Almost all submariners fondly remember Doc. They came in all shapes and sizes, ranging in seniority from HM2 to HM Master Chief. They constantly dispensed aspirin, inventoried their medical supplies, and worried about crewmembers with abdominal pains. They were great listeners and a wonderful resource for a CO, XO, or Chief of the Boat to gauge the health, well-being and morale of the crew. Although I can’t remember all their names, I can clearly picture all the independent duty corpsmen I’ve served with on submarines and they were all great guys.
Everybody who has qualified in submarines knows that the wardroom table is designated as the operating table for emergency surgery at sea, and that there are operating lights and other surgical equipment stored in various nooks and crannies in the forward end of the ship. During my XO tour I remember having a conversation with my CO about how we’d handle an emergency surgery onboard. I was surprised when he told me that he’d sit in his stateroom and I’d sit in the wardroom with the appropriate medical manual, reading the operating procedure to the Corpsman and ensuring exact procedural compliance!
If you’ve been around submarines long enough you’ve probably heard folklore about a Corpsman performing an emergency appendectomy at sea. It’s caused many a Corpsman, CO and XO to sweat about a crewmember with abdominal pain and I remember medevacs on several submarines I’ve served on for crewmen with probable cases of appendicitis. I recently had the opportunity to talk to the Sub Vets chapter in Corpus Christi, Texas, and had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Wheeler Lipes, the legendary Corpsman who actually performed an appendectomy at sea on USS SEA-DRAGON during World War Il. The Sub Vets chapter is so proud of Mr. Lipes that they have a print of an article about his experience that they show to all visitors. Here’s a quick summary:
“On September 11, 1942, USS SEADRAGON was on a war patrol in the China Sea. Nineteen year old Darrel Rector was having stomach pains and went to see his Corpsman, 22-year-old Pharmacist Mate First Class Wheeler Lipes. Lipes diagnosed acute appendicitis and went to brief the CO. When the CO asked Lipes if he could fix it, Lipes replied that he could, but he wasn’t authorized to operate. The CO then put a written authorization in Rector’s medical record, and Lipes proceeded. He gathered some shipmates to help, set Rector on the wardroom table, covered his face with torpedo grease to save him from ether burns, used a tea strainer to administer ether, and spoons as retractors when cutting through Rector’s abdomen. Rector’s appendix was swollen to about nine inches and was infected and gangrenous. Lipes removed it in surgery that lasted 1-1/2 hours and stitched up his shipmate with black silk thread. (A routine appendectomy by an experienced doctor takes less than 45 minutes.) Rector regained consciousness about 30 minutes after surgery, asked for something to eat, and returned to the watch bill 13 days later.”
Lipes retired from the Navy as a Lieutenant Commander in 1962 and had a successful second career in medical administration. He still bursts with pride at his legendary status in the submarine community but thinks the real hero was Rector for letting Lipes operate on him!
So for those of us on active duty, take good care of your Corpsman, you never know when he may have to operate on you! For those in the retired ranks, cherish the memories of those Corpsmen who took such great care of you and be thankful that we were able to conduct all those medevacs.