In November 1952, with the Korean Peninsula at war, the world divided by the Iron Curtain, and the United States and the Soviet Union fiercely competing in many fields, American pilot Royce Williams shot down four Soviet fighters in 30 minutes. He could have become a legend, but his feat remained a secret for 50 years. When the case finally could be revealed in the early 21st century, veterans began to demand that the pilot be honored according to his merits. Now is the time.
97-year-old former naval aviator Royce Williams was awarded the Navy Cross for his feat, the second highest military decoration an American sailor can receive. The ceremony took place on Friday in San Diego, California.
US Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said Williams’ achievement “stand out from all the others”. “It was clear to me that his actions were truly extraordinary,” he said.
Royce Williams vs Soviet MiGs
On November 18, 1952, Royce Williams took off in a Grumman F9F Panther from the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany in the Sea of Japan, about 185 kilometers off the coast of North Korea. He was 27 at the time. Together with three other pilots, they were ordered to carry out a combat patrol over the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. There had been a war there since 1950.
During the mission, seven Soviet MiG-15 fighters were unexpectedly identified heading towards the American task force. The pilots were ordered by the command to position themselves between Soviet aircraft and American warships. While performing this maneuver, four MiGs turned towards Williams’ plane and opened fire. A dogfight lasting over half an hour ensued, in which Williams shot down four machines.
“At the time, the MiG-15 was the best fighter plane in the world, faster, able to climb and dive faster than any American jet,” Williams recalled in 2021 in an interview with the American Veterans Center, a non-profit organization that cherishes the memory of the participants military action.
He recalled that the F9F Panther was more suitable for combating targets on the ground than for combat in the air. “I acted automatically, I did as I was taught,” he said. Speaking of opponents, he added: “They made mistakes in some cases.
During the fight, Williams fired all 760 rounds at his disposal, but the Soviets also hit his plane, damaging the rudder. He knew he had to land on an aircraft carrier in this situation. He usually did it at about 200 kilometers per hour. But he knew that if he dropped below 315 kilometers per hour now, his plane would crash into the icy water.
CNN, which covered the story, called Williams a true “Top Gun” 10 years before Tom Cruise was born.
A feat that had to remain a secret
To make landing on the aircraft carrier possible, its captain decided to take an unusual step – he changed the course of the ship, bringing it in line with Williams’ plane, which could not maneuver his damaged machine. After landing on board, the crew counted 263 bullet holes. The fighter was in such bad shape that it was pushed off the aircraft carrier into the sea.
However, when the machine disappeared under the surface of the water, the memory of this fight must also disappear.
CNN reported that after the skirmish, Williams was personally interviewed by several senior Navy admirals, the secretary of defense, and President Dwight Eisenhower, and was instructed not to talk about the incident. It was feared that news of him might increase tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, and possibly even unleash a third world war.
Awards for Williams
In 1953, Williams was awarded the Silver Star, awarded to American soldiers for bravery in the face of the enemy, but it was noted then that his merits concerned “enemy” aircraft, without specifying that they were Soviet aircraft.
It wasn’t until 2002, when the files were declassified, that Williams was able to talk about the incident. The first person the former pilot told about his exploits was his wife.
After more groups of veterans learned about his story, it was demanded that he be awarded a higher decoration than the Silver Star. These demands were fulfilled just last Friday.
Republican Congressman Darrell Issa of California called Williams “the all-time American hero.”
Main photo source: Corbis/Getty Images