Medicine without Doctors or Nurses…but with ingenuity

Posted by Rebekah
Apr 13 2010

Continuing on a previous post (See “No Atheists in Foxholes…or underwater?) Submarines don’t have any clergy aboard, or Doctors or Nurses.  Someone who is so highly trained is too valuable to place on a submarine, or so the theory goes.

Yet a submarine is a dangerous place, especially in WWII when a submarine could be under attack and people could suffer deep cuts, broken bones or other serious injuries, and that doesn’t include diseases that  could easily sweep through such a combined space.

Enter the Pharmacist’s Mate.  These men, fondly known as “Doc”, are trained to deal with first aid, routine and basic medicine, and they’re really good in an emergency.  A common analogy is they’re trained in a similar manner to paramedics.  They can handle most things well, but if something is serious, they will keep you alive and stable until a doctor or nurse can take over.

During WWII, the most famous Pharmacist Mates were probably Wheeler Lipes on the Seadragon, Harry Roby on the Grayling, and Thomas Moore on the Silversides.  All three of these men did something that was not expected of a Doc: They performed surgery   a patrolling submarine.  The same surgery actually, an Appendectomy.

Starting on September 11, 1942, with the Seadragon and ending on December 23, 1942 on the Silversides, a crewman on each submarine came down with acute appendicitis, and there was no one nearby enough to transfer the crewman before the likely rupture of the appendix.  Each Doc had scalpels and sutures and sulpha drugs for fighting infection, along with anesthetic and ether, and each rigged the rest of the tools he needed from the rest of the tools on their boats.  (Moore on Silversides used bent spoons as retractors.)

A submarine is NOT a sterile environment, and beside the Doc, few on board would have medical training.

On Silversides, a fireman named George Platter came down with appendicitis a few days before Christmas.  Captain Creed Burlingame and Moore studied Platter for several hours.  Moore had several months of nurse training and had assisted in many appendectomies at the Naval Hospital in San Diego, and as he watched Platter, he worried that the case wouldn’t resolve itself.  Finally, he told Burlingame that they would have to turn around or do an appendectomy.  Burlingame checked every schedule he could looking for someone who would have the proper medical equipment aboard, or a submarine headed back to port, but there was no one, and after a discussion with Platter (who was willing to do anything at this point), Moore was given the green light to operate.

The Silversides Wardroom, as it appears today. The fixtures, including three-quarters of the table, are original to the boat. This is the table the surgery took place on.

The Wardroom was the best room for the job: small, mostly covered in stainless steel, and, though cramped, the easiest to clean and keep isolated from the rest of the boat during the procedure.  The table wasn’t long enough for Platter’s frame, so an ironing board had to be fixed to the end to support his feet.  The stewards scrubbed the room, removed the light fixture globes, cleaned and inserted the brightest bulbs aboard (150 watts) into the sockets.  The room would get very hot, very quickly.

Silversides, despite the fact she only had a partial charge on her batteries, dove to 150 feet deep to keep the boat at an even keel for the surgery.

For four hours, the surgery continued, Moore leading a team of five assistants.  When he found the appendix, it was grotesquely swollen and gangrenous.  As he slowly and carefully cut it away, men would stop by for the latest update on the surgery to pass on to the anxious crew.

The Silversides Appendectomy, as photographed by XO Roy Davenport, who was standing next to the paitent's head. Thomas Moore is the dark-haired bearded man in the T-shirt.

Suddenly, Moore, who had been given a spinal anesthetic, said “I can wiggle my toes now,” and moments later, could feel the surgery taking place inside him.  He was quickly put back under using a can of ether, but the fumes filled the wardroom and forward part of the Officer’s Country.  (And as anyone who has worked with ether knows, it’s exteremly flammable as well…and Officer’s Country sits on top of one of the boat’s giant wet-cell batteries!)

Finally, the surgery was done and Platter was laid on the Wardroom’s only bunk to recover. Silversides, needing to charge her batteries, rose to the surface.  An hour later, a Japanese destroyer found them, and chased them down, dropping dozens of depth charges when Silversides tried to escape to the depths.  One of the charges blew so closely to Silversides, Platter was nearly thrown from his bunk, but Moore, ever watchful (and worried sick Platter wouldn’t survive) caught him.

Despite the attack, and the jury rigged hospital (which ended up including a custom made bedpan–the assigned one being used as an oil pan in the engine room) Platter was on the mend and back on duty.  When Silversides returned to port, the story quickly made waves, and the photographs XO Roy Davenport took during the procedure guaranteed the surgery became the most famous one during the war.

