It was 10 December 1941, three days after the disaster at Pearl Harbor. The Japs were leisurely bombing Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippine Islands. Sealion, at a repair pier, took a direct hit which demolished that submarine and damaged Seadragon, rafted up alongside. The force of the explosion tore off part of Seadragon's bridge. Shrapnel punctured her pressure hull and ripped into her conning tower, killing Communications Officer Samuel Hunter. Hunter became the first submarine casualty of the war.
At the time of the attack, Seadragon was being repainted and a dozen cans of paint were topside and caught fire. Meanwhile, USS Pigeon ASR-6) set out to rescue Seadragon. As she maneuvered the submarine away from the wharf, a huge oil tank exploded ashore spraying a large fireball over both ships, blistering the paint on both. Out in the channel, Seadragon, with William E. "Pete" Ferrall LCDR commanding, made patch repairs. For her action, Pigeon was awarded a PUC (Presidential Unit Citation) the first ship of World War II to receive this award. Sadly she was sunk off Corregidor on 6 May 1942. On 16 December, Seadragon set out for Soerabaja, Dutch East Indies with part of Adm. Thomas C. Hart's Asiatic Fleet Staff aboard. While other repairs were made, Seadragon's blistered paint remained. With repeated submerging and surfacing, what remained eroded away, leaving her red lead undercoat highly visible.
It was during her initial war patrol off the coast of Japan that the "Tale of the Red Pirate Submarine" began being broadcast by "Tokyo Rose" describing it as a fleet of red submarines, soon to be termed as the "Red Pirates of the China Coast." On 2 February 1942 "Red Pirate" struck back during a night-submerged attack sinking the Tamagawa Maru, a 6441-ton vessel.
So the legend began, well almost. Enter Wheeler B. "Johnny" Lipes Pharmacists Mate 1/c who was the "Doc" on board Sealion. When Seadragon's "Doc" was injured during the attack Cavite, Lipes was the logical choice to replace him. On this patrol, Lipes had been up on watch when he came down to the after battery section, crew's compartment, and met shipmate Darrell D. Rector. Rector told Lipes he didn't feel well. Lipes told him to get in his bunk and rest a bit and would keep him under observation. With his temperature on the rise, Rector had all the classic symptoms of appendicitis. Lipes reported his findings to the skipper, who asked what he, Lipes could do. Nothing, he replied. After a long talk with Ferrall, he asked Lipes if he could do an appendectomy. He then ordered his pharmacist's mate to do the operation. Ferrall ordered the sub to a depth of 120 feet. With the best men on the bow and stern planes maintaining an even keel, and "all quiet" throughout the boat. Lipes selected the following men as part of the operating team:
Commanding Officer, 3 lieutenants, the yeoman, and the ships cook. Lt. Norvell Ward, the XO, acted as his chief assistant; Lt. Franz Hoskins, Communications Officer, served as anesthetist, Lt. Charles C. Manning, Engineering Officer, as chief nurse. Ferrall kept count of sponges. The table in the officers ward room served as the operating table. The instruments were a scalpel blade held by a hemostat. An inverted tea strainer covered with gauze served as an anesthesia mask. A needle nose pliers and six bent table spoons were used as retractors! Lipes had refreshed his knowledge by studying the Handbook of the Hospital Corps about the operation and briefed the OR team on what to do. He recalled a conversation with Navy physician Carey Smith at the Navy Hospital in Canacao, who told him what to expect on a sub. He might even face appendicitis and "NEVER" use a "purse string" closure!
Rector was carried onto the wardroom table and Lipes informed Rector that he has never done this before, but this was Rectors only chance. Rectors replied "Lets Go." A searchlight had been rigged over the table, which added to the heat of the moment. On 11 Sept. 1942, at 1046 Lipes administered the anesthesia. Lt. Hoskins then maintained the ether level. The incision was made at 1107, amputation of the gangrenous appendix occurred at 1230, and the incision was closed at 1322. Some of the precious time was taken up by the cumbersome method of sterilization of the instruments and the counting of sponges. The entire submarine crew became slightly intoxicated from the etherized air circulating about the boat Rector's recovery was so quick and complete that the ship's cook accused Lipes of having sewed him up with rubber bands he ate so well.
