March 29, 2023

Profiles of Valor: Capt. Royce Williams

“In the moment I was a fighter pilot doing my job.”

In 1952, then-Lt. Royce Williams was a Naval aviator with VF-781 aboard the USS Oriskany. He and his “Pacemakers” squadron were flying daily combat patrol missions off the coast of North Korea in the F9F-5 Panthers, an early carrier-based jet that was put into service in 1947.

The Panther was a significant improvement over the Navy’s piston/propeller aircraft, the best of those being the F4U-4 Corsair also flown in Korea by Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown — whom I profiled previously in “Devotion: The Real Story.”

On 18 November, flying his second mission of the day near Hoeryong, North Korea, his squadron spotted seven Soviet MiG-15s high above their formation. Ordered to return to the carrier, his three wingmen did so. However, when one of the MiGs fired on Williams, he turned and engaged.

What followed was a 35-minute dogfight between one Navy pilot and all seven MiGs — in what is believed to be the longest dogfight in Naval history. Any seasoned combat aviator will tell you that a one-minute dogfight seems like an eternity. By the end of that fight, Williams had shot down four of the MiGs.

As the remaining MiGs retreated, Williams was able to limp back to his carrier — uninjured but with 263 holes in his Panther, including one 23 mm cannon hit. The plane could not be salvaged and was disposed of in the sea.

The engagement with the Soviet-piloted MiGs was classified shortly after the incident, as the Soviet Union was not an “official” combatant in the Korean War, and if the dogfight was acknowledged, intelligence and defense analysts believed that might draw the USSR further into the conflict. The record of the mission was scrubbed from official Navy records and Williams was sworn to secrecy — never to speak of the incident.

In 1953, Williams was awarded a Silver Star for shooting down one aircraft of unspecified origin.

Williams went on to fly combat missions in both A-4 Skyhawks and F-4 Phantoms from the USS Kitty Hawk during the Vietnam War. He retired as a Navy Captain in 1980.

In fact, Williams never did speak of the MiG dogfight until the Korean War records were declassified in 2002, despite the fact that the details of the dogfight were recorded in Soviet archives — which were declassified and released after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990. The Soviet records indicate that of the seven MiGs, only one returned to its base. The USSR records named the four Soviet pilots known to have been shot down as Captains Belyakov and Vandalov, and Lieutenants Pakhomkin and Tarshinov. It is not known what happened to the other two MiGs.

Author Thomas McKelvey Cleaver researched and chronicled Williams’s dogfight in his book, Holding the Line, writing: “Royce Williams became the top-scoring carrier-based naval aviator and the top-scoring naval aviator in a Navy jet of the ‘forgotten war.’ In the fight of his life, Williams had accomplished what no other American fighter pilot would ever accomplish: shoot down four MiG-15s in one fight.”

In January 2023, Williams’s Silver Star was upgraded to the Navy Cross, the second-highest Naval decoration under the Medal of Honor. In making the award, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said: “Having reviewed the findings of now numerous investigations related to the case of Capt. Royce Williams, I have determined this case to be special and extraordinary. His actions clearly distinguished [him] during a high-risk mission and deserve proper recognition.” Turning to Williams, Del Toro said, “And sir, what a tremendous honor it was to tell you in person, that after all these years, your courageous actions would finally get the recognition they deserve.”

His citation notes: “Although his own plane was severely damaged by a direct 23-mm hit from one enemy MiG-15 aircraft, he maneuvered to escape yet continued his direction of the engagement until he reached cloud cover in which he dodged the enemy and returned his almost uncontrollable aircraft on board the parent carrier.”

Of his actions that day, Williams humbly said: “In the moment I was a fighter pilot doing my job. … I was only shooting what I had. They had me cold on maneuverability and acceleration — the MiG was vastly superior on those counts to the F9F. The only thing I could do was out-turn them.”

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776

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