US pilot shot down four Soviet MiGs in 30 minutes – and kept it a secret for 50 years

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Seoul, South Korea
CNN

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 would hear about for more than 50 years.

The 97-year-old former naval aviator was presented with the Navy Cross, the service’s second-highest military honor, at a ceremony on Friday in California.

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said Friday that among the many proposals he has reviewed to update sailors’ awards, Williams’ case “stands out above all others. It was very clear to me that his actions were truly extraordinary and more in line with the criteria describing a superior medal.”

“Freedom doesn’t come cheap,” said Del Toro. “This comes from the sacrifice of all those who have served and continue to serve in today’s armed forces. His actions that day kept him free. They kept your fellows free in Task Force 77. In fact, they kept all of us free.

Here’s what Williams did to earn that honor.

On November 18, 1952, Williams was flying the F9F Panther – the United States Navy’s first fighter jet – on a mission during the Korean War.

It took off from the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, which operated with three other aircraft 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 27, and three other fighter pilots were ordered on a combat air patrol over the northernmost 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 went on their patrol, the group leader suffered mechanical problems and, with his wingman, returned to the task force on shore.

That left Williams and his wingman alone on the mission.

Then, to their surprise, seven Soviet MiG-15 fighters were spotted heading towards the US task force.

“They just haven’t come out of Russia and involved us in any way before,” Williams said in a 2021 interview with the American Veterans Center.

Cautious task force commanders ordered the two US Navy jets to place themselves between the MiGs and the US warships.

As he did so, four of the Soviet MiGs turned towards Williams and opened fire, he recalled.

He said he fired on the tail of the MiG, which then broke out of the Soviet four-plane formation, with Williams’ wingman following the Soviet jet down.

At that point, American commanders on the carrier ordered it not to engage the Soviets, he said.

“I said, ‘I’m engaged,’” Williams recalled in the interview.

Williams said he also knew that because the Soviet jets were faster than his, if he tried to run away they would catch him and kill him.

“At that time, the MiG-15 was the best fighter aircraft in the world”, faster and able to climb and dive faster than American jets, he said in the interview.

His plane was suited for air-to-ground combat, not air combat, he said.

But now he was in one, with not just one but six Soviet jets, while the other three MiGs that had broken away returned.

What followed was over half an hour of aerial combat, with Williams constantly turning and weaving – the only area where the F9F could compete with Soviet aircraft – to not let the superior MiGs pin their guns on it.

“I was on automatic, I was training,” he said.

Just like the Soviets.

“But on occasions… they made mistakes,” Williams said.

One flew at him, but then stopped firing and dove under him. Williams figured his pilot was killed by his gunfire.

And he described how another MiG passed right in front of him, it hit it with its gunfire and disintegrated, causing Williams to maneuver sharply to avoid the wreckage and its pilot as the plane fell apart.

Over the course of the fight, Williams fired all 760 rounds from the 20mm cannon the F9F was carrying, according to an account of the engagement on the US Navy Memorial website.

But the Soviets hit Williams too, disabling the rudder and wing control surfaces, leaving only the elevators at the rear of the plane viable for him to move the jet up and down.

Fortunately, he said, at this point he was heading towards the US task force on the coast. But one of the remaining Soviet jets was still hot on their trail.

He said he flew in an up and down rollercoaster pattern, with bullets flying above and below him as he moved, the Soviet pilot trying to get a clear shot.

Williams’ wingman rejoined the fray at this point, following the Soviet’s tail and spooking him, according to the Navy Memorial account.

But Williams still had a few difficult flights to get the damaged jet back on board the carrier.

The USS Oriskany is pictured in New York City, December 1950, while en route to conduct aircraft carrier qualifications.

First, with the task force wary of Soviet warplanes possibly attacking it, its heightened air defenses initially thought Williams’ F9F was a MiG, and the destroyers guarding the American carriers opened fire on it.

Williams said his commander quickly put a stop to it, eliminating a hazard.

Still, Williams had to get his jet onto the carrier’s deck, something he would normally do at a speed of 105 knots (120 mph). But he already knew that if he descended below 170 knots (195 mph), his aircraft would stop and plunge into the icy sea.

And he couldn’t turn around to line up with the transporter. So the ship’s captain decided to take the extraordinary step of turning the carrier to align with Williams.

It worked. He landed on deck and caught the third and final detention wire.

On the deck of the aircraft carrier, the Navy crew counted 263 holes in Williams’ plane. He was in such bad shape that he was pushed off the ship and into the sea, according to the Navy Memorial account.

But when the plane disappeared under the waves, something else also had to happen – the fact that US-Soviet air combat took place.

News of Williams’ heroics reached the top, with then-President Dwight Eisenhower among top US officials eager to speak with the pilot, according to the Navy Memorial website.

“After the battle, Williams was interviewed in person by several high-ranking Admirals of the Navy, the Secretary of Defense as well as the President, after which he was instructed not to speak about his engagement, as officials feared the incident could cause an increase in devastating tensions. between the US and the Soviet Union and possibly start World War III,” the website reads.

A US Department of Defense account of the incident also notes that US forces were experimenting with new communications interception equipment that day. It was feared that revealing the Soviet role in the fighting would compromise the US advantage.

Williams’ dueling records were promptly classified by US authorities and he was sworn to secrecy, meaning it would be more than five decades before his victories could be fully recognized.

In 1953, Williams was awarded the Silver Star, but the citation made no reference to Soviet aircraft, only “enemy”. And he only mentioned three deaths. The fourth was not known until Russian records were released in the 1990s, the website says.

So it wasn’t until 2002, when the records were declassified, that Williams was able to tell those closest to him.

“For the rest of his Navy career, and for decades after retirement, details of Williams’ duel with Soviet MiGs in North Korea remained a secret,” according to the US Department of Defense.

“When he was finally contacted by the government and informed that his mission had been declassified, the first person Williams said he told was his wife.”

In the years since, veterans’ groups who learned of what he did said the Silver Star was an insufficient reward for Williams, with some saying he should have received the military’s highest award – the Medal of Honor.

In December of last year, more than 70 years after the Korean War air battle, Del Toro said that Williams’ Silver Star should be upgraded to Navy Cross.

California Representative Darrell Issa, who pressed Williams for the updated medal, called him “a Top Gun driver like no other and an all-time American hero.”

“It is to this day the most unique US-Soviet air combat dogfight in Cold War history,” Issa said in a statement.

“The heroism and valor he demonstrated for a harrowing 35 minutes 70 years ago in the skies over the North Pacific and off the coast of North Korea saved the lives of his fellow pilots, companions and crew. His story is forever, but now it is being fully told.”

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