THE FIRST APPENDECTOMY
ON BOARD A US SUBMARINE

By: Franz P. Hoskins, Capt. ,USNR (RET)

Article prepared and submitted by: James W. Brunty

Our Las Vegas Chapter President and Chaplain, Morris Bornstein wrote to a Mr Franz P. Hoskins in Tacoma, WA. asking him for a first person account of the appendectomy he assisted in, here is his tale and with a super P.S

Dear Morris,

As promised, here is the story about the USS SEADRAGON, SS-194, and its historic first-ever appendectomy surgery performed while submerged over 1,500 miles behind Japanese held territory lines in the South China Sea just 55 years ago this last Sept. 11, 1997. The circumstances that led up to this dramatic, amateur surgery are noted below.

When the WW II started in December, 1941, the SEADRAGON was a member of the Asiatic U.S. Fleet based in Manila Bay, Philippine Islands, along with 28 other U.S. submarines and a handful of surface craft, the U.S.S. Houston, a heavy cruiser, being the largest. Within the next three months the Japanese overran all of the Philippine Islands, coast of French-Indo China, the Malay Peninsula, all of the Dutch East Indies, eastward to the Solomon Islands. In other words, they occupied everything north of Australia and by March 1942, were threatening invasion of northern Australia. Although the Japs were bombing north Australia, they were stopped short of actual invasion by our submarine forces in part, and by the Battle of Coral Sea off the northeastern tip of Australia in May 1942. This major battle was a draw between U.S. Naval Forces but proved to be the stopping point for the Japanese as American forces slowly began to venture that far westward by the summer and fall of 1942.

The surface ships of our Asiatic Fleet were promptly annihilated by the overwhelming Japanese Fleet within two months of WW II, but twenty-five of our original submarines remained intact and continued harassing Japanese shipping and naval vessels in Japanese held waters north of Australia. By March 1942, our submarine force had been forced to retreat southward from Manila 3,700 miles to Perth, Australia, where a well protected base was found, along the southwest lower coast where the Indian Ocean abuts Australia. Our submarines at that time were making individual war patrols some three to four thousand miles northward hunting for shipping around the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, and the coast of French-Indo China. Our subs, therefore, found themselves often 1,000 to 2,000 miles behind Japanese lines, and once that far distant from Perth or any other possible Allied base, each ship was autonomous, left to its own individual support and maintenance.

It was during SEADRAGONíS fourth war patrol we found ourselves approximately 3,000 miles north of Perth just entering the South China Sea just north of Borneo when one of our seamen came down with what was diagnosed as an acute appendicitis by our pharmacistís mate, first class, Wheeler Lipes. He had worked in a naval hospital operating room before coming to submarines, and had seen a couple of appendectomies done. After icing down the patientís abdomen for a day or so, when no improvement was noted, Lipes went to the Captain to discuss the case.

At that time, our submarine was nearly 2,000 miles to Port Darwin, Australia, the closest Allied port in the Far East, and it was not certain there was a doctor there who could perform an appendectomy. But more importantly, it would take SEADRAGON eight to nine days to travel the nearly 2,000 miles to get to Darwin. Obviously, this was out of the question.

Realizing the crucial circumstances at hand, pharmacist mate Lipes discussed all aspects of the case with LCDR William E. Ferrell, our captain, and forthrightly told the captain he felt there was no other way to save seaman Dean Rectorís life except by operating on him! The captain was initially overwhelmed by such a brazen suggestion of treatment, but after much thought and consideration of the dilemma which had presented itself, he finally gave his permission when Lipes convinced the captain it was the only way to go and he could do the surgery.

Lipes picked out his operating crew and assistants, then went over each assistantís duties, individual by individual, explaining each oneís part and reading from his U.S. Navy Pharmacistís Medical Handbook whenever appropriate. I was asked to be the anesthetist, using drop ether. Like all the others involved, Iíd had no medical training but after reading about how to give an ether anesthesia from the appendix of the medical manual, I finally consented to do my bit.

As you can read from the carefully written article enclosed, it was a very amateurish, jury-rigged operation. Needless to say, the whole operation went very slowly, as the" Doc" gingerly cut through each layer of the abdomen and searched for the appendix. The concentration of ether in the wardroom, as well as throughout the whole ship was stifling. However, after two and a half hours, we had successfully performed the first appendectomy in a submerged submarine. Again, done by an entirely amateur crew. Submarines did not carry doctors aboard at any time during WW II, so anything medical that was done fell upon the pharmacist's mate hands.

At the end of the patrol, a war correspondent met us at the dock, explaining he had permission to write a feature story about the operation. The captain invited him aboard for lunch and afterward all of us involved in the operation sat around the wardroom telling him about it, The story, as you can see, won George Weller a Pulitzer Prize for battlefront news-writing for the year 1942. This story was carried by most of the big city newspapers in the U.S. Canada, England, etc. Of course, at the time we had no idea what a tremendous stir it would cause.

Wheeler Lipes, the pharmacist who did the surgery will be at the Las Vegas convention, his first ever. Our executive officer, then Lt. Norvell Ward (later RADM Ward), Lipes assistant surgeon, and myself will meet again for the first time in 55 years!

My Best,
Franz P. Hoskins, Capt. ,USNR (RET)

P.S.
Pharmacist Mate, First Class, Wheeler B. Lipes remained in the Navy for a full time career, retiring as a Lieutenant Commander. Lt Norvell, a Naval Academy graduate of 1935, also remained in the Navy for nearly thirty years, retiring as a Rear Admiral. Lt. Franz P. Hoskins retired from active duty in 1946 to attend medical school at his Alma Mater, University of Washington, after which he practiced medicine and surgery for over 40 years, as well as remaining active in naval reserve for over twenty years, retiring as a Captain,USNR. Should add Wheeler Lipes, after retiring from the navy, spent another career in civilian life in hospital administrative work, and just retired as administrator of a major hospital in Corpus Christi, Tx.

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