As it turned out, most Appendicitis problems will cure themselves with proper care, so the Navy quickly indocrinated the upcoming Submarine Officers and Pharmacist’s Mates to NEVER DO SURGERY UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.  The other two Pharmacist Mates that performed the surgeries, like Moore,  had assisted on many other surgeries prior to entering the Submarine Force, and the Navy worried that incoming Docs, who may not be as thoroughly trained may be lulled into a false sense of ease of surgery.

Despite that door being forcibly closed, sub Docs faced a wide and dizzying array of medical problems that needed attention: communicable diseases, diagnosis of everything from the cold and flu, to broken bones, internal injuries, gunshot wounds, ruptured eardrums, and even, at times, making the call, with the CO, to terminate the patrol early due to illness of the crew.  In addition to their own crew, a submarine’s Doc might have to treat a rescued pilot or sailor and even Prisoners of War who didn’t speak English.

On September 12-13, 1944, the USS Sealion, together with the Queenfish, Barb and Growler, sank the Rukuyo Maru, full of Allied POW's. The four submarines were able to pick up 141 survivors between them. Above, you can see the survivors being pulled out of the debris covered water, below, they are treated for malnourishment and exposure.

When the Flier grounded at Midway, Waite Daggy was smashed against the conning tower lacerating his side and jaw, breaking his jaw and losing several teeth, all of which the Doc aboard had to administer first aid before he could be transferred to Midway’s Hospital.  Joseph Lia,  a torpedoman, tied himself to a lifeline and threw himself overboard after James Peder Cahl, but was quickly swept back to the boat and hauled aboard by Kenneth Gwinn and Herbert Beahr.  Doc checked him out for any injuries and exposure.    During her second patrol, Flier’s Doc was Peter Adolph Gaideczka, and may have been the Doc aboard for Midway.

Flier's Doc on her second patrol: Peter Gaideczka, from Watervliet, New York.

Now  Independent Duty Corpsman, these men still serve aboard submarines, offering the medical attention that the men need.  Major surgery still very discouraged, a submariner that needs medical attention beyond what can be found aboard is evacuated off (sometimes by helicopter!) to the nearest medical facility.  Due to this potential breech in stealth, the health of submariners is obsessively monitored prior to leaving port.  Off the record though, I’ve been told by nuc sub vets that modern Corpsmen are at times just as creative and daring as their predecessors.

More information on Modern Independent Duty Corpsmen

Fascinating report detailing what Pharmacist’s Mates came up against during WWII War Patrols

Article about the first Appendectomy on a submarine

Article about the development of the hospital corpsmen, mentioning the appendectomies.

The best account for the Silversides appendectomy is found in Robert Trumbull’s book “Silversides”.  The only submarine book written during WWII  (but held for publication by the Navy until just before the war’s end).  It is difficult to find, but can be ordered for $19.95 through Silversides museum gift shop (call 231-755-1230) or its publisher Knutson & Co. (UPDATE 12/8/2010:  I’ve been notified that, upon the death of Paul Knutson, publisher Knutson & Co. has been closed.  However, Torpedo junction has purchased the book “Silversides” and has it for order.  It’s one of my absolute favorite books, and I’ve read a lot of them!  I’m glad that it will continue to be available.

4 Responses

  1. Fred Tannenbaum says:

    Actually, another officer took the appendectomy photos. He was a good friend and I saw the camera with which he took them.

  2. web says:

    Good info. Lucky me I discovered your website by accident (stumbleupon).
    I’ve book marked it for later!

  3. Dana Melinda says:

    I just watched the fascinating story of the USS Silversides on Smithsonian channel’s ‘Down Under’ and was very inspired by the heroism on board that submarine …What a GOOD MOVIE this would make! A younger Tom Hanks- like actor should play Commander Creed Burlingame-
    and there was SO much drama: like, Thomas Moore saving the life of the sick sailor by doing an emergency appendectomy and the Commander supporting it- not wanting to loose a sailor. Afterwards they came very close to perishing several times while under attack by the Japs. All of the sailors on this submarine worked as a team & were true heroes!

  4. sandy says:

    Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Harry B. Roby performed the second submarine appendectomy on Torpedoman’s Mate First Class W.R. Jones, aged twenty-two, on the USS Grayback (SS 208) not the USS Grayling

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