Rest in Peace, LtCmdr Lipes

Major Dad found this obituary in Pravda today. Holy moly, what a story! (A Pulitzer Prize winning one, to be exact.)

Lt. Cmdr. Wheeler B. Lipes, who performed a storied appendectomy while a pharmacist’s mate aboard a submarine in the Pacific during World War II, died on Sunday in New Bern, N.C. He was 84.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his daughter-in-law, Berniece Lipes.
On Sept. 11, 1942, Pharmacist’s Mate Lipes become a surgeon aboard the submarine Seadragon, on patrol at a depth of 120 feet in the South China Sea.
A 19-year-old seaman from Kansas, Darrell Dean Rector, had suffered appendicitis. With the Seadragon about a week’s journey from the nearest Allied port, in Australia, the skipper, Lt. Cmdr. William Ferrall, obtained Seaman Rector’s permission for surgery by a team of sailors, not one of them a doctor.
Pharmacist’s Mate Lipes had observed several appendectomies as a laboratory technician at a naval hospital in Philadelphia, so he was designated to lead the surgical team, amid much trepidation.

We’ve got the whole thing here. Read it.

Gary Thompson/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Wheeler B. Lipes, center, with former shipmates in Las Vegas in 1997.

In a 1999 interview with the Naval Historical Center, he recalled the moment when the commanding officer approached him after the diagnosis of appendicitis was made.
“The C.O. 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.”
Seaman Rector was placed on a mess table. A tea strainer covered with gauze became an ether mask, and the anesthesia was monitored by the communications officer, Lt. Franz P. Hoskins.
Metal spoons bent at right angles became muscle retractors, holding the wound open after Pharmacist’s Mate Lipes made a three-inch incision with a scalpel. Sulfa pills were ground into powder to use as an antiseptic. Boiled water and alcohol milked from the torpedo mechanism sterilized the instruments and operating “gowns,” actually the crew’s pajamas.
Pharmacist’s Mate Lipes removed the appendix in about two and a half hours in the first appendectomy ever performed on board a submerged submarine. His patient was soon back on duty.
When the Seadragon returned to Australia, its report told of the Japanese ships it had sunk and it related another eventful moment, headlined “One Merchant Ship, One Oil Tanker and One Successful Appendectomy.”
George Weller, a correspondent for The Chicago Daily News, received a Pulitzer Prize for his article in December 1942 about the surgery. The operation was recounted in the 1950’s television series “The Silent Service” and dramatized in the Hollywood movies “Destination Tokyo” and “Run Silent, Run Deep.”
But Seaman Rector did not survive the war. He was among 78 crewmen lost aboard the submarine Tang when it sank off Formosa in October 1944, having been struck by a torpedo that veered back at the submarine after being fired.
Wheeler Bryson Lipes, a native of New Castle, Va., joined the Navy in 1936 and served on several submarines during the war.
Upon returning to the United States in 1943, he spoke at war-bond rallies, representing the Navy, although he did not receive a commendation for his surgical feat.
He retired from the Navy medical corps in 1962 as a lieutenant commander and later served as a hospital executive. He is survived by his second wife, Audrey, of New Bern; his son, Bruce, of Corpus Christi, Tex.; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His first wife, Myrtle, died in 1997.
In his interview with Navy historians, Commander Lipes said that many doctors in the Navy’s wartime Bureau of Medicine and Surgery were unhappy with his achievement.
“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,” he said.
Two appendectomies were performed by corpsmen aboard submarines later in World War II, the Navy said.
In February, Commander Lipes was presented with the Navy Commendation Medal, as a result of a belated study of the surgery by the Navy Medical Department.
“I just didn’t think it was that big a deal,” he said of the surgery in an interview with The Roanoke Times, in Virginia, after receiving the medal. “I was just proud to save a guy’s life.”

2 Responses to “Rest in Peace, LtCmdr Lipes”

  1. Nightfly says:

    Ms. Sister – thanks for the quote. Unfortunately the Grey Lady demands that all her callers, gentleman and otherwise, register first. I refuse to permit even their cookies on my machine. It’s therefore quite cool that you cited at length.
    This is a great story. It serves as a nice counterpoint to the story of Naval buffoonery you guys ran (Just SINK Her!). Coalition of the Fair and Balanced!
    PS – alas, NOBODY is named “Wheeler” anymore. This sailor rocked on several levels.

  2. Fly ~ point taken! I have used surgical instruments to cut and paste because the story’s just too incredible. Of course the Navy, in their own jack-upped fashion, took how many years to recognise him with a paltry award? (Trust us ~ for what he did, it’s just a piece of paper attaboy.)

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