Sea-Stories - Surgery


Copyright © Frank O. Dodge. All rights reserved

The hull creaked, groaned, and popped, as the big ship-of- the-line pitched and rolled to the running seas, and heeled sharply as each broadside roared. Down in the stuffy confines of the lazarette, a battle lantern swayed to the motion of the ship, casting darting shadows about the close hot compartment, and filling the space with reeking fumes. Held down on the table by two husky seamen, foretopman Jenkins screamed as the surgeon's knife sliced through the muscles of his thigh to the bone. The wounded man thrashed in agony while his shipmates sweated and wrestled with him.

Surgeon's Mate Darwin, holding Jenkins's shoulders, cursed and struck the struggling man a smashing blow to the jaw. Jenkins went limp, and Darwin drew his forearm across his forehead, wiping away sweat. "Poor bloody sod," he panted, swaying to the plunging of the ship as she came about sharply, "At least he can't feel it now."

The nerve-scraping rasp of the bone-saw ceased, and the surgeon tossed the severed leg onto the pile of limbs in the corner. "Cautery," he snapped.

Darwin lifted the white-hot iron from the brazier, and handed it to Dr. Howard. The surgeon applied the searing iron to the bleeding stump. Clouds of nauseous steam filled the tiny surgery. The patient regained consciousness, and screamed once before he died.


Lt(jg). James Howard, Medical Corps, USN, jerked upright, and stared wild-eyed into the darkness. His face was streaming with perspiration, and he was trembling violently. He fumbled for the switch, and turned on the bunk light. Howard scrubbed his hands against his t-shirt, surprised to find that they were not covered with blood. He threw back the wadded sheet, and swung his legs over the side of the bunk, sitting up. "God!" he whispered, "What a nightmare! And I was complaining about the facilities aboard here!"

The young medical officer adjusted to the gentle motion of the big carrier while his breathing slowed and his pounding heart returned to normal. Howard lit a cigarette, and ran his hand through his hair. Going back to sleep was out of the question. He got up and pulled on his trousers. Maybe a turn around the flight deck would calm his jagged nerves.

Howard pushed through the watertight door, and stepped out onto the wooden deck. The ship lurched, and he grabbed at the rigging to keep from falling down. The rigging? Rigging? On the flight deck of an aircraft carrier? James looked around. On the raised quarterdeck the light from the binnacle glowed on the face of the seaman at the wheel. He was dressed in wide petticoat breeches, tight roundabout jacket, and a tarred straw hat. He handled the helm expertly, keeping an eye on the luff of the foresail. Foresail? What the hell...?

The Officer of the Deck, a lieutenant from the gold-thread epaulet on one shoulder, stepped to the rail of the poop, and removing his three cornered hat, scratched under his periwig with a forefinger. "Good morning, Doctor. You're about early." He yawned, showing broken teeth. "The butcher's bill for yesterday's action was quite heavy, leaving us short-handed. Will any of your patients be able to return to duty today? You'd best lay below and check. Captain's concerned. We'll likely face His Majesty's ships again today, and we'll need every hand who can move."

Young Howard gaped. The deck officer eyed him. "You seem befuddled, Doctor. Too much rum to wash away yesterday's blood?" The lieutenant smiled. "Understandable. Your first action can be quite unsettling."

Howard's mind was a fog of confusion. What the hell was happening? "I...."

The lieutenant replaced his hat. "Come, come, man. Look alive. You'll get used to it." He turned to the helmsman. "Steer small. Mind your luff."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Howard stumbled back through the hatch, and felt his way down the ladder. What was happening? He suddenly gripped the rail and started. 'His Majesty's ships'? Good God. Howard moved along in a daze. He automatically found his way to the lazarette, guided by the screams and moans of the poor devils whose arms and legs had been lopped off and who had nothing but small doses of laudanum, and large doses of rum to dull the pain.

The sick bay was dimly lighted by swinging battle lanterns. It was a scene from a corner of hell. The wounded writhed and squirmed on the hard wooden deck. The place was airless and smelled horribly of vomit, feces, urine and blood, and...already...the odor of putrefaction. Two surgeon's mates moved among the tortured men dispensing rum and rationing small sips of precious water. Howard felt faint.

