US pilot shot down four Soviet MiGs in 30 minutes – and kept it a secret for 50 years
Royce Williams was a real life “Top Gun” 10 years before Tom Cruise was even born.
On a cold November day in 1952, Williams shot down four Soviet fighter jets – and became a legend no one would hear about for more than 50 years.
The now 97-year-old former naval aviator was presented with the Navy Cross, the service’s second-highest military honor at a ceremony Friday in California.
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said on Friday that among the many proposals he has reviewed to upgrade sailors’ awards, Williams’ case “stood out above all others. It was very clear to me that his actions were truly extraordinary and more closely aligned with the criteria describing a higher medal.”
“Freedom does not come cheap,” Del Toro said. “It comes through the sacrifice of all those who have and continue to serve in today’s military. Your actions that day kept you free. They kept your shipmates free in Task Force 77. Indeed, they kept all of us free.”
Here’s what Williams did to earn that honor.
Outnumbered and outgunned
On November 18, 1952, Williams was flying the F9F Panther – the US Navy’s first jet fighter – on a mission during the Korean War.
He took off from the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, which was operating with three other carriers in a task force in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, 100 miles off the coast of North Korea.
Williams, then age 27, and three other fighter pilots were ordered on a combat air patrol over the most northern part of the Korean Peninsula, near the Yalu River, which separates North Korea from China. To the northeast is Russia, then part of the Soviet Union, which supported North Korea in the conflict.
As the four US Navy jets flew their patrol, the group’s leader suffered mechanical problems and with his wingman, headed back to the task force off the coast.
That left Williams and his wingman alone on the mission.
Then, to their surprise, seven Soviet MiG-15 fighter jets were identified heading toward the US task force.
“They just didn’t come out of Russia and engage us in any way before,” Williams said in a 2021 interview with the American Veterans Center.
Wary commanders in the task force ordered the two US Navy jets to put themselves between the MiGs and the US warships.
While doing this, four of the Soviet MiGs turned toward Williams and opened fire, he recalled.
He said he fired on the tail MiG, which then dropped out of the four-plane Soviet formation, with Williams’ wingman following the Soviet jet down.
At that point, US commanders on the carrier ordered him not to engage the Soviets, he said.
“I said, ‘I am engaged,’” Williams recalled in the interview.
Williams said he also knew that because the Soviet jets were faster than his, if he tried to break off they’d catch and kill him.
“At that time the MiG-15 was the best fighter airplane in the world,” faster and able to climb and dive quicker than the American jets, he said in the interview.
His plane was suited to air-to-ground combat, not aerial dogfights, he said.
But now he was in one, with not just one, but six Soviet jets as the other three MiGs that broke off earlier returned.
What ensued was more than a half-hour of aerial combat, with Williams constantly turning and weaving – the one area where the F9F could compete with the Soviet aircraft – to not let the superior MiGs get their guns fixed on him.
“I was on automatic, I was doing as trained,” he said.
So were the Soviets.
“But on some occasions … they made mistakes,” Williams said.
One flew at him, but then stopped firing and dipped under him. Williams figured its pilot was killed by his gunfire.
And he described how another MiG got right in front of him, he hit it with his gunfire, and it disintegrated, causing Williams to maneuver sharply to avoid the wreckage and its pilot as the plane came apart.
Over the course of the fight, Williams fired all 760 rounds of 20mm cannon shells the F9F carried, according to an account of the engagement from the US Navy Memorial’s website.
But the Soviets scored hits on Williams, too, disabling his rudder and wing control surfaces, leaving only the elevators in the rear of the plane viable for him to move the jet up and down.
Luckily, he said, at this point he was heading in the direction of the US task force off the coast. But one of the remaining Soviet jets was still on his tail.
He said he flew in an up-and-down roller coaster pattern, with bullets flying above and below him as he moved, the Soviet pilot trying to get a clear shot.
Williams’ wingman rejoined the fight at this point, getting on the Soviet’s tail and scaring him off, according to the Navy Memorial account.
But Williams still had some difficult flying to do to get the damaged jet back on board the carrier.