Appendicitis at Sea - The USS Seadragon Incident 1942

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The Appendectomy on Board the USS Seadragon

In September 1942 the USS Seadragon (SS-194), a diesel-electric,Sargoclassamerican submarine was returning from Australia to Indochina for its fourth extended combat patrol of the year. On Septembere 8, just after the boat passed into the South China Sea through the Apo pass between the Japanese controlled Phillipine Islands of Mindoro and Busuangas,Seaman First Class Darrel Dean Rector went to sick call with right lower quadrant abdominal pain and nausea of about an hours duration. It was Seaman Rector's 19th birthday.

After arriving in sick bay, a small cubicle in the submarine, he vomited. Seaman Rector's temperature was normal, but within twenty four hours of observation it rose to 102.4 and the abdominal pain became more pronounced in the right lower quadrant. "Rebound" pain, or pain after release of pressure on the abdomen, a sign of peritnoitis, or inflammation of the lining of the abdominal cavity, developed. By the third day, September 11, 1942, Seaman Rector was diagnosed with acute appendicitis.

Seaman Rector’s condition continued to deteriorate, and Mr. Lipes reported this to the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander William “Pete” Ferrell. There was no question of leaving the patrol and returning to base. They were already at least a week away from any medical care; they were in hostile territory, submerged at 120 feet running off the coast of Japanese health Philippines Islands. Commander Ferrell spoke with Seaman Rector and explained that there were no doctors around. Then, ccording to Mr. Lipes’ account,“the commanding officer and I had a long talk and he asked me what I was going to do.‘Nothing,’ I replied.”

Commander Ferrell then lectured Pharmacist’s Mate Lipes “about the fact that they were there to do the best we could.”The CO continued, “I fire torpedoes every day and some of them miss.”

Lipes replied that he, in this instance, “could not fire the torpedo and miss.”Farrell then asked Lipes if he could do the surgery, and when Lipes replied that he could, Commander Farrell ordered him to do so. .

Seaman Rector consented to surgery and was taken to the ward room, which was the officers dining area.Since there were only 5 officers on a boat that was, at widest, 27 feet, the officers’ dining area was quite smal,l but was still the largest table space on ship.. The ward room table was used as an operating table and Seaman Rector was anesthetized with a makeshift either cone constructed of cotton in a kitchen strainer.The strainer was held over Rector’s face, like a mask, and ether was slowly dripped onto the cotton.Inhaling the ether, Seaman Rector was quickly antsthetized.Once asleep, Rector’s skin was prepared with alcohol and the pocket surgical case of hemostats and scalpel blades was sterilized by boiling in the kitchen. Pajamas were used as operating clothing and they were sterilized with alcohol as were rubber gloves. Packages of tissue paper were used as surgical sponges. Several of the mess’ tablespoons were converted into retractors by bending the handles.Since no knife handles were included in the surgical pack, hemostats were clamped onto the backs of the blades as makeshift handles.

After the skin was prepared and the abdomen draped with linen cloths an incision was made approximately 4 inches long in the right lower quadrant.The bent spoons were used to retract the muscles out of the way to gain entry into the abdomen near the appendix.A problem arose in that Pharmacist’s Mate Lipes could not immediately find the appendix, which was hidden behind the cecum. Eventually Lipes found it, though, and in just over an hour, succeeded in amputating the gangrenous organ.The appendix was tied off and the stump was cauterized with phenol. To avoid further internal chemical injury from the pheno,l an incredibly strong chemical used for embalming, alcohol was then poured into the wound to neutralize the phenol. The wound was then sterilized by taking sulfa tablets which had been ground into powder and then baked in the ship’s oven “to kill any remaining spores,” was placed into the abdomen. The abdomen was then closed with catgut sutures.

Seaman Rector had a fairly rapid recovery; the day after his surgery his temperature peaked at 103.6 and he started water by mouth 6 hours after the return of consciousness. After 4 days his convalescence was uneventful and he was returned to limited duty in a week. 6 weeks after the surgery, upon return from their combat patrol, the Squadron Medical Officer examined Rector and found a well-healed firm, nontender scar. The appendix itself had been preserved in alcohol and found to be gangrenous at the Australian General Hospital by a pathologist.


Pharmacist's Mate Wheeler Lipes

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Pharmacist's Mate Wheeler Lipes showing the spoons he bent to use as retractors, and the strainer he used as an ether cone for anesthesia for the appendectomy.


The oral history recording of Wheeler Lipes' recollections of his appendectomy at sea -

To read Wheeler Lipes' 2005 NY Times obituary -click here

Seaman Darell Dean Rector

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Seaman Darrell Dean Rector (September 10, 1923-November 30, 1944)

Seaman Rector, who's nineteenth birthday present was an appendectomy at sea, did not survive the war. He was killed in 1944 on patrolon the USS Tang.click herefor more information

The USS Seadragon

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The USS Seadragon


The Seadragon was aSargoclass submarineclick herefor more information about the Seadragon.

George Wheeler's 1942 Pulitzer Prize Winning 1942 Chicago Daily News Article

For a link to a copy of George Wheeler's 1942 Pulitzer Prize winning 1942 Chicago Daily News article on the appendectomy on board the Seadragon -click here