Navy Honors Sailor For Emergency Surgery
February 21, 2005
RALEIGH, N.C. - More than 60 years ago, Wheeler Lipes performed a successful emergency appendectomy in a submarine 120 feet below the Pacific Ocean - an act that has finally earned him a medal from the Navy.
Lipes, then 23, relied on makeshift instruments - bent spoons for retractors and alcohol from torpedoes for sterilization. He and an assistant wore pajamas rather than operating room gowns.
Though a news report on Wheeler Lipes' feat aboard the USS Seadragon amid World War II won a Pulitzer Prize and prompted the Navy to make a movie about his actions, Lipes was never honored. Until Sunday.
"Personally, I'm not overwhelmed with awards, but I think it was important they present the medal because it helps to bring about some closure of things that fall through the cracks," he said.
Lipes, now 84, was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal. He said past efforts to award him the medal failed because officials believed a statute of limitations had passed.
But Lipes said his patient was the courageous one.
"I always thought he was the guy who had the courage," Lipes said. "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."
The surgical environment was less than ideal: The patient, Darrel Dean Rector, was too tall to lay on the makeshift operating table, so a nearby cabinet was opened and Lipes put the patient's feet in the drawer.
The table was bolted to the floor, so Lipes had to stand with his knees bent throughout the operation. After nearly two hours, Lipes removed a swollen 5-inch appendix that had several inches of blackened tissue.
Arthur Killam, 84, who served aboard the Seadragon with Lipes, said the young pharmacists' mate never wavered during the emergency surgery in 1942.
Lipes "said he'd seen an appendectomy one time so he told the skipper that he could do it. He went right after it," said Killam, who attended the medal ceremony. Killam and Lipes reconnected a few weeks ago for the first time since the war.
Rector was back on duty in 13 days. He died two years later aboard a different submarine, the USS Tang, when the Tang fired a torpedo that circled back and struck the vessel.
Reporter George Weller of the now-defunct Chicago Daily News wrote about Lipes' undersea surgery and won a Pulitzer Prize. Several motion pictures also portrayed the feat, including one titled "The Pharmacist's Mate," produced by the Navy.
Lipes said about 100 people attended Sunday's medal ceremony.
"It was spectacular," he said, describing the ceremony in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "The Navy certainly made up for the 63 years of delay in the medal."
Lipes received the award after Jan Herman, historian of the Navy Medical Department, began looking into his case.
"I found that he had never gotten any kind of recognition from the Navy," Herman told The Daily News of Jacksonville, N.C. Herman interviewed and videotaped Lipes several times for the Navy.
The surgery wasn't Lipes' only harrowing experience. He escaped death early in the war when the submarine USS Sealion was hit by two Japanese bombs. He still has scars from that attack.
Lipes, who is battling pancreatic cancer, retired to North Carolina in 2002 after a long career as a hospital administrator. He said he was cheered by Sunday's ceremony.
"I certainly was privileged and honored to be the subject of that presentation," he said.
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