Navy Pilot Who Secretly Killed Four MiGs On One Mission Finally Recognized

Capt. E. Royce Williams shot down four Soviet MiG-15 jets in a single mission over Korea, but his achievement was obscured for decades.

byThomas Newdick|
F9F Mig15 Royce Williams
U.S. Navy


More than 70 years after the fact, a U.S. Navy fighter pilot has received the service’s second-highest military decoration, acknowledging a Korean War incident in which he shot down four Soviet-flown MiGs in what has been described as “the longest dogfight in U.S. military history.”

With the Soviet Union not officially engaged in combat in Korea, the exploits of retired Capt. E. Royce Williams had long been downplayed, but they’ve now been more properly recognized after a long-running campaign.

Now aged 97, Capt. Williams received the Navy Cross in a ceremony at the San Diego Air and Space Museum, California, on January 20. The award was presented by Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro and comes on top of a Silver Star Medal that Williams had received in May 1953, weeks before the end of the Korean War.

Adm. Samuel J. Paparo, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, retired U.S. Navy Capt. E. Royce Williams, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, and Vice Adm. Kenneth Whitesell render honors during a ceremony awarding Williams with the Navy Cross on January 20. U.S. Navy

“Royce Williams was a Lieutenant in the United States Navy when he took the lead of an incredibly critical mission during the Korean War, resulting in the protection of Task Force 77 from enemy attack,” said Secretary Del Toro. “His actions almost 70 years ago earned him recognition, and he was awarded the Silver Star Medal. However, as the Secretary of the Navy, I have the authority to consider proposals to upgrade awards. Among the many cases I have reviewed, Captain Williams’ case stood out. It was very clear to me that his actions were extraordinary, and more closely aligned with the criteria describing a higher award… 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.”

On November 18, 1952, with the Korean War in full flow, the then Lieutenant Williams was flying Grumman F9F-5 Panther fighter jets from the deck of the Essex class aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34), which was sailing in the Sea of Japan, southeast of the North Korean city of Chongjin. At the time, Williams was assigned to Fighter Squadron 781 (VF-781), the “Pacemakers.”

An F9F-2B Panther from VF-781 takes off from the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard (CV-31). At this time, VF-781 was assigned to Carrier Air Group 102 aboard the carrier for a deployment to Korea between May and December of 1951. U.S. Navy

The month previous, Oriskany had joined Task Force 77 (TF-77) off the Korean coast and was now engaged heavily in supporting United Nations forces fighting against the communists on the peninsula. The pace of activity was frenetic, with aircraft from the four aircraft carriers within TF-77 conducting regular bombing and strafing attacks against enemy supply lines, including coordinating their raids along the coast with naval gunfire. In the process, they faced the threat of communist-flown MiG-15 fighter jets. Some of these were flown by Soviet, rather than North Korean or Chinese pilots, as part of Moscow’s covert involvement in the conflict. At this point in the war, MiG-15 activity was at its peak.

Two F9F Panthers jettison fuel from their tip tanks as they make a pass on the carrier USS Princeton. At the time, the Princeton and other aircraft carriers were operating with Task Force 77. Getty Images

During this time of year, the freezing weather presented another hazard to the Navy aviators. On November 18, the cloud cover began at just 500 feet over the Sea of Japan and a blizzard was driving snow over the deck of the Oriskany. Visibility was estimated at just two miles.

A gun captain on a mount aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany inspects the thick layer of ice covering the gun, mount, and mechanism while cruising off Korea. Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

That day, Williams launched from the carrier with three other members of VF-781. Williams was section leader, alongside his wingman, Lt(jg) David Rowlands, while the division leader was Lt Claire Elwood, with Lt(jg) John Middleton as his wingman. None of the four had ever flown together before.

Poor visibility meant that the four pilots relied on radio communications to keep track of their relative positions, and they quickly received orders to intercept a formation of enemy jets detected around 80 miles to the north and heading toward TF-77.

Climbing through 12,000 feet, the Panthers were now in clear skies and it was then that Williams spotted contrails high above them, at around 40,000 feet. He counted seven MiG-15s, their silver surfaces glinting in the sun. He also saw that they were marked with Soviet red stars — this indicated that there were jets flying from an airbase in the Soviet homeland, rather than from North Korea or China.