Surgeon's Mate Darwin approached and knuckled his forehead. "Mornin' Doctor. Five more died. Sailmaker'll be running out of canvas to sew 'em in if this keeps up."

Howard pulled himself together. How it had happened...what had happened...he didn't know, but his doctor's instincts kicked in and he began to examine the nearest man. The bloodsoaked bandage about the stump of his arm was caked with hardened blood. He turned to another, and another. Howard wiped sweat from his brow. There was nothing he could do for them. With all his medical training, there was nothing he could do. There was nothing to do anything with. He mixed curses with prayers as he realized that he could only follow the medical practice of the day. Which was to say that the wounded would either recover or die. A chest or abdominal wound was almost certainly fatal. A wound to arm or leg generally necessitated amputation to forestall gangrene, and that had already been done.

Howard turned to the medic. His eyes were haunted. He had to get out of there. "Carry on," he muttered.

Darwin looked at his superior. He extended the bottle in his hand. "Sir," he said, "Looks as if you could use a little of this."

Howard took the bottle and upended it. He coughed as the raw, hundred fifty proof rum seared his throat. "Thank you."

"Beggin' pardon, sir...."

"What?" Howard didn't mean to be short with the man, but he was having trouble keeping from puking. "Sorry, Darwin. What is it?"

"May I speak to private?"

Howard stepped out into the passageway. "What is it?"

The sailor examined James's face closely. "Sir, yesterday Doctor Howard was typical of this time. Amputations didn't bother him. Today you were horrified at the conditions in the sick bay. Doc, I've been here almost two years. I don't know how it happened either, but you aren't the same Doctor Howard today that you were yesterday, are you?"

"What do you mean for this time? Who the hell are you?"

"Hospital Corpsman Second Class Darwin, USS Malibou. I guess I've been reported over the hill for the last two years."

"The carrier Malibou?"

"Yes sir."

Howard stared. "Darwin, there's something damn fishy about the Malibou! That's what I was aboard an hour ago."

Darwin laughed. "That's one way of putting it, sir."

Howard smiled. "I guess that was a pretty stupid statement, but I'm feeling pretty stupid. Where are we? What ship is this?"

"Hang on to your hat, Doc. United Colonies Ship Bon Homme Richard. Captain John Paul Jones, Commanding."


"Yes, sir." Darwin touched the young Medical Officer on the arm. "Sir, if my recollection of history is right, we meet HMS Serapis today."

"Oh my God!"

Darwin nodded. "Yes, sir."

Howard gripped the Corpsman by the shoulder. "One of the bloodiest sea battles of the Revolution."

"Yes, sir."

Howard glanced into the hell that was the sick bay, and shuddered. "How many arms and legs will I have to lop off today? God, just this morning I was bitching about the short-comings of the surgery aboard Malibou!" The young doctor rubbed his eyes.
"Dammit, Darwin, isn't there anything better we can do?"

"Sorry, sir." The Corpsman shrugged. "A sharp knife, a bone-saw, and a hot iron. That's about it." Darwin's face reflected his frustration. "Doc, I've been stuck as Surgeon's Mate aboard first one ship and another for two long years. Christ, Doc, I'm only a Hospital Corpsman and I know more medicine than the best doctor in the world today...and I can't do a thing about it."

Howard felt like crying. He gripped the edge of the door to the sick bay, and looked at the poor devils writhing in agony. The air was stifling, and heavy with evil odors. "Do what you can for them. Where's my medical bag?"

Darwin fetched a leather satchel, and Howard examined the contents. The Corpsman had been right. A selection of knives, bone saw, a pitiably small supply of laudanum...a tincture of opium ... an unsteralized wad of cloth for bandages.

Howard's head jerked up as the rumble of drums and the pipings of the Bosun's Mates sounded throughout the ship. "What th'...."

"Beat to Quarters, Doc.... Battle stations.... Looks like Serapis has been sighted."


