The August 1996 issue of Naval History had an article “Operating Under Pressure” concerning appendectomies performed by Pharmacist’s Mates at sea on submarines on patrol during World War II. The article caused me to recall a very different submarine appendicitis situation.
I was CO of USS TRUTTA (SS 421) assigned to Squadron 12 in Key West, Florida. Sometime during the late summer of 1961 we were on weekly ops in the deep hole in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. We were providing services to give Navy ASW patrol aircraft opportunities to locate and track a submerged submarine. We were submerged roughly 21 hours per day. We would surface for about an hour and a half around noon and again near midnight to charge batteries and send our surfacing and next diving messages and receive radio traffic. It was a necessary but not demanding assignment. My personal schedule was oriented to the periods on the surface and after diving around 0100 I would sleep until around 1000 when I would arise, shave and dress in time for a cup of coffee before lunch and the noon surfacing.
One morning, Wednesday as I remember, I was met by the Exec when I entered the passageway and noted our Chief Hospital Corpsman standing nearby. The Exec said, “Captain, we have a situation you need to know about” . “Medical?” I asked. He answered in the affirmative and said that the Corpsman thought that one of our men had an acute case of appendicitis. We then sat down in the wardroom and I quizzed the Corpsman as to why he had arrived at that diagnosis. He ticked off the patient’s symptoms and showed me passages in his medical books which supported his diagnosis. He convinced me so I had the Exec draft a message reporting the situation to the Squadron to be transmitted as soon as we surfaced.
Shortly after we surfaced and had sent our messages, we received a message directing us to come up on single sideband voice radio. Once on SSB we were directed to have our Corpsman discuss the case with the Squadron doctor on the tender ir Key West. The doctor concurred in the diagnosis and then the Squadron Operations Officer asked to talk with me. He directer us to steam at best speed toward the Dry Tortugas for a helicopter transfer of the patient, and stated that he would handle notifying the aircraft squadron of the situation and would send us instructions regarding resuming the exercises once the patient had been transferred. The weather was good so the helicopter came out farther than normally would have been the case and within several hours the transfer was effected with no problem.
We reversed course and headed back toward the deep hole. We received our instructions and before very long submerged and resumed the aircraft exercises while continuing on back to the deep hole.
Near midnight, we surfaced and sent our surfacing and diving messages. I was in the Control Room, rigged for red as normal for night surface operations. Shortly one of the radiomen presented me with the message board. He said, “This is the circuit log sheet but we thought you might want to see this message from the Squadron before we take the time to type up the smooth version.,. The message read something to the effect that the patient had arrived safely at the Boca Chica Naval Air Station and was successfully operated on for a confirmed appendix 20 minutes later. The Chief Corpsman was on duty as the Chief of the Watch at the hydraulic manifold so I passed the message board over so he could read the message. His face broke into a broad smile and then he wiped his brow. Body language clearly indicated relief. “Chief”, I asked, “why did you wipe your brow like that”
He said, “Captain, that’s the seventh time I have made a diagnosis of appendicitis and the first time I have been right.”
I was just as glad that I had not been aware of the Doc’s track record in regard to appendicitis when we sent our message reporting the situation. In retrospect, however, given the circumstances, I doubt that I would have acted any differently even if I had known.