Wheeler Lipes – Pharmacist Mate, United States Navy

Wheeler Lipes dies at age 84

April 19,2005
Charlie Hall
Courtesy of the Sun Journal

New Bern, North Carolina, resident 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.”

Visitation will be 7 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Pollock-Best Funerals and Cremations, followed by an 8:30 p.m. Masonic service.

The funeral will be at 2:30 p.m. at St. Andrews Lutheran Church, 1605 Neuse Blvd.

NEW BERN, North Carolina, April 19, 2005 — Wheeler Lipes, a World War II pharmacist's mate who performed an emergency appendectomy aboard a submarine with makeshift instruments such as bent spoons, has died at 84, two months after receiving belated honors for his feat.

Lipes died Sunday after a battle with pancreatic cancer, said his brother-in-law, Chris Doney.

Lipes used bent spoons for retractors and alcohol from torpedoes for sterilization in 1942 when he removed the appendix of sailor Darrel Dean Rector aboard the USS Seadragon, 120 feet below the surface of the South China Sea.

Lipes, then 22, and an assistant wore sterilized pajamas in place of operating room gowns. Rector was too tall for the makeshift operating table, so Lipes put the patient's feet in the drawer of a cabinet. Lipes stood with his knees bent throughout the two-hour operation because the table was bolted to the floor.

Lipes had witnessed several appendectomies before deciding Rector needed surgery.

“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.”

Rector, whose swollen appendix had several inches of blackened tissue, was back on duty in 13 days.

The emergency procedure was recounted in reporter George Weller's Pulitzer Prize-winning article in the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, and inspired a movie starring Cary Grant and a Navy-produced film titled “The Pharmacist's Mate.”

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.

Lipes retired to North Carolina in 2002 after a long career as a hospital administrator. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Wheeler Lipes, shown in this December 2002 photo in New Bern, North Carolina, talks about performing surgery on a submarine during World War II. The veteran who performed life-saving procedure has died of cancer, two months after he won belated honors from the Navy for the feat. He died Sunday night, April 17, 2005. and is to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, a funeral home said Tuesday, April 19, 2005

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