Lt(jg). Howard stuck his head out the hatch. Barefooted seaman were running this way and that in strictly ordered confusion, swarming up the rigging to man the sails. Triceing up gun-ports, and heaving on gun-tackles to run out the heavy cannons. Loblololly boys fetched powder and shot from the magazines. Hoses were run out and connected to pumps, and canvas was wet down to smother fires.

Standing on the quarterdeck was a man nobody had to tell himwas John Paul Jones. Captain Jones's eye was everywhere on the mad scene. He occasionally gave an order in a calm voice, andthe Officer of the Deck roared it out to the crew. "Foretop there! Trim that skys'l. Number two gun! Mind your tackles, there's slack there. We'll have no loose cannons this day...."

The pipes of the Bosun's Mates relayed orders, the shrill twitterings rising above the din of the rumbling wheels of the gun-carriages, the pound of bare feet, the loud thrumming of the rigging in the wind. Clouds of white canvas ballooned from the yards as seaman ran like monkeys along the footropes unclewing and loosing the sails. There was an ear-torturing squeal of blocks as the ropes ran through them, shouts and yells from the petty officers.
Responding to a quiet word from the Captain, the Officer of the Deck barked an order and the helmsman put the wheel over, swinging the bowsprit to starboard.

Howard looked off to the right. Just visible on the horizon was the top-hamper of a ship-of-the-line. The lookout would receive an extra ration of tobacco and rum for his keen eyes if Howard remembered his Naval history. The man must have reported the enemy when no more than her sky-sails topped the horizon.

The ancient and clumsy Bon Homme Richard clawed her way to windward as John Paul Jones forced her on the attack. The Captain glanced down and spotted Howard. His smile was grim. "You'll have a busy day today, Doctor. The butcher's bill will be high...but Serapis will pay more dearly." His eye caught a flutter in the foresail and he turned to the helmsman. "Mind your luff, Quartermaster."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Howard watched as Serapis came hull-up over the horizon and bore down upon them with the wind at her back. Her mountains of canvas gleamed brightly in the sun, the Union Jack snapped briskly, and Howard could see her rows of gunports triced up for action as the tall ship rounded to and fired a broadside. The opening salvo fell short, raising a series of fountains as twenty-four-pounder balls skipped across the waves. Jones laughed. "Waste your powder, my friend." He bellowed, "Hands to the braces. Come about on the starboard tack. Starboard guns fire as you bear. Aim high to dismast her."

The cannons began a rolling salvo as each gun bore on the target. Jones had gauged the range correctly and white stars of splinters blossomed in Serapis's high side while two yardarms leaped from the foremast and dangled in a tangle of rigging. British sailors swarmed aloft to cut away the raffle. Jones laughed. "Extra grog for the two guns who took down those spars. Raise your sights. Cripple her."

The two ships moved to short range, each pounding the other with cannonfire. Howard ducked as a ball sang past him and decapitated the quartermaster.

John Paul Jones, spattered with the blood of the unfortunate helmsman, calmly wiped his face and called for a replacement. A seaman sprang to the wildly spinning wheel. The young doctor swallowed his vomit, tearing his eyes from the headless body. More shot struck, sending showers of jagged splinters in all directions. Sailors fell, transfixed by wooden shards. The mizzen mast, heavily scored by a twenty-four-pound ball, swayed dangerously. Ropes and blocks, torn loose by shot, rained down on the deck.

Surgeon's Mate Darwin and his assistants pushed past him and began carrying the wounded below. The dead were shoved into the scuppers where they'd be out from underfoot. Howard shuddered and dropped down the ladder to the lazarette, his stomach roiling at thought of what he had to do.

An hour later, weak and nauseated, Howard stuck his head from the hatch for a breath of clean air. The air wasn't all that pure. It was swirling with the rotten smell of burnt gunpowder. Through the drifting smoke Howard saw the flag halyard severed by a round-shot and the American ensign blew away. Goose-bumps rose on his body as he listened to the famous lines so often quoted. A voice sounded from the British ship. "Do you surrender, sir? Have you struck?"

Grimed with powder-smoke and covered with the blood of the decapitated helmsman, Jones moved to the taffrail. "Struck, hell!  I have not yet begun to fight!"

