As the nation thrills to another episode of the Tom Cruise “Top Gun” films, the story of a real-life top gun has been announced by the U.S. Navy, and it is a tale that was kept a strict national secret for 50 years.
The story of naval aviator and jet fighter pilot Capt. Royce Williams reveals a thrilling dog fight between Williams and not just one, but multiple Soviet MiG fighter jets.
Williams not only faced down the superior Cold War-era Soviet fighters in his F9F Panther and lived to tell the tale, but he actually shot four MiGs down, even as his plane was damaged beyond salvage.
On Friday, Sec. Del Toro praised Williams for his amazing feat of aerial maneuvering and then announced that the fighter pilot, now 97, was going to be awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism in combat during the conflict in Korea, one of the Navy’s highest honors.
“Freedom does not come cheap,” Del Toro said, according to CNN. “It comes through the sacrifice of all those who have and continue to serve in today’s military. Your actions that day kept you free. They kept your shipmates free in Task Force 77. Indeed, they kept all of us free.”
The heroic dogfight occurred on Nov. 18, 1952, as the police action in North Korea had reached its zenith and the East and West were deadlocked, both fearful of launching a third world war.
Williams was part of a four-jet group that had taken off from the carrier USS Oriskany in the Sea of Japan, 100 miles from the Peninsula.
The then 27-year-old fighter pilot and his wingman had no idea that they were just about to step into the pages of history, even as their exploit was to be rated top secret, buried under classified labels, and hidden from the world for 50 years.
Just as they took off, one plane developed mechanical problems and, along with a wingman, turned back towards the carrier. That left Williams and his wingman to carry on the assignment. But before they made much distance, the two were surprised when seven superior MiG fighters were caught on radar headed toward the carrier group.
When Williams and his wingman were ordered to put themselves between the MiGs and the navy ships, four of those enemy fighters suddenly turned and opened fire at them.
In 2021, Williams said that it was the first time Soviet fighters swooped down to engage U.S. jets.
One of Williams’ first bursts damaged one of the four enemy planes causing the Soviet pilot to break away from the others. That sent Williams’ wingman in pursuit leaving Williams to face six MiGs alone.
Williams said that his only hope was to use the one advantage his jet had over the faster, better-armed MiGs; his maneuverability. To prevent the Soviet pilots from getting a bead on him, he began bobbing and weaving his best and sending off shots when the opportunity presented.
“I was on automatic, I was doing as trained,” he said.
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In one case, he was surprised when one of the MiGs came straight on with cannons chattering, but then suddenly stopped firing. Since he was firing, too, Williams assumed that the pilot stopped shooting because he had been killed by Williams’ return fire. That jet passed under Williams F9F and out of the fight.
Next, Williams sent a third MiG into the ocean with well-directed cannon fire, causing the enemy plane to disintegrate right before his eyes.
Williams continued his up-and-down weaving, but was unable to do much of anything else because Soviet gunfire had disabled some of his plane’s controls.
Fortunately for our heroic pilot, his wingman finally returned to the fight sending the last MiG scurrying away, fearful of having to face two U.S. pilots.
While the epic dogfight was over, Williams still had a serious problem. His plane was too badly damaged to maneuver well enough to land safely on the carrier. Ultimately, the task force’s commander ordered the ship to turn itself so that Williams could line up and land without having to splash down in the freezing cold ocean.
Even with that, Williams barely got the plane down as his tail hook caught only the last arresting wire on deck. While he saved his plane and landed safely, with 263 bullet holes in her, the plane was so badly shot up that they ended up dumping it into the ocean because it could never fly again.
When all was said and done, Williams was recognized for shooting down three enemy jets, and fired off every one of the 760 rounds of 20mm cannon shells his plane carried in the effort. It was not until the Soviets opened their own document archives in the 1990s that it was revealed that the fourth jet was also downed, damaged too badly to make it home after it broke off from the dogfight.
Williams’ heroics was noticed all the way to the top and President Dwight David Eisenhower himself spoke to the fighter pilot on the phone. He was also awarded the Silver Star for his heroism.
Despite the notice and appreciation of his superiors, though, the Navy swore Williams to secrecy because the U.S. government was afraid of enflaming U.S./Soviet relations, worsening the Cold War, or even sparking World War III beyond that in Korea. The Navy was also testing secret communications equipment with the carrier task force and didn’t want that inadvertently revealed.
“Following the battle, Williams was personally interviewed by several high-ranking Navy admirals, the Secretary of Defense, and also the President, after which he was instructed to not talk about his engagement as officials feared the incident might cause a devastating increase of tensions between the US and Soviet Union, and possibly ignite World War Three,” the Navy Memorial website explained.
Williams’ exploit was classified as top secret until 2002 when the records were finally revealed. During that entire time, Williams kept his amazing feat a secret even from those he loved. And since then, advocates have been trying to get the U.S. Navy to upgrade his Silver Star to a higher medal.
California Rep. Darrell Issa, who has been one of Williams’ biggest supporters, was thrilled to see the pilot get his Navy Cross.
“It is to this day the most unique US-Soviet aerial combat dogfight in the history of the Cold War,” Issa said in a statement calling Williams “a Top Gun pilot like no other, and an American hero for all time.”
“The heroism and valor he demonstrated for 35 harrowing minutes 70 years ago in the skies over the North Pacific and the coast of North Korea saved the lives of his fellow pilots, shipmates, and crew. His story is one for the ages, but is now being fully told,” Isa added.
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