An American pilot shot down four Soviet MiGs in 30 minutes and was kept secret for 50 years.
Seoul, South Korea
Royce Williams was a real-life “Top Gun” 10 years before Tom Cruise was born.
On a cold November day in 1952, Williams shot down four Soviet fighter jets and became a legend that no one heard of for more than 50 years.
The former Navy aviator, now 97, was awarded the Navy Cross, the service’s second-highest military honor, at a ceremony Friday in California.
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said Friday that Williams’ case “stood out” among the many proposals he considered to raise sailors’ awards. It was clear to me that his actions were truly exceptional and more than fit the criteria that characterize a high medal.”
“Freedom doesn’t come cheap,” Del Toro said. “It comes through the sacrifices of all who are and are serving in today’s military. Your actions that day set you free. They released your shipmates in Task Force 77. Indeed, they set us all free.
Here’s what Williams did to earn the honor.
On November 18, 1952, Williams flew the US Navy’s first jet fighter, the F9F Panther, on a mission during the Korean War.
It took off from the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, which is operating with three other carriers in a task force in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, about 100 miles off the coast of North Korea.
Williams, then 27, and three other fighter pilots were ordered to conduct a military air patrol in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, near the Yalu River, which separates North Korea from China. To the northeast is Russia, part of the Soviet Union, which supported North Korea in the conflict at the time.
Four US Navy aircraft were flying on patrol when the group leader experienced mechanical problems and returned to the coastal task force along with its wings.
This left Williams and his wing alone in the mission.
Then, to their surprise, seven Soviet MiG-15 fighter jets were spotted heading towards the US task force.
Williams said in 2021, “They’ve come out of Russia and never interfered with us in any way before.” Interview with the American Veterans Center.
Wary task force commanders ordered two US Navy jets to get between the MiGs and the US warships.
As he did so, four of the Soviet MiGs turned and opened fire on Williams, he recalled.
According to him, he fired on the tail of the MiG, after which he had withdrawn from the four-plane Soviet formation, when Williams’ wingman was shot down by the Soviet plane.
At the time, American commanders on the aircraft ordered him not to engage with Soviet troops, he said.
“I said, ‘I’m married,'” Williams recalled in the interview.
Williams said he also knew that because the Soviet jets were faster than he was, they would catch him and kill him if they tried to break him.
“At the time, the MiG-15 was the best fighter in the world,” he said in an interview.
His plane is suited for air-to-ground combat, not aerial dogfights, he said.
But now he was accompanied by not just one, but six Soviet jets, as the other three MiGs that had been cut off earlier returned.
It ended up being a dogfight for more than half an hour, with the Williams constantly turning and weaving – an area where the F9F could compete with the Soviets – to prevent the superior MiGs from locking their guns on it.
“I was on automatic, I was doing what I was trained to do,” he said.
So were the Soviets.
“But in some cases … they were wrong,” Williams said.
One flew at him, but then stopped firing and sank under him. Williams believed his pilot was killed in the firefight.
And he described how another MiG came out right in front of him, hit it with a gun, and it disintegrated, forcing Williams to maneuver sharply to avoid the wreckage and its pilot.
During the battle, Williams fired a total of 760 rounds of 20mm cannon shells carried by the F9F, according to an account on the US Navy Memorial website.
But the Soviets also hit the Williams, disabling its rudder and wing control surfaces, so that only the elevators at the back of the plane could move the jet up and down.
Fortunately, he said, he was headed in the direction of the US Special Forces on the coast at that time. But one of the remaining Soviet jets was still on its tail.
He said it flew in an up-and-down rollercoaster pattern, with bullets flying over and under it as it moved, and the Soviet pilot was trying to get an accurate shot.
According to the Navy Memorial’s account, Williams’ wingman at this point fell on the Council’s tail, scaring him off and rejoining the battle.
But it was still difficult for Williams to fly the damaged jet back aboard the carrier.
First, the task force was wary of being attacked by Soviet warplanes, its enhanced air defenses were initially mistaken for Williams’ F9F MiGs, and destroyers guarding the American carriers opened fire on it.
Williams said his commanding officer quickly stopped it and eliminated one threat.
However, Williams was forced to land his aircraft on the deck of the carrier, something he would normally do at an airspeed of 105 knots (120 mph). But he knew that if he went below 170 knots (195 mph), his plane would stall and plunge into the icy sea.
And he could not turn to line up with the carrier. So the ship’s captain decided to take the unusual step of turning the carrier to keep abreast of Williams.
It worked. He hit the deck and grabbed the third and final arresting wire.
On the carrier deck, a Navy crew counted 263 holes in Williams’ plane. According to a Navy Memorial report, he was in such poor condition that he was pushed overboard from the ship.
But since the plane disappeared under the waves, something else was needed – the US-Soviet air battle was at all.
According to the Navy Memorial’s website, news of Williams’ exploits reached a high point with then-US President Dwight Eisenhower wanting to speak with the pilot.
After the battle, Williams held private interviews with several high-ranking Navy admirals, the Secretary of Defense, as well as the President, and was then told not to talk about his involvement because officials feared the incident would lead to a disastrous escalation of tensions. between the USA and the Soviet Union and the third world war may break out,” the website says.
A US Department of Defense report on the incident also said US forces tested new communications equipment that day. Revealing the Soviet role in the war is feared to undermine this US advantage.
Williams’ dogfighting records were immediately declassified by US officials and he was sworn to secrecy, meaning it would take more than five decades for his victories to be fully recognized.
In 1953, Williams was awarded the Silver Star, but the citation did not refer to Soviet aircraft, only “enemy” aircraft. And he only talked about three murders. The fourth Russian records were not known until they were released in the 1990s, the website said.
Thus, only in 2002, when the records were declassified, Williams could tell even the closest people.
“For the remainder of his Navy career and for decades after his retirement, the details of Williams’ dogfight with Soviet MiGs in North Korea remained classified,” the US Department of Defense said.
“When the government finally contacted him and told him his mission was declassified, Williams said the first person was his wife.”
Veterans groups who learned about what he did in later years say the Silver Star is insufficient reward for Williams, while some say he should have received the military’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor.
Last December, more than 70 years after the Korean War air battle, Del Toro said Williams’ Silver Star should be upgraded to the Navy Cross.
California Rep. Darrell Issa, who pushed for Williams to receive the advanced medal, called him “a Top Gun pilot like no other and an all-time American hero.”
“This is the most unique US-Soviet aerial dogfight in Cold War history to date,” Issa said in a statement.
“The bravery and courage he displayed 70 years ago in the skies of the North Pacific and off the coast of North Korea during 35 harrowing minutes saved the lives of his fellow pilots, shipmates and crew. Its history has been the same for centuries, but is now being told in its entirety.”
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