The words legend and heroes are often overused today. But in the case of Surgeon Captain Rick Jolly, who died this weekend, it is simply the only way to describe him.
The Royal Navy surgeon was the senior medical officer of 3 Commando Brigade, based in Plymouth, and saved the lives of British and Argentine forces during the Falklands conflict. He has sadly passed away at his home.
Surgeon Captain Rick Jolly, 71, who lived in Crafthole, near Torpoint, was uniquely honoured by both the British and the Argentines for his command of the field hospital at Ajax Bay, where around 1,000 wounded were treated.
Gulf War veteran John Nicholl wrote on Twitter: “Very sad to hear Surgeon Commander Rick Jolly has died.
“Shared a glass of wine with him on a few occasions; a nicer chap you will not meet. A true hero of 1982 Falklands war; decorated by both sides.
“He should have won the highest award 4 his rescue of 2 drowning sailors. RIP Sir.”
The field hospital was described as The Red and Green Life Machine and treated both British and Argentine casualties.
Following the conflict, Captain Jolly was awarded an OBE by the Queen, while Argentine authorities appointed him to the Order of May for his dedication to their casualties in 1982.
Matters of life and death
His actions during the conflict were the stuff of legend – none more so than the moment he was lowered from a helicopter to pluck a drowning sailor from the sea.
In an interview with The Herald in 2007, he summed up his modest character. He said his thoughts at the time were: “If I don’t act now this man will die.”
The heroic act came shortly after Devonport-based HMS Ardent had been devastated by Argentine fighter bombers in Grantham Sound on the afternoon of Friday, May 21.
As Senior Medical Officer with Stonehouse-based 3 Commando Brigade, Rick had been scrambled to a Wessex helicopter to help search for casualties from the ship.
As the helicopter approached the listing HMS Ardent, Rick and the helicopter crew found it hard to spot survivors in the water as plumes of thick, black smoke towered into the sky from the fires on board.
But as they hovered closer to the ravaged Type 21 frigate, the co-pilot saw a man struggling to stay afloat.
“The seawater was breaking over his face and it was clearly evident that he wasn’t going to survive for too much longer,” Dr Jolly said.
“I knew then what I had to do. I tapped my crewman on the arm, lent across and shouted ‘Me – down’.
“I sat in the doorway and contemplated what I had to do.
“I looked at what I was wearing and suddenly remembered I didn’t have my immersion suit on. As well as my uniform, the only extra bits of kit were a pair of gloves and a thin lifejacket; I hadn’t intended to go for a swim.
“Suddenly everything went quiet, as your body does when it prepares itself for serious demand.
“I stepped out and began to be winched down 30 feet or so. I just remember thinking, ‘If I don’t act now this man will die’.
“I dropped into the ocean and it was freezing: barely two degrees. My heart slowed down and my vision changed like I was in a tunnel.
“I was then dragged through the water and soon reached the sailor. I bear-hugged him and before I knew it we were back in the helicopter cabin.
“I literally jumped on the sailor and he vomited up all the seawater. He was alive. I was exhausted.”
Rick said he felt a sense of pride and relief having saved John Dillon’s life.
But no sooner had he caught his breath, than the Royal Marine corporal in the cabin beckoned for him to come closer. “He pointed down and gave me a sort of smile; I knew exactly what he meant,” added Rick in our interview in 2007, when he was a sprightly 60.
“Taking a deep breath, I prepared myself for the second plunge.
“I began to be lowered down and the wire became twisted. It was a very strange sight, spinning round seeing Ardent on fire, HMS Yarmouth’s crew on deck close by in their immersion suits and everything else going on.
“I dropped into the water and I was too weak to lift him. He was in a terrible state, with a huge gash in his head and blood all over his face.
“I submerged myself under water and placed a hook through his life jacket. He was in such a bad state, I’m not even sure he was aware he’d been saved. Even now, that whole experience fills me with the deepest spiritual sense of pride.”
The second sailor Rick saved was Ken Enticknap, then a Chief Petty Officer, now a Commander.
Rick also said he would never forget the welcome the survivors received from city marines as they stumbled on board Canberra for treatment.
“We got back to Canberra and members of 42 Commando were waiting to climb aboard their landing craft and go ashore,” he said.
“I couldn’t help but shed a tear as each marine patted the Ardent survivors on the back as they walked past. I’ll always remember one marine saying to one of the survivors, ‘You gave them hell; we’re going to do the same’. It really was a special moment.”
Shortly after that Rick’s medical team was ordered to disembark, as Canberra was sailing. They boarded a landing craft just before midnight on May 21 and were soon heading towards Ajax Bay.
Within days Rick’s improvised field hospital took shape, nicknamed the Red and Green Life Machine, with 120 doctors and senior rates.
Over the next three weeks Rick and his team treated around 1,000 patients – including 200 Argentines.
During the conflict – which claimed the lives of 258 Britons on sea and land – Rick’s staff ensured that every British soldier who arrived at the Ajax Bay hospital left alive.
For his life-saving efforts, Rick was presented an OBE by the Queen.
He was also awarded an equivalent honour by Argentina in recognition of his efforts to save the lives of its wounded soldiers – the first servicemen in British military history to be honoured by an enemy power.
He retired from the navy in 1996, with the rank of Surgeon Captain.
He penned his book The Red and Green Life Machine after returning from the South Atlantic. It was the first written by a serving participant in the UK Task Force.
Dr Jolly said it was ‘a pleasant surprise’ that the book, published in 1983, went on to sell 10,000 copies in hardback and 30,000 in paperback. The book details the work of the 120 doctors and senior rates who ensured that every British serviceman who arrived at the Ajax Bay hospital left alive.