Upon arriving back from patrol, Lipes was ordered to the wardroom of the tender USS Holland, where he met with RADM Charles A. Lockwood, Commander Submarines Southwest Pacific Fleet. Lockwood had this to say in his report, dated 27 October 1942. "Although the Commander Submarines Southwest Pacific does not encourage other than qualified medical officers to perform surgical operations, in this particular case the action of W. B. Lipes PhM1/c is considered highly commendable. His skill and willingness to assume responsibility for performing a major operation is outstanding." When word of this reached Surgeon General Ross T. McIntire, that he was upset is putting it mildly! One can only conclude from his attitude that it was his distrust of corpsmen and maybe a bit of paranoia.
But now a legend was born. I first heard about Lipes in 1958. In our 5th week of boot camp in "Sandy Eggo" we went before a 1st class personnelman who looked at our file and told us just what the Navy thought we were qualified for. When it was my turn he said, "Stark, who the hell talked you into being a Hospital Corpsman?" My reply was my recruiter. "Don't you know that corpsmen are the most killed rate in the Navy!" I stared at him in utter disbelief. The recruiter said that I'd have a bed to sleep in every night, 3 squares daily and what about all the cute nurses and waves working there? So I said, "I don't want to be a Corpsman anymore". "Too late, NEXT", was his answer as he pinwheeled my file into the awaiting basket.
Back at the barracks, my Company Commander, SN1 Scott took me aside and said, "Don't pay any attention to what that PN1 said, one Corpsman took out an appendix on a sub during WWII and another one helped raise the flag with the Marines at Iwo Jima." Whenever I asked about either one of these, "Does anyone know any facts?" It was in 1994 that I learned about both men. Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman Joe Havens founded the American Association of Navy Hospital Corpsmen and in our reunion packet was a bio of John Bradley PM2, the flag raiser on Iwo and a letter sent to Lipes asking him to attend our reunion. In that letter Lipes replied and explained what happened. I got a copy of the letter and wrote to LCDR Lipes. His reply was almost immediate. Over the years we have kept in touch through phone calls and letters. To say he has done it all would be an understatement!
Joining the Navy in 1936, he was a battleship sailor on USS Texas, a sub sailor on Sealion and Seadragon, was interviewed by RAdm. Charles Lockwood, the subject of a story by Chicago Daily News writer George Weller, the cover of Readers Digest, a painting by John Falter for Esquire, and the Hollywood films "Destination Tokyo" and "Run Silent, Run Deep." A TV series in the 50s called "The Silent Service" devoted a whole program to him. He continue on, did a war bond drive in 1943, made warrant officer and served with the 2nd Marines. He finally retired in 1962 as a LCDR Medical Service Corps Officer. In civilian life Lipes was CEO of 2 major hospitals, one in Memphis and the other in Corpus Christi.
As for Darrell Rector, sadly he did not survive the war. On 24, Oct. 1944, serving aboard the USS Tang on her 5th war patrol, Tang launched a surface attack on a Jap transport and the rudder on "Fish" #2 made the torpedo circle around, sinking the sub. Only 9 survived and spent the rest of the war as POWs. She was the most successful Sub. Sank 13 vessels totaling 107,324 tons. Her Skipper CDR R. H. O'Kane survived the war and was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Through efforts by many including Lipes' son, Bruce, who wrote to President Clinton, all fell on deaf ears. Finally on 20 Feb. 05, at USNH Camp Lejeune Vice Adm. Michael L. Cowan, former Surgeon General of the Navy, presented the former submariner with a well deserved Navy Commendation Medal. This would probably would not have happened but for the efforts of Jan K. Herman, Historian of the Navy Med. Dept., who, with the determination and tenacity of a Jack Russell Terrier, continued to push for this to happen. We want hold it against you Jan for having served in the USAF.
Cowan told a gathering of doctors and Corpsmen at Camp Lejeune that the resourcefulness that Lipes showed exemplifies the kind of "can-do" spirit needed to provide emergency care for the front line personnel during the war in Iraq. During the close of the ceremony Lipes said, "God had his hand on me all the time. Just look, I'm living with an Angel," motioning to his loving wife Audrey. Johnny Lipes, thank you for inviting me to your event, it has been an honor and privilege to call you "shipmate", May God Bless You, the US Navy and God Bless America!
Charles F. Stark
Fleet HN, Historian