Monday, February 21, 2005
The Navy will honor a former pharmacists' mate who performed an emergency appendectomy aboard the submarine USS Seadragon during World War II, saving a young sailor's life. Wheeler Lipes wasn't a doctor when he performed the surgery on a dining table, using makeshift tools. But the then-23-year-old's feat led to a reporter winning a Pulitzer Prize and a movie produced by the Navy. Lipes, who has been battling pancreatic cancer in recent years, says it will be gratifying to receive the Navy Commendation Medal. Lipes retired to North Carolina a few years ago after a long medical career that included being chief executive officer of a one thousand bed teaching hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and president of a hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, for more than 25 years. In 1942, aboard the submarine USS Seadragon 120 feet under the Pacific Ocean near Indochina, Lipes performed the surgery on sailor Darrel Dean Rector. He prepared common kitchen instruments to work as medical equipment -- spoons for retractors and a tea strainer lined with gauze as an anesthesia mask. With no formal surgical training, Lipes performed an emergency appendectomy -- the first major surgery aboard a submarine. Rector survived, but died two years later in the sinking of the USS Tang. Although the historic surgery became firmly established in Navy lore, Lipes -- now 84 -- never received any official recognition for his feat. But on Sunday, Feb. 20, over 60 years after the submarine surgery, Lipes will be awarded the Navy Commendation Medal for saving a fellow crewman's life.
Pharmacist's Mate Wheeler B. Lipes (and his late wife) show off kitchen utensils similar to the ones he used during his historic submarine appendectomy.