It was something out of Hollywood movie. A young Navy pilot flying life-and-death missions during the Korean War, takes on seven Soviet MiG-15 fighters in aerial combat, and comes out victorious in an unprecedented one-man dog fight.

This is exactly what happened to Lt. Royce Williams, an F-9 Panther fighter pilot with Fighter Squadron 781 (VF-781) flying from the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34) in November 1952. 

Royce and three of his squadron mates were launched from the Oriskany to intercept the Soviet aircraft heading towards them from an airbase in Vladivostok. Over the course of 35 minutes, Royce, through one of most skillful demonstration of flying in military history, shot down four of the MiGs and likely damaged two others.

Korean War hero Royce Williams receives his Navy Cross more than 70 years after his historic aerial combat mission.

Out of ammunition and with his aircraft heavily damaged, Royce then limped back to the carrier making a difficult high-speed landing while the ship pitched violently in heavy seas. Royce emerged from the cockpit amazingly uninjured, however, his aircraft was not so lucky. His squadron’s maintenance crew counted more than 260 bullet holes in the jet. Deemed unrepairable, the Panther was pushed over the side into the cold dark ocean.

Politics soon entered the picture. Because the Soviet Union was not officially a combatant in the Korean War, it was feared that publicizing this incredible aviation feat would draw them further into the conflict. With Cold War sensitivities in play, the decision was made at the highest level of the U.S. government to cover up the dogfight. Royce was sworn to secrecy. For decades, he told no one about the mission, not even his wife.

It wasn’t until the Korean War records were declassified 50 years later that the world heard, for the first time, about the extraordinary and heroic performance of Royce Williams. It would be another 20 years before he would finally receive one of the military’s highest decorations befitting his courageous actions that day. 

On Jan. 20, 2023, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro presented Royce with the Navy Cross, the second highest award bestowed by the Navy.

“To see him in person, to listen to actions that he took on that day, in defense of himself, in defense of his shipmates, defense of those other pilots that were in the air with him was truly extraordinary,” said Secretary Del Toro. “His actions clearly distinguished himself during a high-risk mission and deserve proper recognition.”

At 97, Royce remains humble about his triumphant dogfight more than 70 years ago.

“I was just like a machine,” said Royce, who retired from the Navy at the rank of captain in 1980. “I was on automatic. I was just doing what I was trained to do.”

The F-9 Panther, like the one Royce flew during the Korean War, is not only on exhibit on the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum, but is painted in his squadron’s colors and has his name stenciled on the side of the fuselage beneath the cockpit. This has always been a source of pride for Royce who still remembers the dogfight like it was yesterday.

“A lot of it was awareness of where they were and how I had to maneuver to avoid them,” said Royce, who also flew more than 100 combat missions during the Vietnam War. “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.”

Royce Williams points out some of the bullet holes in his F-9 Panther following his famous dogfight with Soviet MiGs in 1952.

Congressman Darrell Issa, representing California’s 48th District, had worked for years to petition the Department of Defense to upgrade the Silver Star medal Royce had previously received for that mission to a higher award.

“If we don’t recognize the valor of our soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen sooner or later, then we miss the opportunity to thank them for their service,” said Congressman Issa. “Williams is a Top Gun pilot like no other, and an American hero for all time.”

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