This is a companion article to the Swashbuckling Submariner.
I did a number of assignments on board the submarines I served on. That isn’t unusual since we operate in a world of our own once we submerge. In addition to your primary duties as a watch stander, you serve as a member of the damage control team, radiation control backup team and of course the medical assist team.
Submarine wardrooms in my generation were designed to be converted quickly to miniature hospitals. Although we did not have doctors on board for much of my career (only on board USS Ohio and only for a short while) we did have highly trained independent Corpsman. I volunteered on several boats to learn some additional skills as a medical assistant. It’s really nothing more than a glorified helper but I was happy to learn the additional skills required.
Submarines have always adapted to emergencies. One of the most famous incidences occurred on board the USS Silversides.
December 22, 1942: On board USS Silversides (SS 236), Pharmacists Mate 1st Class Thomas A. Moore performs an emergency appendectomy on Fireman 3rd Class George M. Platter while the submarine is submerged and on war patrol in the Solomon Islands. Platter returned to duty within a few days of the operation.
From the Washington Evening Star on February 14, 1943:
Sailor on Sub Removes Mate’s Appendix in 5-Hour Operation
Hit Me on Head/ Patient in Undersea Ordeal Asks as Anesthesia Wears Off
By WALTER B. CLAUSEN, Associated Press War Correspondent.
PEARL HARBOR. Feb. 13.—Far below the ocean surface, not far from Tokio, a United States submarine cruised about slowly.
A white-shrouded figure lay on a table in the wardroom mess. He was Fireman George W. Platter, 21, of Buffalo. N. Y., acutely ill with appendicitis. An operation was in progress.
Tenseness lined the faces of men clustered about the table. Occasionally one raised questioning eyes to the youngster who wielded the surgical instruments.
He was not a surgeon, but a chief pharmacist’s mate. Thomas A. Moore of Chino Valley, Ariz., and he never before had performed a surgical operation.
Second Operation of Kind.
For more than five hours he worked, and finally extracted the badly inflamed appendix. The sick man was sewn up.
The appendectomy was the second such operation known to have been performed aboard a United States submarine. A few minutes later the submarine surfaced to recharge its batteries, but instead sighted and fired, a torpedo into an enemy ship and then submerged again under a heavy depth-charge attack.
Details of the operation were reported today by the officers and men of the submarine Silversides on return from a successful patrol of enemy waters. Fireman Platter, long ago recovered, was as fit as any member of the crew.
When Fireman Platter decided it was time his appendix should come out the skipper, Lt. Comdr. Creed C. Burlingame of Louisville, Ky., was called in and so advised. Moore was elected to do the job. His volunteer assistants were Ensign Donald Finsch of Everett, Wash.; Gunner Robert Detmer of Bell, Calif.; Radioman Richard Stegall of Nashville. Tenn., and Signalman Robert T. Danke of Chicago.
The executive officer, Lt. Comdr. Roy M. Davenport of Los Angeles, kept the submarine’s crew advised of progress of the operation.
Although it was Moore’s first appendectomy, he had seen a “couple of thousand” while he was serving as a hospital apprentice at the San Diego Naval Hospital and he felt confident he could perform it.
“The ocean -was smooth as glass when the time for the operation came.” he said, “but the skipper took her down so we wouldn’t have to make a crash dive during the operation.
“I had two forceps, two surgical knives, all the surgical goods for a major case, and eight hemostats (clamps for compressing blood vessels, but I was a little short on retractors (instruments to hold the incision open) and we used two bent spoons instead.
“There was plenty of light, but we used a flashlight also when we got down deep.
“We started with a spinal anesthetic but the appendix was grown to the ascending colon and was difficult to get out. By this time we had been under way an hour and 35 minutes and the anesthetic was wearing off.” Platter said. I can feel you pulling at my guts.’ He also remarked that he could move his toes and that he was beginning to feel pain.
Asked to Be Hit on Head.
“Then he said, ‘Hit me on the head with something.’ We gave him a can and a half of ether.”
Comdr. Davenport said: “I kept Telling Platter stories while he was conscious but he got the most consolation out of the first verse of the 46th Psalm—‘God is our refuge and our strength. * * *
I only saw Moore stand up straight once to take a deep breath during the five hours.”
Moore, when asked what his superiors thought of the incident, told of their return to base.
“I had a bunch of long-faced medical officers greet me,” he said, “and the first question they asked was ‘Have any trouble?’ “I replied ‘No. but we had an appendectomy.’ “He said, ‘You did? But no dental trouble?’ “I replied, ‘No, no dental trouble.’
Wants to Be Paratrooper.
They finally got around to asking whether the patient lived. I called Platter over and they said. ‘”Let’s see the incision.” Platter showed it to them.
“And that’s that.”
“Now Moore wants to get into a paratroop outfit.” Comdr. Davenport interposed. “He thinks there’s not enough action on submarines.”
The first appendix operation on a submerged submarine, as recounted in The Star last December 14 by Correspondent George Weller, was performed by a 23-year-old pharmacist’s mate in enemy waters of the Pacific.
The “chief surgeon,” Wheller B Lipes of Newcastle, VA used tablespoons for retractors, extracted alcohol from a torpedo mechanism for a sterilizer and succeeded in sewing up the incision two and a half hours after the operation started, just as the last can of ether was used up.
Another version of the story can be found here: https://ussnautilus.org/the-holiday-appendectomy/
The way the world is going now, maybe all of us should brush up on our emergency medical treatment skills. You never know when they might come in handy.