Old Bon Homme Richard was settling in the water and listing heavily, obviously sinking. Jones threw his hat over the side and drew his sword. "Close with her! Deck, there! Man the grapnels. Prepare to board!"

Grapnels were flung, biting deeply into Serapis's rails and brawny seaman heaved on the lines, warping the ships together. Jones brandished his sword, pointed it at the enemy and yelled, "Boarders away!"

At that instant a cannon ball ripped through the rail close by and Captain Jones staggered back, a large splinter of wood protruding from his chest. Howard's scream of dismay was lost in the uproar of the next salvo. The young doctor ducked his head into the hatchway and yelled, "Darwin! On deck on the double! Jones has been hit! Move it, man! Oh my God! Jones can't die! Get up here!"

Hospital Corpsman Darwin followed Howard to the quarterdeck, his face a mask of horror. "No! Jesus, sir, what the hell's happening? Jones wasn't wounded in this action."

"Well he is now," the doctor muttered as they lifted the unconscious Captain and bore him down to the main deck and through the hatch...


...and stepped into the brightly lighted, antiseptic surgery aboard USS Malibou....

Howard and Darwin stared at one another. The Corpsman gasped. "Holy Mother! How...?"

"Who cares? Get him on the op-table...."

"Right, sir."

Darwin picked up a pair of surgical scissors and began cutting away the Captain's clothing.  Howard moved quickly to the phone on the bulkhead and punched in the number of the senior surgeon. "Doctor Adams, no time to explain. Please get to surgery stat... and sir, don't say anything to anybody. Nobody, sir. You'll understand when you get here. Please, sir, stat!"

"Stat. Right. Be right there."

Captain Joshua Adams, Medical Corps, USN, stared from the grimed and bloody figure on the operating table to his equally filthy and bloody junior officer and the tattered barefooted and petticoated sailor with him. "Mister Howard, I'll save all the questions until later."

Dr. Adams moved to the operating table and looked down at the man lying there with a jagged chunk of wood sticking out of his chest. "Who is he?"

Howard drew in a deep breath. "John Paul Jones, sir."


"Yes, sir. He was just preparing to board HMS Serapis...."

Dr. Adams stared. "But..."

"I know, sir, it's not according to history, but here he is...."

Adams suppressed his astonishment and barked, "Notify all operating room personnel to report stat."

He went to the direct line to the Captain's Cabin. "Captain, Dr. Adams. Will you be good enough to come to Sick Bay immediately, sir? It's important that you come at once."

"What's up, Doctor?"

"Captain, you'd never believe it unless you see for yourself."

"All right."

By the time the Captain arrived, Doctor Adams was half way through scrubbing up and the bewildered OR crew were making preparations for emergency surgery.

Captain Hawkins gazed with amazement at the patient. He looked at the blue coat lying on the floor. At the gold-thread epaulets on the shoulders. He examined the smoke-darkened face and gave a sudden start of recognition. "Good God! I've got his picture on the bulkhead in my cabin! It can't be!"

Young Howard cleared his throat. "It is, Sir."

"John Paul.... "

"Yes, sir."

Captain Hawkins looked at the blood-smeared youngster. "Who the hell are you?"

"It's a long story, Captain."

Hawkins watched the surgical preparations. He motioned for Howard and the equally bloody Darwin to follow. "Let's get out of here and let Adams do his job."

Captain Hawkins eyed the two, took in the knee britches and silver-buckled shoes of the one and the wide petticoat trousers and bare feet of the other. "Two of Jones's crew? Let me guess: Ship's Surgeon and his mate?"

"Yes, sir. Only, it's sort of...different...."

"What the hell are you talking about, man?"

The eyes of the Commanding Officer of USS Malibou got wider and wider as he listened to Howard's account. He looked at Darwin. "I've heard some pretty wild excuses for being AWOL before, sailor, but this one takes the blue-eyed sway-backed camel...with a cherry on top!"

He blew out his breath. "My God. John Paul Jones. I don't get it. He was never wounded in the battle with Serapis."

