In one of the most masterful pieces of flying in Navy history, Royce Williams of Escondido took on seven Soviet MiGs in Korea in 1952 and shot down four of them in a solo dogfight that was kept secret for decades because it was fraught with political sensitivities.
He was quietly awarded the Silver Star the following year. But that wasn’t the end of the story.
At the urging of military and political leaders, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro visited San Diego Friday and gave the 97-year-old Williams an “upgrade,” awarding him the Navy Cross in front of about 400 people, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.
The Navy Cross is the second highest military honor conferred by the Navy.
“The thought of one pilot who wasn’t planning to be the mission lead that day to go into a combat like that and to become the mission leader and actually have to fight off seven MiGs is extraordinary,” Del Toro said after the ceremony, which has held at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
“And to get shot up the way his plane got shot up is extraordinary,” he said. “Even after the combat action was over, to actually go back on that aircraft carrier with a disabled plane essentially just took tremendous, tremendous courage and skill.”
Williams, a humble, soft-spoken man, smiled and said, “This is the kind of thing I’ve seen in the movies. Never thought I’d be part of it. I’m thrilled.”
The dogfight Del Toro described occurred on Nov. 18, 1952, while Williams and three other Navy pilots were flying their F9F-5 aircraft along the Yalu River, a demarcation line between North Korean and Soviet territories.
The Soviets were not directly involved in the Korean War, and the U.S. wanted to avoid an expansion of hostilities to avert triggering World War III.
But things turned hairy when Williams and his fellow pilots unexpectedly encountered the Soviet MiGs — planes that were faster and more maneuverable than Panther jets. They immediately opened fire.
The attack and engine problems led three of the American pilots to quickly bolt from the area. Williams got trapped and had to take on all seven MiGs.
So began one of the longest dogfights in naval history, a 35-minute brawl that Williams survived with his peerless flying skills and ability to bring the MiGs into his gun sights. Four of the MiGs went down.
“They were taking turns. I decided if I concentrated on shooting them down, then I’d become an easy target. So my initial goal was to look for defensive opportunities when they made mistakes.”
The strategy worked. He then hightailed it back to his carrier, the Oriskany, in a plane riddled with 263 holes.
Williams had left the carrier in a snow storm. Now, he found himself trying to land with a broken hydraulic system. The Oriskany performed a maneuver that gave him the best possible chance to land safely, which he managed to do.
A short time later, he was told that he could never tell anyone — not even his wife — about the dogfight to avoid antagonizing the Soviets.
The story remained secret until the early 2000s when the U.S. declassified certain records from the Korean War.
Military officials, veterans and political figures later began to lobby the Navy to present Williams with a higher medal. Some felt that he should be awarded the Medal of Honor. The effort led to a formal campaign known as Operation Just Reward and included support from U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Bonsall, who pushed the Navy particularly hard.
The campaign got the attention of Secretary Del Toro, who investigated the matter and then, last year, visited Williams at his home in Escondido.
“To see him in person, to listen to actions that he took on that day — in defense of himself and defense of his shipmates, defense of those other pilots that were in the air with him — was truly extraordinary, like nothing I have experienced in my time as Secretary of the Navy,” Del Toro said.
Issa is among those who believes the Navy should go further and give Williams the Medal of Honor.
“We’re not going to give up,” Issa said. “We believe the Medal of Honor, which is a presidential determination, is warranted. But today goes a long way toward straightening out the ambiguity, if you will.”
He added, “What happened 70 years ago with Capt. Williams was a battle between us and the Soviet Union while engaged in a proxy war over North Korea and South Korea.
“We’re now in a proxy war with the Russians in Ukraine. And in so many ways it is fitting that … we’re recognizing Capt. Williams’ work, but we are still in a battle against an evil empire. Perhaps a smaller one, but still an evil empire.”