SAN DIEGO — A retired U.S. Navy aviator from Escondido, who survived and prevailed in perhaps the longest aerial dogfight between a lone American fighter pilot and enemy combatants in history, was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in the Korean War during a Jan. 20 ceremony at the San Diego Air and Space Museum.
Retired Navy Capt. E. Royce Williams, 97, a member of the San Dieguito American Legion Post 416 in Encinitas, received the U.S. Navy’s second-highest military decoration on Friday from Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro in front of hundreds of local veterans, admirals, generals and Justice Elena Kagan.
The award was the result of a steadfast local campaign spearheaded by Williams’ fellow members at Post 416, including Past Commander Steve Lewandowski.
Lewandowski launched Operation Just Reward, a nationwide effort to get Williams a Medal of Honor, which caught the attention of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Temecula) and others who helped ensure the Korean War veteran’s feats were fully recognized and honored.
Upon reviewing Williams’ story, Del Toro used his authority to upgrade his Silver Star Medal, first awarded in 1953, to a Navy Cross based on his “extraordinary” actions.
“Among the many cases I have reviewed, Capt. Williams’ case stood out,” Del Toro said on Friday. “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.”
Williams, who retired from the Navy as a captain in the mid-1970s, was on combat air patrol in a single-seat F9F Panther fighter jet, flying with three other squadron mates deployed from a carrier anchored in the Sea of Japan, on Nov. 18, 1952, when the Americans encountered seven Soviet MiG-15s at higher altitude along the Yalu River.
According to accounts of the mission retold in books and other media, the men were ordered by their commander to retreat to the carrier and establish a protective screen.
Three of the pilots succeeded, but Williams soon discovered he had been boxed in by the Soviet fighters.
Williams was forced to engage the MiGs as they swarmed him, culminating in a half-hour of gut-wrenching maneuvers to avoid being shot down while trying to take out the Russian pilots trying to kill him.
“I was engaged mentally at the time,” Williams recently told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “A lot of it was awareness of where they were and how I had to maneuver to avoid them. 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.”
Williams blasted four out of the sky and likely scored hits on two others, whose pilots never returned to their base in Vladivostik, according to the book “Red Devils Over the Yalu.”
Williams said he ran out of ammunition and made a bee line for his ship, evading the seventh MiG pilot by diving in and out of clouds for cover. He landed uneventfully, but later counted more than 250 machine gun holes in his F9F.
“He also survived a 37-millimeter round to his fuselage, where six inches to the right or left would have meant certain death,” Issa said. “This was an act of indomitable courage and the demonstration of the highest skill under incalculable duress.”
Williams was told to clam up about the dogfight for fear of causing negative publicity for the Soviets, who weren’t officially involved in the Korean War.
According to one account, President Dwight Eisenhower personally directed that the incident remain under wraps. It was not officially acknowledged until the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the ensuing release of Soviet archives in the 1990s, which detailed the air battle.
“In the moment I was a fighter pilot doing my job…I was only shooting what I had,” said Williams in a previous account of the fight. “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.”
Out-manned and piloting what was considered an inferior aircraft to the MiG-15, Williams engaged the enemy for 35 minutes, shooting down four of them in the longest dogfight in U.S. military history. Additionally, no other American fighter pilot has ever shot down four MiG-15s in one fight.
The Navy Cross is only awarded to service members who distinguish themselves for extraordinary heroism in combat with an armed enemy force.
Williams retired from the Navy in 1980, and his medals include the Navy Cross and two Distinguished Flying Crosses.
City News Service contributed to this report