A flight of Soviet MiG-15 jet fighters prepares to take off, under the direction of a field controller, sometime in the early 1950s. National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Not only did these communist jets enjoy numerical superiority, but the swept-wing MiG-15 was generally a much more capable machine than the straight-wing F9F. In terms of performance and overall firepower, the Soviet-made jet was superior, and it enjoyed better maneuverability across significant parts of the flight envelope.

Undeterred, the “Pacemakers” pilots sought to press home an attack, rather than try and turn and run. Almost immediately, though, they ran into technical difficulties, with the flight leader, Lt Elwood, being forced to return to the carrier after his jet suffered a problem with its fuel pump. His wingman, Lt(jg) Middleton, provided cover for him on his recovery, taking him out of the battle for now.

It was left to Williams — the new flight leader — and his wingman to tackle the MiGs.

Two against seven.

As the Panthers continued to climb, the Soviet pilots broke formation and dived toward them, four of them executing a first attack. Pulling into a hard, climbing left turn, Williams got behind one of the MiGs and opened fire. His wingman now pursued the aircraft, which was trailing smoke, and Williams found himself alone with the other MiGs still very much at large.

One against six.

Gun camera footage of an earlier engagement between a Soviet MiG-15 and a U.S. Navy F9F Panther. The MiG seen here was shot down over North Korea by F9F-2s from USS Leyte in November 1950. U.S. Navy

“In the moment I was a fighter pilot doing my job… I was only shooting what I had,” explained Williams in an earlier interview. “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.”

At this point, the commanders on his carrier reportedly ordered Williams not to engage the Soviets. Of course, it was too late.

“I said, ‘I am engaged,’” Williams recalled in another interview.

Williams had to use every trick in the book to stay alive. At least once, he had a MiG directly on his tail, but he managed to break away in a very hard turn. While mainly preoccupied with checking his six, he still got several rounds off against various MiGs.

“Finally, the leader and his wingman went off to the right while I went after the section leader of the aeroplane I’d shot down,” Williams recalled, in an account published in F9F Panther Units of the Korean War. “He went into the sun, and I lost him, then I saw the leader and wingman come around for a diving attack on me. I turned into them and fired at the leader. He turned away and the wingman rolled down on me, and we went past belly-to-belly as I raked him with a long burst. He went down on fire.”

A MiG-15 jet fighter is shot down by a U.S. Navy fighter over Korea. The photo is dated March 17, 1953, which doesn’t coincide with any confirmed Navy victories, and it has been suggested this may be one of the aircraft shot down by Royce Williams on November 18, 1952. U.S. Navy

The MiGs’ section leader then appeared, and Williams turned into him before opening fire and shooting him down, too.

“The leader then came around again, and I fired, and parts came off him as he dove away.” Williams had now sent down four MiGs in an unprecedented period of frantic air combat.

But now it looked as if Williams’ luck was going to run out.

“As I maneuvered to avoid the wreckage [of the fourth MiG he’d shot down], I was porpoising to try and clear my tail. I was tracking another wounded MiG when I suddenly spotted one of the others as he slid in on my six. He fired a burst with his 37mm cannon and hit me in the wing. The shell went into the engine and messed up the hydraulic unit in the accessory section, and I suddenly lost rudder and flaps, and had only partial aileron control. The only things that really worked were the elevators.  I dove toward the cloud deck below at 13,000 feet, and he was 500 feet behind me, and still shooting.”

At this point, his wingman, Lt(jg) Rowlands, rejoined the fray and was able to pursue the MiG that had hit Williams.

While Williams had survived that encounter, his Panther was now in bad shape. His battered jet was struggling along at just 400 feet, too low to attempt a safe ejection, and he also discovered that he lost all controllability below 170 knots, forcing him to stay at a higher speed. Making things even more complicated, some of the destroyers protecting TF-77 now opened fire on him, mistaking the low-flying Panther for a MiG.

With the water so cold, Williams didn’t want to risk ditching alongside the carrier and instead prepared for a crash landing on Oriskany. He nursed the jet back onto the deck as the ship sailed into the wind, compensating for the greater-than-usual landing speed. Williams caught the third wire and was finally safe.

