American pilot shot down four Soviet MiGs in 30 minutes and kept secret for 50 years

Seoul, South Korea

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 that no one would know about for more than 50 years.

The former naval aviator, now 97, received the Navy Cross, the service’s second-highest military honor, in a ceremony Friday in California.

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

“Freedom doesn’t come cheap,” Del Toro said. “It goes through the sacrifice of all those who have served and continue to serve in the military today. Your actions that day kept you free. They kept your comrades in Task Force 77 free. In fact, they kept us free to everybody”.

Here’s what Williams did to earn this honor.

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

It took off from the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, which was operating with three other aircraft carriers in a task group 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 to fly a combat air patrol in 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 aircraft flew their patrol, the group leader suffered mechanical problems and, with his wing, returned to the task force off the coast.

This left Williams and his wingman alone in the mission.

Then, to their surprise, seven Soviet MiG-15 fighter jets were identified heading towards the US task force.

A Grumman F9F Panther fighter jet fires its guns during an attack on the North Korean port of Hungnam in 1951.

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

Cautious task force commanders ordered the two US Navy planes to get between the MiGs and the US warships.

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

He said he fired at the tail MiG, which then left the four-plane Soviet formation, with Williams’ wing following the Soviet jet down.

At the time, the carrier’s American commanders ordered it not to engage the Soviets, he said.

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

Williams said he also knew that since the Soviet planes were faster than his, if he tried to break through, he would be caught and killed.

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

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

But now he was in one, with not just one, but six Soviet planes, as the other three MiGs that were broken earlier returned.

What followed was more than half an hour of aerial combat, with Williams constantly turning and weaving, the only area where the F9F could compete with the Soviet aircraft, to keep the superior MiGs from fixing its guns .

“I was on automatic, I was doing what I was trained to do,” he said.

So were the Soviets.

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

One flew at him, but then stopped firing and dived under him. Williams thought his pilot died from his gunshots.

And he described how another MiG got right in front of him, hit him with its gunfire and disintegrated, causing Williams to maneuver sharply to avoid the wreckage and his pilot as the plane broke up.

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

But the Soviets also hit Williams, disabling the rudder and wing control surfaces, leaving only the elevators at the back of the plane viable so he could move the jet up and down.

Fortunately, he said, at this point it was heading in the direction of the American task force off the coast. But one of the remaining Soviet planes was still in the queue.

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, latching onto the Soviet’s tail and scaring him off, according to the Navy Memorial account.

But Williams still struggled to fly to get the damaged jet back aboard the carrier.

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

First, with the task force wary of Soviet warplanes possibly attacking it, its augmented air defenses initially mistook Williams’ F9F for a MiG, and destroyers guarding the American carriers opened fire fire against him

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

Even so, Williams had to put his plane on the deck of the carrier, which he usually did at a speed of 105 knots (120 mph). But he already knew that if he dropped below 170 knots (195 mph), his plane would stall and plunge into the icy sea.

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

it has worked He hit the deck and grabbed the third and final arresting wire.

On the deck of the carrier, the Navy crew counted 263 holes in Williams’ plane. He was in such poor condition that he was pushed from the ship into the sea, according to the Navy Memorial account.

But as the plane disappeared beneath the waves, so did something else: the fact that the air combat between the US and the Soviets happened.

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

“After the battle, Williams was personally interviewed by several high-ranking Navy admirals, the Secretary of Defense, and also the President, after which he was ordered not to discuss his engagement, as the officials feared the incident could lead to a devastating escalation of tensions . . . between the US and the Soviet Union, and possibly ignite World War III,” the website says.

A US Department of Defense account of the incident also notes that US forces were testing new communications interception equipment that day. It was feared that revealing the Soviet role in the combat would have compromised the US advantage.

American officials quickly classified Williams’ dogfighting records 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 a Silver Star, but the citation did not refer to Soviet aircraft, only “enemy”. And he only mentioned three murders. 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 even able to tell those closest to him.

“For the rest of his distinguished Navy career, and for decades after retirement, the details of Williams’ fight with Soviet MiGs over North Korea remained secret,” according to the Department of Defense USA

“When the government finally contacted him and told him his mission was declassified, the first person Williams said he said was his wife.”

In the years that followed, veterans groups who learned what he did said the Silver Star was insufficient reward for Williams, and some said he should get the military’s highest award: the Medal of Honor.

In December last year, 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 lobbied for Williams to get the enhanced medal, called him “a Top Gun pilot like no other and an American hero forever.”

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

“The heroism and courage he demonstrated during 35 harrowing minutes 70 years ago in the skies of the North Pacific and off the coast of North Korea saved the lives of his fellow pilots, shipmates and crew. His story is one for centuries, but now it is being fully explained.”

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