On Nov. 18, 1952, Royce Williams became the top-scoring carrier-based naval aviator and the top-scoring naval aviator in a Navy jet of the Korean War.
On Nov. 18, 1952 US Navy F9F-5 Panther pilots Lieutenant Claire Elwood (division leader) with Lt (jg) John Middleton as wingman and Lieutenant E. Royce Williams, Jr. (section leader) with Lt (jg) Dave Rowlands as his wingman took off in their aircraft from USS Oriskany (CVA-34) to intercept seven Russian MiG-15 fighters that were heading toward them from a Soviet base in Vladivostok.
A National Security Agency (NSA) team aboard heavy cruiser USS Helena (CA-75) believed that the MiGs were seeking revenge after American aircraft had carried out an attack in northeastern North Korea near the Soviet border, early that morning.
As told by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver in his book Holding the Line, the four F9F-5s took off in a blustery snowstorm. After several minutes in the clouds, the sky brightened above. Suddenly, the Panthers popped out of the clouds into a clear deep blue sky at 12,000 feet. They continued their climb. As they passed through 16,000 feet, Williams spotted seven contrails far above, at 40,000 feet or more, and called the bogies. A moment later, his sharp eyes caught the sun flash on the shiny swept-wing MiG-15s flying abreast each other, each wearing the red star of the Soviet Union on their flank as contrails spread behind them. “I flipped on my gunsight and fired a burst to test my guns,” he recalled. At that moment, division leader Elwood reported his fuel pump warning light had come on. The Fighter Direction Officer (FDO) directed him to break off and report overhead Oriskany. Elwood passed lead to Williams as he and his wingman Middleton turned away and dived toward the clouds.
“We were just going through 26,000 feet when the Russians split up and dove out of the contrail layer,” Williams remembered. “The first ones came at us from the right side in a four-plane formation and opened fire. I pulled into a hard climbing left turn and came around on the Number Four MiG. I fired a burst and hit him solidly in the rear fuselage. He went down smoking, and my wingman then followed him, leaving me alone.” Williams, now alone, faced six Soviet fighters.
The three remaining MiGs of the first group easily accelerated away from the Panther and climbed to position themselves for another firing run. Williams saw their left wings come up as they reversed course. “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.” He managed to cut loose a burst of fire as the MiGs flashed past, but failed to score any hits. As the first three pulled away again, the other three joined in. Williams sweated as he reversed, jinked and rolled to get away from each firing run. He glanced over his shoulder and saw a MiG locked on his six o’clock. Pulling the stick back into his gut, he threw it against his right leg as he stomped right rudder and executed a very hard wings-vertical right turn with contrails spinning off his wingtip fuel tanks. The MiG flashed past his tail.
In the rush of adrenaline, the fight seemed like it had been going on for an hour. The enemy formations became ragged and Williams got several opportunities to track an individual MiG as the pilot bored in to attack. Some rounds seemed to hit, but he couldn’t follow up as he stomped rudder and slammed ailerons to keep his six o’clock clear. “I was firing at every MiG that passed within gun range as they came by.”
Turn. Turn again. Not a second spent straight and level. Fire a quick burst to throw off their aim. Turn some more. Then again.
“Finally, the leader and his wingman went off to the right and I went after the section leader of the plane I’d shot down. He pulled up into the sun and I lost him, then I saw the leader and his wingman come around for a diving attack. 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 caught fire and went down. The section leader then came around and I turned into him and fired at him practically pointblank and he went down. The leader then came around again and I fired and parts came off him as he dove away.”
The fight wasn’t over.
“As I maneuvered to avoid the wreckage, I porpoised to try and clear my tail. I was tracking another wounded MIG when I suddenly spotted one of the other two 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 area and messed up the hydraulic unit in the accessory section. I suddenly lost rudder and flaps and only had partial aileron control. The only thing 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 all the way down. It seemed like it was taking forever to drop that 10,000 feet! My wingman finally got back in the fight and came in on the MiG and he pulled away as I went into the clouds.”
Williams fought to control the Panther, hoping he could pull out of the dive. “I came out of the clouds at around 400 feet. I was way too low to eject – you had to be above 1,200 feet and in a climb to successfully eject from a Panther – so I was stuck with staying in the airplane, like it or not. I soon discovered it was uncontrollable below 170 knots, so I had to maintain high speed regardless.”