Lt. Joseph J. MacBrien, a Canadian exchange pilot, serving with VF-781, recovers aboard USS Oriskany off the coast of Korea, on November 15, 1952, three days before Williams’ epic mission. U.S. Navy

The overall result was, according to the Navy, “the longest dogfight in U.S. military history,” at 35 minutes long. Other accounts suggest that the actual air-to-air engagement lasted around 15 minutes. While this point may be debated, it remains the case that no other U.S. pilot has ever shot down four MiGs in a single mission.

As for Williams’ jet, it had survived almost unbelievable damage. The deck crew counted no fewer than 263 holes in the aircraft, most of them from the MiGs’ 23mm cannons, plus some from their harder-hitting 37mm guns. Every single one of Williams’ 760 rounds of 20mm ammunition had been expended. Williams’ F9F would clearly never fly again and was quickly pushed off the deck, consigned to the deep.

Another unfortunate Korean-War-era F9F Panther from VF-781. This series of photos shows a landing accident aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard off Korea in 1951. Upon landing the nose section of the jet broke off and the aircraft careened into the sea. U.S. Navy

While Williams’ exploits on November 18, 1952, were very clearly extraordinary, the delicate political position at the time meant that there would be very little fanfare. Since Moscow was not officially involved as a Korean War combatant, having a U.S. fighter jet shoot down Soviet fighters flying from a Soviet airbase, killing Soviet airmen in the process, was strictly taboo.

From the start of the incident, there had been little doubt that these MiGs were not only Soviet-flown but Soviet-based. After all, Oriskany was operating just 90 miles from the Soviet port of Vladivostok. In fact, the MiGs were flying out of Zolotaya Dolina in the Russian Far East. But once the communist jets started to engage VF-781, there was no option but to enter combat against them. Attempting to flee would have left the Panthers at the mercy of the fast-flying MiGs.

A current map of the Sea of Japan, with the approximate locations of Vladivostok and the MiG base at Zolotaya Dolina. USS Oriskany was sailing southeast of the North Korean city of Chongjin. Google Earth
F9F-5 Panthers of VF-121 and VF-122, and AD-3 Skyraiders of Attack Squadron 125 (VA-125) on the snow-covered deck of the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany in Japanese waters. This was during the Korean deployment from September 1952 to May 1953. U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation

Williams was instructed to keep quiet about the specifics of the dogfight and he was credited with just a single aerial kill and one ‘probable.’ There was no mention that the aircraft in question had been Soviet in order to avoid any kind of diplomatic incident that could have had major repercussions on the Korean War – perhaps drawing the United States and the Soviet Union into a direct confrontation.

Sailors clean snow off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany off Korea, on February 10, 1953. Visible on deck are F4U-5N Corsair fighters and an AD-3W Skyraider airborne early warning aircraft. U.S. National Archives 

With the end of the Cold War, the truth behind the incident began to leak out. On the Russian side, confirmation came in 1992 that four Soviet MiGs had indeed been shot down that day. They were flown by Capts Belyakov and Vandalov, and Lts Pakhomkin and Tarshinov. Tarshinov’s jet was not shot down directly but had been severely damaged, and he perished in the subsequent crash landing. All the MiGs had been assigned to the Soviet Air Force and Air Defense Army, or A VVS PVO.

As for Williams, he went on to fly 110 missions in Vietnam, at the controls of the A-4 Skyhawk and F-4 Phantom II. He was also captain of the command ship USS Eldorado (AGC-11). He ended his U.S. Navy career with two Distinguished Flying Crosses, as well as the aforementioned Silver Star Medal, and retired in 1980. The official account of his MiG-killing mission remained classified until 2002.

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro (right) with retired U.S. Navy Capt. E. Royce Williams following the ceremony awarding Williams with a Navy Cross on January 20. U.S. Navy

There then followed a campaign to have Williams properly recognized for his actions of November 18, 1952, with support from members of Congress and high-ranking Navy officials.

Awarded to service members “who distinguish themselves for extraordinary heroism in combat with an armed enemy force,” the Navy Cross is a fitting confirmation of Williams’ actions and a kill tally that may well never be repeated. After all, even the fictional Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell only downed three MiGs in Top Gun 2.

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