Bulletin 67
June, 2007
The Famous Wheeler Lipes

Not many submariners have heard of Wheeler Lipes, but most are acquainted with the pharmacist mate who performed an appendectomy of a crew member on a wardroom table while his boat rested on the bottom. The feat was made immortal in the motion picture, “Destination Tokyo”. The enlisted man, turned surgeon was Wheeler Lipes who served on Sea Dragon (SS-194) in the Second World War. The story has recently been written by Charlie Hall of the New Bern, North Carolina Sun Journal upon the passing of this extraordinary pharmacist mate. Below is the story as recorded by Hall and edited by SRC.

Wheeler Lipes, who performed an extraordinary life-saving operation aboard a submarine in World War II, lost his own battle with cancer Sunday night. Lipes, 84, performed an emergency appendectomy on sailor Darrel Dean Rector aboard the USS Seadragon 120 feet under the Pacific Ocean near Indochina in 1942. It was a historic and controversial surgery in that Lipes was not a doctor, but a pharmacist's mate. He was finally honored by the Navy in February in ceremonies at Camp Lejeune with the Navy Commendation Medal. Lipes, who lived off Madame Moore's Lane with his wife, Audrey, said at the time he was gratified to finally receive recognition for the surgery, which was later the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning story, along with numerous book and magazine articles. It was also the subject of a Navy film, and the surgery was depicted in several Hollywood films.

One of his final wishes - to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery - was granted, according to Barry Miller, a family friend and fellow member at Doric Masonic Lodge. Lipes was honored last year as a rare 60-year-member of that lodge. He was also recently registered in the World War II Memorial.

"What a fascinating life he had," said Miller. "He was a fascinating gentleman. I could listen to him talk for hours."

Miller said telephone calls wishing Lipes well had come in from all over the country in recent days. Jan Herman, historian of the Navy Medical Department, was instrumental in seeing that Lipes was finally recognized.

"I found that he had never gotten any kind of recognition from the Navy," Herman said in February. He had interviewed and videotaped Lipes several times for the Navy. "He had been in the newspapers and when the war wasn't going very well for us in the Pacific - here was this 23-year-old kid who did this great thing - saved a guy's life under these very harrowing circumstances."

Herman went to his boss - former Surgeon General of the Navy, Vice Admiral Michael Cowan - and they went through the various channels to finally get recognition for Lipes. Performing the operation in adverse conditions - on a dining table - was remarkable. The patient was longer than the table, so a nearby cabinet drawer was opened and Lipes put the patient's feet in the drawer. Also, the table was bolted to the floor, so Lipes had to stand with knees bent during the two-hour operation.

He used makeshift instruments - bent spoons for retractors, alcohol from torpedoes for sterilization and hemostats for knife handles to hold the operation blades. He and the assisting sailor wore sterilized pajamas for operating room gowns. After nearly two hours, the appendix was not in the accustomed place. But, Lipes felt around and discovered the poisoned appendix behind the caecum. Lipes removed a massive, five-inch appendix, which had several inches of blackened tissue.

"I always thought he was the guy who had the courage," Lipes said of the young sailor in a February interview with the Sun Journal. "I've asked myself would I have gotten up on that table and let someone do the same thing to me. He was one of the most courageous people I've ever met."

Lipes had witnessed several appendectomies before tackling the surgery himself. Rector was back on duty in 13 days. But there was also anger over Lipes' actions among physicians from the Navy Medical Corps and talk of a court-martial by the U.S. surgeon general, who was forced to set protocols for appendectomies on submarines.

Lipes went without honors until Jan Herman, historian of the Navy Medical Department, began looking into his case. He received the Navy Commendation Medal in February, 2007.