As he passed over the fleet a few hundred feet above the freezing ocean, several escorting destroyers opened fire as he flashed past. “Fortunately, I was low enough and fast enough they didn’t have a chance to really aim, so nobody hit me.”
Aboard Oriskany, the deck was ordered cleared for what was obviously going to be a crash landing. “I told them I couldn’t fly slower than 170 knots and I could see the ship visibly speed up as she turned into the wind.” Williams set himself up on final approach; the carrier was taking spray over the bow as the stern rose and fell through a 20-foot arc. “I didn’t want to ditch, because I wasn’t sure I could make a successful ditching, and that water was cold enough I knew I wouldn’t last ten minutes even in my poopy suit.”
The F9F’s normal landing speed was 105 knots. Williams kept the bucking Panther under control and made a straight-in approach at 170 knots. “The Oriskany’s captain headed the ship just away from the wind, which gave me the opportunity to come aboard.” Williams slid his canopy open and flew a “Roger pass” with the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) holding his paddles straight out to either side. The flight deck bottomed out and started back up just as the LSO gave the cut. “I caught the three wire and shut her down.”
After taking a moment to catch his breath, Williams climbed out of the riddled jet and was surprised he’d made it back when he saw the damage.
“They counted 263 holes in the airplane, mostly from 23mm hits and some 37mm hits, including the one in the wing that went into the engine accessory section. If it had been six inches forward, it would have hit the spar and blown my wing off. Eight inches to the rear and it would have blown up the engine. I had fired off all 760 rounds of 20mm I had aboard. I wouldn’t have had a chance if I hadn’t been armed with those cannons.”
After the airedales pulled everything of value from F9F-5 BuNo 125459, the broken carcass was heaved overboard, where it disappeared into the dark sea.
In the fight of his life, Royce Williams had accomplished what no other American fighter pilot would ever accomplish: shoot down four MiG-15s in one fight. Given that the F9F-5 Panther was outclassed and outperformed on all points – speed, maneuverability and firepower – by the MiG-15, which was nearly 100mph faster and had a superior thrust-to-weight ratio, it was truly a performance for the record books.
There was real fear at the highest levels of the US government and UN command that such an “incident” could change the Korean “police action” into World War III. As far as the United States Navy was concerned, the fight had never happened.
After ordering Williams to tell no one, Vice Admiral Robert P. Briscoe, Commander Naval Forces Far East, informed him the NSA team had proof from recorded radio transmissions that he had gotten at least three of the MiGs, while the fourth had crashed in Siberia. Unfortunately, the gun camera footage had been “edited” aboard Oriskany, leaving only a portion showing two MiGs hit solidly.
Naval commanders ordered a version of the mission created that became the official account as found in the Oriskany and Air Group 102 Action Reports, though it had little connection with the facts: Williams was credited with one kill and a probable/damaged while Lt (jg) John Middleton, wingman to division leader Elwood, who had never been anywhere near the fight, was credited with a kill on the basis that, at the end of the 35-minute fight, he had been vectored toward a descending MIG whose pilot had ejected when Middleton approached it and fired a burst from out of range. Both pilots were awarded the Silver Star for their “accomplishments.” Dave Rowlands, who never fired a shot in the entire fight, was awarded a probable and the Distinguished Flying Cross. The history books have told the story that way ever since.
Williams remained silent about the event for nearly 50 years, while he flew with Air Force Korean aces at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis and rose to command Navy fighter squadrons through the Cold War and three carrier air groups during the war in Vietnam before finally retiring in 1984 to become a champion bonsai gardener in Southern California.
Following the end of the Cold War in 1992, the Russians opened their records and revealed that Williams had indeed gotten four: Captain Belyakov, Captain Vandalov, Lt Pakhomkin and Lt Tarshinov of the VVS-PVO, the Air Defense Forces of the Red Air Force. Vandalov, Pakhomkin and Tarshinov were directly shot down in the fight, while flight leader Belyakov was badly shot up and was killed when he attempted to crashland as soon as he was over Soviet territory.
On Nov. 18, 1952, Royce Williams became the top-scoring carrier-based naval aviator and the top-scoring naval aviator in a Navy jet of the Korean War. Despite several modern attempts to set the record straight, the US Navy History and Heritage Command has refused to do so, on the grounds that there is no longer an American witness alive to verify Williams’ account, this despite the Russian publication of the names of the Soviet pilots who died in the fight.
Holding the Line is published by Osprey Publishing is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy