During World War II, a man named Wheeler Bryson Lipes went down in history by removing appendix aboard a submarine. A pharmacist’s mate with little to no surgical experience saved a human’s life using spoons, a strainer and a torpedo, the only tools available at a depth of 200 feet in 1942.
The submariner’s scourge
Submariners of WWII had three bitterest enemies — underwater mines, enemy torpedoes and appendicitis. When a soldier had an episode during dive, no one could actually help them.
The crews at modern submarines include a ship surgeon and all the equipment to carry the surgery out on board. Back in those days, seamen could not even dream of such luxury. Medical help was provided by pharmacist’s mates or any crewmember who had completed brief medical classes.
Appendicitis episodes weren’t on the agenda of military commanders. Protocols ordered to put a patient on a bed, cover a soldier’s belly with ice and wait until a submarine was back to her port. And pray, we suggest.
Submariners often died without assistance. On September 11, 1942, when a seaman from the USS “Seadragon” Darrell Recto began complaining about severe pain in his stomach, there was little hope for him. Luckily, Wheeler B. Lipes was one of his shipmates.
22-year-old Lipes came from New Castle in Virginia.
“Somewhere on my mother’s side there were a couple of doctors in the family, but the branch I came from didn’t have much going except peanuts,” Lipes once said.
He joined the Navy at 16, and later received a high school diploma through a GED program and trained as a pharmacist’s mate. In 1940, Lipes was transferred to the Philippines. The first U-boat he served on was hit by Japanese bombs, and the young man suffered minor injuries.
“That’s where I got this extra part in my hair,” Lipes loved to tell journalists with laughs. He got new position aboard the USS “Seadragon”.
When 19-year-old Darrell Recto passed out right on his duty, Lipes felt chills up his spine. The boy got all the symptoms — nausea, fever and burning abdominal pain. Wheeler recognized appendicitis, and judging from the Recto’s condition, it was about to burst.
He went straight to the submarine commander to tell him that Recto would not last long. The “Seadragon” was in hostile South China Sea and days from homeport in western Australia.
The commander knew there was actually no choice for him and Lipes. He told Lipes to be prepared for a surgery.
The medic was tortured by doubts. First and foremost, he was not prepared for this. Lipes thought he would treat bruises and upset stomachs. Neither were there surgical instruments aboard.
Recto’s condition was getting worse. Lipes understood that the boy could die because of his mistake, but he would surely die without any help. Wheeler decided to act.
Lipes choose the most spacious room on the boat — the dinette. He borrowed a strainer from a galley and covered it with cotton wool to make an anesthetic mask. Torpedomen poured alcohol from a torpedo to disinfect surgical wounds.
Pajamas were turned into gowns, rubber work gloves became medical ones. The team bent silver table-spoons to get surgical mirrors. When all the “instruments” and “surgery room” were prepared, Lipes and his assistants got down to business.
The patient was lying on the dining table. Recto made a few breaths from the ether-soaked mask and passed out.
Lipes made the first cut. He used bent spoons to pull the muscles apart and get to the inflamed appendix. Then the surgery suddenly stopped.
For a minute, which seemed an eternity to him, Lipes was trying to find the appendix by touch. When he finally did, the assistant team exhaled with relief. A few more cuts, and the worst part was done. Lipes sterilized the wound and sewed it up. The surgery took two and a half hours.
On that very day, Darrell Recto turned 19. The USS “Seadragon” sent a message back to base: “One Merchant Ship, One Oil Tanker and One Successful Appendectomy.”
To Lipes’ surprise, Recto recovered quickly. Two weeks later, he was able to fulfill his duties, although partially. By the end of the cruise, the seaman had recovered completely.
The news about the unusual surgery quickly flew through the fleet. However, not everyone was inspired. Robert Bornman, a retired Navy submarine medical officer and military historian, told that one doctor tried to physically assault Lipes when he got back to Australia:
“Another one told him it would’ve been better if the patient died than for a corpsman to do an abdominal operation.”
Fortunately, these were just conversations, and medic continued to serve on submarines until the end of the war. He retired in 1962 with the rank of lieutenant commander.
In the year when Lipes performed the surgery he received no reward from the US Navy, not even a letter of thanks. They “noticed” his merits only 63 years later, in 2005, and presented him a Navy Commendation Medal. That was less than three months before he died in April of the same year.
Lipes expressed no regrets regarding this late honoring: “What was important was that I did my job and saved [Rector’s] life.”
Cmdr. Lipes loved to tell about one episode. Once he flew to Chicago, and a man next to him was looking distrustfully at a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” sketch. It showed a submarine appendectomy.
“He looked at me with a strange look on his face,” Lipes recalled, “and said, ‘Do you believe that?’ And I said to him, ‘I wouldn’t believe a word of it.'”
Featured Image: Wikipedia, John Falter/Nebraska State Historical Society