Smith, came over to me and said, "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." I remembered that advice.

What was the general reaction to your successful surgery?

After we submitted our report, there was a great deal of consternation in the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. Everyone did then exactly what they would probably do now. They reacted to a situation they knew absolutely nothing about. There was an old warrant officer I knew back at BUMED [US Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery] who was on duty the night the message came in about the operation. He told me later how much trouble I had caused him. There were many doctors back there who were very upset about what I had done. I guess they were afraid that because I had performed an appendectomy everyone in the fleet would be running around looking for the first opportunity to do one. They forgot there were commanding officers and you had supervisory chains that would preclude this.

Were you ever officially recognized for having performed the operation?

The day I returned I got one of those canned retirement letters signed by the Surgeon General. It gave me credit for bravery in action during the sinking of the submarine Sealion. Yet neither it nor any document I ever received mentioned the appendectomy. Not that that incident in itself was so important. What was important was that I did my job and saved the guy's life. It was my job to do anything I could to preserve life and, really, I didn't deserve special credit or recognition for doing that. However, since the incident had gone so far to give the Navy good publicity and to present to the public the fact that Navy men were well trained and dedicated, the omission was that much more evident.

I think the whole point of the operation was not that I did it. It was the fact that those hospital corpsmen on independent duty had been so well trained. It was proof that the Navy's training program was tested and found to be effective. There was a hard core group of hospital corpsmen and pharmacist's mates in those days who worked very closely with doctors who themselves spent a lot of time teaching us. And those on independent duty demonstrated that whether it was in the field with the Marines or aboard surface ships, or wherever, we could do the job.

When did you get back home?

I returned to the States in January `43 and reported to the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, where I was promoted to warrant officer. I then represented the Navy in war bond drives and visits to war plants.

How long were you on the speaking circuit?

About 8 or 9 months. I would go from plant to plant making speeches and trying to increase production and sell bonds. This was in addition to my regular duty at the hospital.

How did George Weller come to write the original article?

When I got back from that patrol, our report -- "One Merchant Ship, One Oil Tanker, and One Successful Appendectomy" -- had already caused a stir. I was told I was wanted in the wardroom of the [submarine] tender [USS] Holland [AS-3]. When I arrived, there was Admiral [Charles A.] Lockwood [Commander Submarines, Southwest Pacific]. He and I had a conversation and then Weller came in. He and I talked at some length and then he wrote the story.

In the last 44 years not a month has gone by that I'm not reminded of that incident. Weller's story has even appeared in high school literature books. When my grandson was in the 7th grade in New Mexico he found it in one of his books. In fact, he proudly told the teacher that this was his grandfather. The teacher said something like, "Go away little boy, don't tell stories." It's also been the subject of movies and TV programs. There was a series in the 50's called The Silent Service, in which the incident was portrayed in an episode called "Operation Seadragon."

I was on an airplane recently and the man next to me was reading a magazine containing one of those Ripley's Believe it or Not's. It told of a submarine sailor who removed the appendix of a shipmate. This guy turned to me and said, "Can you believe that?" I read it, shook my head, and said, "Don't you believe a word of it."



Further Information on the Operation and Personnel involved:

One of the most dramatic stories to come out of World War II recounted the emergency operation performed by a 23-year-old corpsman as his submarine, USS Seadragon,(SS-194) cruised submerged in enemy waters. Related in a 1942 newspaper article, the story brought a Pulitzer Prize to journalist George Weller and fame to Pharmacist's Mate Wheeler B. Lipes. It also gave a much needed dose of inspiration to the homefront when good news about the war was hard to come by.

Over the years the episode became legend, providing drama for such Hollywood productions as Destination Tokyo and Run Silent, Run Deep.

Wheeler B. Lipes retired from the Medical Service Corps in 1962. He then became chief executive officer of the 1,000 bed Memphis hospital which serves as the teaching facility for the University of Tennessee and subsequently, president of Memorial Medical Center in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Darrell Dean Rector, Lipes' patient did not survive the war. He died 24 October 1944 in the tragic sinking of USS Tang (SS-306). On her fifth war patrol, Tang launched a surface attack against a Japanese transport. One torpedo ran true; the other turned sharply left, circled, and hit the submarine in the stern. The wound was fatal. There were but nine survivors. All spent the rest of the war as POW's [Prisoner of War]. Her skipper, CDR [Commander] CR.H. O'Kane, survived the war and received the Medal of Honor.

There were two other successful appendectomies performed by submarine corpsmen during the war, one aboard USS Grayback [SS-208], the other aboard USS Silversides [SS-236].


19 October 1999