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 in a legend that no one has known for more than 50 years.
The 97-year-old former Navy aviator was awarded the Navy Cross, the service’s second-highest military honor, in a ceremony Friday in California.
Navy Secretary Carlos del Toro said Friday that Williams’ case “stands out” among the many proposals he has reviewed to boost sailor rewards. It was clear to me that his behavior was indeed extraordinary and more in line with the standard that would describe a higher medal. ”
“Freedom doesn’t come cheap,” del Toro said. “It comes from the sacrifice of all who have served and continue to serve in today’s military. Your actions set you free that day. They set your crew free on Task Force 77. In fact, they set us all free .”
Here’s what Williams did to earn that honor.
On November 18, 1952, Williams flew 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 is operating with three other aircraft carriers in the 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 to conduct a combat air patrol over the northernmost part of the Korean peninsula, near the Yalu River that separates North Korea from China. Northeast is Russia, then part of the Soviet Union, supporting North Korea in the conflict.
While four U.S. Navy jets were on patrol, the leader of the group encountered a mechanical failure and returned with his wingman to the task force off the coast.
This left Williams and his wingman to carry out the mission alone.
Then, to their surprise, seven Soviet MiG-15 fighter jets were spotted heading towards the American task force.
“They didn’t come out of Russia and engage us in any way before,” Williams said in a 2021 interview with the American Veterans Center.
The cautious commander in the task force ordered two US Navy jets to place themselves between the MiGs and the US warship.
While doing so, he recalls, four Soviet MiGs turned toward Williams and opened fire.
He said he fired on the tail of the MiG, which then broke away from the four-plane Soviet formation and that Williams’ wingman followed the Soviet jet down.
He said the U.S. commander on the carrier at the time ordered him not to engage the Soviets.
“I said, ‘I’m engaged,'” Williams recalled in the interview.
Williams said he knew, too, because the Soviet jets were going faster than him, and if he tried to take off, they would catch and kill him.
“The MiG-15 was the best fighter in the world at the time,” he said in an interview, “faster than American jets, faster climbs and dives.”
He said his plane was suited for air-to-ground combat, not dogfights.
But now he was on a plane, not just one, but six Soviet jets, as the other three MiGs that had been interrupted earlier were back.
More than half an hour of aerial combat ensued, with Williams constantly turning and weaving—an area where the F9F could compete with Soviet aircraft—to keep the more advanced MiGs from pointing their guns at him.
“I’m automatic, I do it the way I’ve been trained,” he said.
So did the Soviets.
“But in some cases … they made mistakes,” Williams said.
One flies towards him, but then stops firing and dives under him. Williams believes its pilot was killed by his gunfire.
He also described how another MiG appeared in front of him, he shot at it, and it disintegrated, causing Williams to maneuver quickly to avoid the wreckage and the pilot as the plane disintegrated.
During the battle, Williams fired all 760 20mm rounds the F9F was carrying, according to the engagement log on the U.S. Naval Memorial website.
But the Soviets also hit Williams, disabling his rudder and wing control surfaces, leaving only the elevator at the rear of the plane for him to move the jet up and down.
Fortunately, he said, at this point he was headed in the direction of the U.S. task force off the coast. But one of the remaining Soviet jets was still on his tail.
He said he was flying up and down like a roller coaster, with bullets flying above and below him as he moved as the Soviet pilot tried to get a clear shot.
According to the Naval Memorial, Williams’ wingman rejoined the fight at this point, caught up to the Soviets’ tail and scared him off.
But Williams still had to make some tough flights to get the damaged jet back to the carrier.
First, the destroyers guarding the US carrier opened fire on him as the task force feared that Soviet warplanes might attack it, and its enhanced air defenses initially believed Williams’ F9F to be a MiG fighter.
Williams said his commanders quickly stopped the situation, eliminating one danger.
Still, Williams had to put his jet on the carrier’s deck, which he usually does at an airspeed of 105 knots (120 mph). But he already knew that if his speed dropped below 170 knots (195 mph), his plane would stall and plunge into the icy sea.
And he couldn’t turn around and align with the carrier. So the captain decided to take the extraordinary step of steering the carrier to align with Williams.
efficient. He slammed into the deck and grabbed the third and final arresting wire.
On the deck of the carrier, Navy crews counted 263 holes in Williams’ plane. According to the Naval Memorial, it was in such a bad condition that it was pushed overboard and fell into the ocean.
But when the plane disappeared beneath the waves, something else had to be done—a fact of the US-Soviet air war.
News of Williams’ heroic exploits soared, and then-President Dwight Eisenhower was among top U.S. officials eager to speak with the aviator, according to the Navy Memorial’s website.
“After the battle, Williams received in-person interviews with several senior admirals, the secretary of defense and the president, after which he was instructed not to discuss his engagement because officials feared the event could lead to devastating tensions. Intensify the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union and possibly spark a third world war,” the website said.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s description of the incident also pointed out that the U.S. military was trialling new communications interception equipment that day. There were fears that exposing the Soviet Union’s role in the fighting would undermine U.S. advantages.
Williams’ scrimmage record was quickly classified by U.S. officials and he was sworn to secrecy, meaning it would take more than five years for his victory to be fully recognized.
In 1953, Williams was awarded the Silver Star, but the award did not mention Soviet aircraft, only “enemy” aircraft. And only three kills were mentioned. No. 4 was not known until the 1990s, when the Russian record was released, the site said.
So until 2002, when the records were declassified, Williams was able to tell even those closest to him.
“The details of Williams’ dogfight with Soviet MiGs over North Korea remained a secret for the remainder of his completed Navy career, and for decades after his retirement,” the Pentagon said.
“When the government finally contacted him and told him that his mission had been declassified, Williams said the first person he told was his wife.”
In the years that followed, veterans groups that knew what he was doing said the Silver Star wasn’t enough for Williams, with some saying he should have received the military’s highest award, the Medal of Honor.
In December, after more than 70 years of air combat in the Korean War, del Toro said Williams’ Silver Star should be upgraded to a Navy Cross.
California Rep. Darrell Issa, who pushed for Williams to receive an upgraded medal, called him “an incomparable Top Gun pilot and an eternal American hero.”
“This is by far the most unique U.S.-Soviet air combat melee in Cold War history,” Issa said in a statement.
“Seventy years ago, his harrowing 35-minute display of heroism and courage over the North Pacific and the coasts of North Korea saved the lives of his pilot, crew and crew. His story has been told through the ages, but is now fully told. tell.”