"Evidently he was, Captain," Howard said. "I guess... hell, I don't know what I guess. It looks like maybe we've been commissioned to keep history on track as we know it. Hell, Captain...."

Hawkins laughed. "Yeah, me too." He waved a hand. "It wouldn't hurt if you two hit the showers and got some of that blood off you."

"Thank you, Captain."

"Wait. I don't want you men wandering around the ship like that. Use the sick bay showers." He turned to his Marine orderly who had been listening with his chin bumping the service ribbons on his chest. "Mike, go to Mr. Howard's cabin and bring him a clean set of khakis...and borrow some dungarees from one of the sailors for Darwin... Mike."


"Keep your big yap shut, hear?"

"Aye, aye, Captain."

Feeling much more human, Howard and Darwin pulled on the clean clothes. The Corpsman looked at the young doctor. "God, it feels good to be clean. I'll never take showers for granted again. I wonder what we do next, Mr. Howard? These crossovers are pretty erratic. What if we can't get Captain Jones back?"

Howard shook his head. "Sailor, it beats the hell out of me. I'd say we do get him least history as we know it says he was there when Serapis was taken."

Darwin shivered. "What if history isn' we know it?"

Howard glared. "Don't even think it."

The door to surgery opened and Dr. Adams came out pulling down his surgical mask. He stripped the thin rubber gloves from his hands. "I think we did it." He slumped into a chair and lit a cigarette. He looked at young Dr. Howard. "God, man. It's unbelievable how much damage a wooden splinter can do to the human body. How did you stand it?"

A small, grim smile touched one corner of Howard's mouth.  "I threw up a lot, sir."

Adams returned the smile. "Not very professional."

"No sir. There wasn't much to be done. Body wounds were accepted as fatal. You mostly concentrate on amputations. It was...." Howard shuddered. "I don't want to go back. I may be unable to return." His shudder this time was violent and his eyes were haunted. "Oh, God."

The senior surgeon rose and clasped the younger man by the arm. "Jones has to go back."

"I know, sir. When will he be able to be moved? What do I mean, moved? When will he be condition to lead a boarding party!"

"At least a month. You wouldn't believe how the chest muscles were torn, not to mention the chest cavity penetrated with some damage to lungs and diaphragm. If the man weren't twice as strong as an ox, he'd never have pulled through. Damn but they built some men in those days!" The doctor looked at his young colleague and lit another cigarette. "A month. How's that going to work with your time-jump-thing?"

Howard shook his head. "I have no idea. As Darwin said, this...what-ever it damned erratic. We may not even goback. Jesus, sir, I have no control. What if John Paul Jones is stuck in the 20th century? What happens to history then?"

The Commanding Officer and the Senior Physician looked at each other.


The crew of the carrier Malibou whispered and the scuttlebutt was rampant about a mysterious patient in sick bay whom no one had ever seen. Questions to the medics brought only shrugs. For the first time since the first Phoenicians put to sea, sailors managed to keep a secret.


John Paul Jones, Father of the American Navy, pulled on the remains of his uniform and looked at young Doctor Howard. "Sir," he said, "It has been a most interesting month." He grinned. "With only two of the lifeboats aboard this sea-going miracle, and a couple of your light automatic weapons, I could sweep His Majesty's entire fleet from the seas in a matter of weeks." He sighed. "Ah, well." Jones extended his hand. "My thanks, young sir, not only for saving my life, but for showing me around during the night watches and letting me know the heights to which the Navy will rise. Now," he said briskly, "I suppose I must get back to the taking of Serapis."

Dressed in the rags in which they had left his ship, Jones and the two moderns stood in the surgery and looked at Captain Hawkins and Dr. Adams. "Well," Howard took a deep breath. "we came in through that door. I hope we go out it to the deck of Bon Homme Richard.... Here goes nothing...."

Captain Hawkins, CO of the carrier Malibou, and Captain Adams, Senior Medical Officer, watched the three step through the door and disappear. A moment later Howard and Darwin stepped back through with broad grins. "We got back in time. John Paul Jones was last seen scrambling over the rail of Serapis at the head of the boarding party.  "Howard's grin widened. "Sir," he said, "History is back on track... Thank God..."


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