- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2005

NEW BERN, N.C. (AP) — Wheeler Lipes, a World War II veteran who performed life-saving surgery aboard a submarine, died of cancer April 17, two months after he received belated honors from the Navy for the feat. He was 84.

Mr. Lipes was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal in February in a ceremony at Camp Lejeune. He is to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Pollock-Best Funeral Home said yesterday.

Mr. Lipes was 22 in 1942 when he relied on makeshift instruments — using bent spoons for retractors and alcohol from torpedoes for sterilization — to remove the appendix of sailor Darrel Dean Rector on a submarine 120 feet below the South China Sea. He and an assistant wore pajamas rather than operating-room gowns.

Though a news report on Mr. 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, Mr. Lipes went without naval honors until earlier this year. He said past efforts to secure him a medal failed because officials believed a statute of limitations had expired.

There were no doctors assigned to submarines when Mr. Rector fell ill aboard the Seadragon in September 1942. The submarine’s captain ordered Mr. Lipes, the only medical professional on board, to collect whatever supplies he could and try to remove Mr. Rector’s appendix.

The surgical environment was challenging. Mr. Rector was too tall for the makeshift operating table, so a nearby cabinet was opened and Mr. Lipes put the patient’s feet in the drawer.

Because the operating table was bolted to the deck, Mr. Lipes stood with his knees bent throughout the two-hour operation, as he removed a swollen 5-inch appendix that had several inches of blackened tissue.

Mr. Lipes, a pharmacist’s mate, had witnessed several appendectomies and never wavered when it became clear Mr. Rector needed surgery.

“He told the skipper that he could do it. He went right after it,” recalled Arthur Killam, who served aboard the Seadragon with Mr. Lipes and attended the medal ceremony earlier this year.

Mr. 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 won a Pulitzer Prize for his account of the surgery in the now-defunct Chicago Daily News. Several motion pictures also portrayed the feat, including one starring Cary Grant and another produced by the Navy.

But there was also anger over Mr. Lipes’ actions by 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.

Mr. Lipes, who was born in New Castle, Va., retired to North Carolina in 2002 after a long career as a hospital administrator. The medal ceremony took place after Jan Herman, historian of the Navy Medical Department, began looking into his case.

Even as he received his long-delayed recognition, Mr. Lipes was battling pancreatic cancer.

Mr. Lipes is survived by his second wife, Audrey.

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