Royce Williams joined the U.S. Navy as an aviation cadet following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He remained in college and became a naval aviator by the end of World War II. He learned to fly the F9F-5 Panther jet and was assigned to active duty in the Korean War, where he would engage in one of the most impressive airborne battles in naval aviation history.
“I had a fair amount of training under my belt,” Williams told Fox News. “I was eager to do my part and I didn’t in any way think it was going to involve shooting down enemy airplanes.”
On Nov. 18, 1952, Williams was assigned to USS Oriskany which was stationed in the Sea of Japan.
“Our primary mission was air support and anti-air logistics,” Williams said. “There was a major city about halfway between the border and Soviet Union called Chongjin. We basically stationed the carriers and the other ships in that area so that we could hit a city called Hoeryŏng. It had major supplies of manufacturing and warehousing.”
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Williams was on the first flight out that morning.
“It was ripe with targets, and we struck, and then I went back, landed and was informed to get something to eat because I had the next flight coming up for the combat air patrol.”
Williams and three other Panther pilots would launch in blizzard-like conditions, heavy winds and snow. They climbed 12,000 feet to clear sky. During their ascent, the lead pilot had a warning light on for his plane’s fuel system. He and his wingman were ordered to turn back to the Oriskany. Williams was also receiving communications from the ship, warning him of inbound, unidentified aircraft coming from the north.
“As we popped on top, I scanned and I saw seven aircraft contrails,” Williams said. “I now had the lead and a wingman that I’d never flown with before, but we were assigned to intercept.”
Williams and his wingman climbed in the direction of the MiGs at full throttle. Four broke away and started approaching the Americans, opening fire.
“There was no intention of any harm. We didn’t intend to have any killing going on,” Williams said.
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He later wrote in his once-classified report on the battle, that it was then that he identified the planes as MiGs. Williams returned fire, sending the first plane spiraling into the sea. His wingman broke away to follow the downed plane. Williams continued firing at any planes in sight.
“Two broke right and one left for a coordinated attack. I had planned to attack the single plane but lost him in the sun, so I countered to the right into the first attacking plane.” Williams wrote he tried to get on the tail of the MiGs. It was then he would straighten his flightpath and fire at close range.
“When the MiG was hit or had observed me it seemed to stop in mid-air as though it dropped speed brakes. I had to wrap it up to the right to avoid collision,” he wrote.
The fight would eventually become one of the longest dogfights known in naval aviation.
“35 minutes,” Williams said. “I just had another MiG smoking, losing speed and altitude, and I ran out of ammunition.”
Most dogfights last two or three minutes and exceptional cases last up to five. Williams had taken down at least five MiGs during the 35-minute battle but knew he needed to return to the Oriskany.
“I had the guy go in and quit when I ran out of ammunition, but it gave plenty of time to make me a target,” Williams said. “I looked and I saw him made a quick maneuver, but he got me just as I turned and the damage was done.”
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His Panther was in bad shape.
“I got all kind of battle-scarred and lost pretty much the capability to fight.”
Williams considered ejecting but decided to try and make it back to the Oriskany. He was able to land safely and counted 263 bullet holes and a 37-millimeter shell gash in the Panther. Another classified report revealed the planes were Soviet MiG-15s and had been ordered to attack the U.S. aircraft. Williams’ battle was also classified as top secret because officials feared the incident might cause a devastating increase in tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union.
“I had been warned, informed, told not to talk about it. Even that is in direct order,” Williams said. “I didn’t talk to anybody, including my wife.”
The events were declassified nearly 65 years later in 2017. Williams said a friend told him the events were now made public.
“He said, ‘there’s more to the story than has been let out, isn’t there?’ And I said, ‘well, more or less,’” Williams explained. “I didn’t know anyone to tell my story to. I told it to my wife. And she said, ‘Oh, Royce.’”
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is working to get Capt. Williams recognized for his accomplishments.
“This is even before the latest redo of ‘Top Gun,’ because here’s somebody who flew off the Oriskany, which is talked about in the first ‘Top Gun,’ downed MiGs, basically single-handedly, and then had it classified so that none of us knew about it for more than a generation,” Issa said.
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Issa, a former Army captain, met Williams at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in California a few years ago. He said he was inspired by the little-known battle.
“It’s an amazing story of what would have had an absolute impact on the war had we known that Captain Williams was in a dogfight with Soviet aircraft,” Issa said. “That would have been essentially World War III.”
President Eisenhower even traveled to Seoul, South Korea, to meet with Williams and to discuss the then-classified information in person.
“It was important for Eisenhower to know what had been classified, but too important for the public to know for half a century,” Issa said.
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South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol was in Washington this week for a state visit. He took the time to honor several Korean War veterans including Williams. Yoon presented him with the Taegeuk Order of Military Merit.
“They’ve been teasing me with presents and whatnot until the moment today. Meeting the president and getting their highest award, the equivalent of the Medal of Honor,” Williams said. “I think it’s a little overblown. But I’ve been thrilled.”
Issa is still working to get Williams the highest U.S. military award, but Defense officials have yet to sign on because they believe upgrading Williams sets a bad precedent since the dogfight is not recorded in official U.S. records.
“The reality is we believe that if the facts get to the president’s desk, he will award the Medal of Honor, as it could not be awarded, but should have been awarded by Eisenhower a generation ago,” Issa explained.
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Williams met with nearly a dozen midshipmen from the Naval Academy during his visit to Washington. He hopes to inspire other young people to join the military.
“My thinking is that the world changes. Now versus the 1920s. We’re not quite the same nation. Nor do I see the same outlet of young people who I feel should be thinking about a career in the military,” Williams said. “If I have any chance to speak to groups, I try and encourage them to think about it. We need them and they’re hard to come by. My purpose, I guess with what time I have, is to try and promote that.”